The Toxic Race to Perfection is Damaging Our Teens

Perfectionism Undercuts the Core Ingredients Needed for Success

Posted Oct 22, 2011

The race to perfection is having a toxic impact on this generation and therefore our future.

The article "Super People" by James Atlas (New York Times 10/2/11) describes the distorted reality that our young people must measure themselves against. There is an increasingly prevalent myth that unless you are perfect you are destined for mediocrity at best.

It may be true that in order to get into a "top college," (as narrowly defined by US News and World Report) students need to present themselves as superhuman. However, this presentation is rarely rooted in reality and therefore forces many students to compromise their integrity in order to enhance their resumes. My greater fear though is that this push towards perfection will undermine the very ingredients needed for success.

Indeed, the pressure to produce an attractive college candidate at eighteen may make a less successful human being in the long run.

We must never forget that our goal in launching children into adulthood is to raise people poised to be successful 35, 40, or 50-year-olds. What ingredients do successful adults need? They need compassion, empathy, and generosity if they are to repair our world. They need tenacity and a strong work ethic. They need the social and emotional intelligence that will prepare them to have both leadership and collaborative skills. They need to be able to accept and react to constructive criticism without feeling as though they are being attacked. They need creativity and an innovative spirit to be able to develop the solutions and strategies not yet imagined. Perhaps most critically, they need resilience so they will be able to recover from life's setbacks.

People are uneven. Highly successful people are great at something, and their desire to explore other areas is what makes them interesting. We do kids enduring harm when we suggest that in order to make it in this world they must be good at absolutely everything. When we speak of "super people," we increase the hype and dial up the stress. Imagine how teens who aren't perfect at everything (and that's all of them) respond to this kind of pressure. Some will don the mask of indifference. They'll work hard to pretend they don't care precisely because of how much they do; they'll get off the playing field altogether. Others will push themselves toward perfectionism and therefore decrease their chances for real success.

Our society has a real stake in our young people being high achievers, but it is critical to understand the difference between a high achiever and a perfectionist. High achievers run the world, they excel at something but have no fantasy that they must be good at everything. They revel in their accomplishments. They value constructive criticism because they look for opportunities for growth and self-improvement. They see failures as temporary setbacks to be overcome with greater effort. In sharp contrast, perfectionists consider themselves unacceptable unless they meet impossibly high self-imposed standards. They worry about being discovered as imposters, and therefore view constructive criticism as an attack. Their creativity and innovative spirit is stifled as they fear the B+ and won't think outside-of-the-box because their fear of failure is so acute. They aren't as resilient because they see even mild setbacks as catastrophes.

Pressure to be good at everything pushes children towards perfectionism and undercuts the core ingredients needed for success.

We need every kid in America to feel that they can make a major contribution to society. When our heroes are only sports stars and performers, most teens learn that they'll never be a hero. If we help them to understand that teachers, firefighters, and social workers are also heroes, they understand how much each of them can make a difference. When we hype this generation as filled with "super people", we condemn those striving for perfection to self-doubt and fear of failure. Worse, we condemn most of our youth to a self-perception of mediocrity. It is a dangerous slippery slope that compromises the stake we have in the success of this entire generation.

Kenneth R. Ginsburg is an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and coauthor of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-sufficient Teens" with Susan FitzGerald.  He is also the author of The American Academy of Pediatrics' Book "Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings."