What price perfection?

“Dam kya hai? (What is the price?)” So far, this Hindi phrase is one of the few that I have been able to master effectively. Understanding the cost of an item is key to assessing its value. When Brian and I have asked how much it costs to go to college, the answers have always seemed quite vague. Now, I understand why. The SSC board results for tenth standard were released yesterday; today, the newspaper featured articles about the results and their aftermath.

Tenth standard is the equivalent of twelfth grade in the US. While students here take exams at the end of every year, the results for tenth standard affect their entire lives. Failure is not option. The goal on these exams is to obtain the perfect score: 100 percent. Any score below 90, while certainly not a failure, is considered a failure nonetheless. Make sense? I didn’t get it either until I spoke with my tutor.

College admissions here are insanely competitive, on a level US students cannot even possibly imagine. Imagine being in the 90th percentile on your SATs and still not qualifying to go to a state school like Clemson or Texas A&M, let alone Harvard. Then, imagine that another student scores in the 50th percentile and through a donation buys a seat at Clemson. Sounds like normal favoritism given to legacies and donors? Not really. Now, imagine that you go to Clemson for your admissions interview. The dean of the college says, “Your grades are fantastic, but we need an extra 10,000 more than your tuition costs to admit you.” These donations are what make the true cost of education so difficult to discern. Tuition is one thing; donations are another. What would your parents do? What would you do? You have worked your entire life to get into Clemson, and when the prize is finally in reach, you are denied because you can’t afford an extra 10,000. Depressing, isn’t it? Exactly.

Alongside the news articles about happy teenagers who achieved perfect exam results were articles about teenagers who committed suicide because they did not. At least two this year already. As the admissions process has become more competitive, these suicides have increased annually. It begs the question: what price perfection? Isn’t it enough pressure to take and pass these exams without the additional parental and institutional pressures to achieve perfection? Is being perfect so important that it is worth dying for? This year, while the number of overall passes increased, the number achieving 90 percent or higher decreased. Only 2 percent of students across the state managed to break that elite barrier. Two percent. That’s it. The message from the newspaper: Passing is just not good enough; you must be perfect.

In a recent Facebook post, I excoriated perfectionists for the inertia they often cause within organizations, and the damage they can do to projects. These personalities can be toxic. Test results like these are why. Of the 1.7 million students who took the SSC boards, only a handful achieved 100 percent. Perfection is just not humanly possible. At least not for most humans. Except for editors, of course. Everyone knows we are perfect. At least that’s what everyone expects.

I have the typical editorial reputation as a perfectionist. By calling perfectionists on the carpet am I not ignoring the plank in my own eye? Believe me, I have measured the size of that plank many times and know its exact dimensions. I am a perfectionist after all. My editorial and managerial expectations have always been high. They need to be. My clients’ expectations are simple: perfection. I recognize how difficult it is for those around me to work to meet those expectations. I admit that I have a problem, and I have taken steps to recover from it. Do I follow that path perfectly? Of course not. But, I am making progress.

Many times during my professional career, I have been forced to choose between getting it right and getting it done. Every editor faces this choice daily. It is a constant balancing act between making sure the docs are right and meeting deadlines and budget constraints. One wise editor calls this balance “editing with your eyes closed.” The perfectionist in me wants to get it right, perfect. However, the pragmatist in me knows that such a goal can drive those around me completely insane and often leads to more errors, not fewer, when a doc goes into an infinite loop of editorial changes.  I have watched editors melt into little puddles of red ink as they made yet another round of changes to a doc that really had nothing inherently wrong with it to begin with (except that it wasn’t perfect), but which now has actual errors because the requested changes affected the doc in unforeseen ways. God forbid that those errors get to the client. These experiences are what make me shudder at the thought of perfection as the editorial ideal.

Why not strive for excellence instead? Excellence is a much more achievable ideal. I can do excellence. Maybe now I can stop rereading this blog article.

One thought on “What price perfection?

  1. I love it!! The part about the suicides not so much! Such a scarey proposition for teenagers. Thankful my daughter does not have to meet those standards. Kinda makes me look at the standards I impose on myself and sometimes others.


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