“The search for perfection is the enemy of achievement” – this is a quote I am rather keen on. It was given to me by someone I worked with when I was a management consultant in the late-1980s and has stayed with me ever since because it is so relevant to so many aspects of life.

I might even add to the quote: the search for perfection is the enemy of achievement and of self-esteem. Inevitably, such searching will end in frequent disappointment. Identifying what constitutes perfection is often impossible and so you are aiming for something you can’t define and can’t see. What makes the perfect essay? What makes the perfect painting? What makes the perfect sponge cake? There are many alternatives and perfection is often in the eye of the beholder (and the taster).

More worryingly is the notion of physical perfection. We read increasingly nowadays about young people (usually girls) planning the cosmetic treatments they will have as they grow older, with the aim of enhancing their looks. I long for them to see how beautiful it is just to be young! Whatever they may do to ‘perfect’ themselves, this isn’t what will bring them love, happiness or success, although they so often think it is.

No one in the world is perfect. Some people create things which many of us see as perfect, e.g., a beautiful piece of music or a painting, the invention of something very useful like the electric light, an outstanding performance in sport or in the theatre. We know that none of these things was possible without many hours, days or even years of trial and error. The question is: was it worth so much time and effort? Sometimes yes, of course it is worth it and the world benefits from the effort.

Often, however, it is not. Spending 2 hours on a 1 hour homework, trying to perfect it, is not worth it. Think of the opportunity costs involved: what wasn’t done because of the time spent on one essay?

Taken to its extreme, I have known students who wouldn’t hand work in at all because they said it wasn’t good enough – when pushed they admitted they wanted to hand in something which was perfect. So instead of gaining 60% or 70% for an imperfect homework, they gained 0% for no homework.

Knowing when something is ‘good enough’, keeping a sense of perspective, these are essential life skills and, as such, we want to learn them when we are young. School is the ideal place to practise and so I urged the girls, in assembly this morning, to start by checking whether they are over-doing some activities and perhaps under-doing others; spending too much time trying to perfect one thing at the expense of other, equally (or even more) important things.

Developing a strong sense of self-knowledge, understanding and trusting yourself, knowing how to spend your time wisely, knowing that perfection is only occasionally a worthwhile aim, all build self-esteem. Through self-esteem we hope will come the wisdom to understand that the beauty of one’s character is more important than the beauty of one’s face or body.

Heather Hanbury, Headmistress, The Lady Eleanor Holles School

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