God's Word for today

Friday, 30 April 2010

Confessions of a perfectionist

I'm really feeling the pressure at the moment, what with wall-to-wall lectures at SMMS coupled with umpteen assignments.  But that's okay - as my son says to me, "if you want to run with the big dogs, you need to learn to pee in the long grass".  However, what's REALLY petrifying me at the moment is the thought of writing about 8 exams at the end of May.

Now those of you who know me ar probably thinking, "What's this guy's problem?  He has a Masters degree.  Surely he's 'been there, done that, got the tee-shirt' as far as writing exams is concerned?"  Yes, that is true, but it's more of a case of 'been there, done that, cried / puked on the tee-shirt' - the reason being that I'm not good when it comes to exams.  Give me an assignment any day.  Even a 10,000 word one - bring it on!  But I go into a complete tail-spin with this whole "assimilate - percolate - regurgitate" cycle of examinations.  My whole attitude towards them is negative, in that I see them as speed tests or memory tests, but definitely not competency tests!

Looking back at my academic transcripts over the years, my marks are reasonable but nothing to write home about.  And when I did my Masters, I still believe that it was a major puncture in the one mid-year exam that robbed me of the possibility of getting the degree with distinction.  And so I go into the mid-year exams at SMMS with an 80% average, petrified that my mind will go blank and the sub-minimum rule will bite me in the bum.

If it was up to me, I would never write another exam for as long as I live.  Give me an assignment, a thesis, anything - I'll even write a book for you - just not exams.  Surely there must be a better method of assessment than this archaic "3-hour pen fest"?

The real problem is this perfectionist streak that I have in me.  The whole "go big or go home" bit.  If you're going to do something, then do it well.  A winner never quits, a quitter never wins.  That kind of stuff.  And while this aspect of my personality has enabled me to achieve much, it also drives me to distraction, even paralysing me at times.

This morning we watched an inspiring video of Rob Bell which dealt with the cultural background to how disciples were chosen in Jesus' time - how the rabbinical students were "the best of the best", and how Jesus broke convention by choosing disciples who (in an earthly sense) did not meet up to this measure.  The main message was that even though Jesus chooses us despite our imperfections, it is because He believes that, just as is the case with the rabbis, we can become like He is.

It is for this reason that Peter walked on the water.  And when Peter sank and Jesus questioned why Peter had so little faith, it was not that Peter had lost faith in Jesus (after all, Jesus had not sunk) - Peter had lost confidence in himself.

But just as Peter strove to do his best for Christ, so I identify with Peter.  Which means that advice from Ross (a self-confessed perfectionist himself) to cut back a little, perhaps aim for 60% instead of 80%, is not really helping too much right now.  While it may enable me to take a bit of pressure off myself, deep down I know that if I did this I would be getting 60s but knowing that I'm capable of getting 80s.  In other words, not giving of my best.  And as a former Boy Scout, the promise to "always do my best" is something that is deeply engrained in me.  As Yoda said in "Star Wars", there is no such thing as "try".  You "do" or you "don't do" - no "try".  I either serve Jesus or I don't.  I love my wife or I don't love her.  I approach my work hard, or I don't approach it at all.

I like to be in control.  I like to feel competent.  And few things make me feel more incompetent than examinations - especially when I feel that they are not a true measure of one's actual competence with the subject matter at hand.  How else could one explain the massive contrast between assignment performance and examination performance?


And right now this is creating huge amounts of pressure on me, to the point where I'm not a very nice person to be around right now (apologies to Rowanne and the many others that I've managed to antagonise of late). 
Trouble is, I don't know any other way to be without somehow compromising my integrity.  So telling me to "cut back" or "take it easy" or "settle for less" will be unhelpful advice right now.

I guess that part of the problem is that, unlike in anything else I've done in life, I feel totally out of control.  Everything is set out for me - class timetables, assignment schedules, even subject choices - all tightly packed together without any respite (we are doing 8 subjects in comparison with the 4 that UKZN BTh students are doing).  I've even found that I have had to train my body to go to the loo after hours (I kid you not), otherwise I run the very real risk of being late for one or other of my classes.

And the biggest hassle is that I have virtually no say in the whole process.  I even find myself snapping at my wife, as I write this, for making the innocent comment that I'm meant to be working instead of updating my blog.  I'm tense because I'm finding seminary life a continuum of being told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.  Having held responsible positions including running my own business, its not about hard work but about having no latitude to set my own pace.  It's certainly not what I anticipated doing at age 40!


One thing I refuse to compromise on, however, is my family time and my worship time.  Memories of 2002 when I was working flat out, doing long hours, and nearly losing both my family and my relationship with God loom large in my memory.  So as far as I'm concerned, Saturday is family time, Sunday is worship time, and everything else will just have to fit into the days in between.  Hence the late nights and/or early mornings, with the resultant sleep deprivation adding to the general sense of irritability and cynicism that I'm feeling right now.


So are there any "perfectionists" or "control freaks" out there who have had to deal with this same dilemma, and is there any advice you have that would be of real help in my current situation?  And PLEASE don't say "cut back" - between seminary, family, and worship priorities, that's simply not a viable option at the moment.

1 comment:

markpenrith said...

"The real problem is this perfectionist streak that I have in me... And while this aspect of my personality has enabled me to achieve much, it also drives me to distraction, even paralysing me at times."

That quote is the story of my life.