In Birthmark, Nathaniel Hawthorne tells a riveting story of the destructive force of perfectionism. In his story, Aylmer, an accomplished chemist, had given up science to pursue Georgiana, the object of his love. He succeeds, and they are happy. But after a while, the crimson birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek begins to disgust Aylmer, making him shudder and flinch when he looks at it, and instead of seeing it as a simple birthmark, he sees it as an imperfection, something that must be removed. His thoughts are visible to her, and she, too, begins to hate the tiny hand print on her right cheek. She asks him if he had a dream of the mark, and he tells her of one. In the dream, he tried to cut out the mark, and he went deeper and deeper with the knife until he had cut her heart away. Georgiana makes up her mind that she would rather die than have the birthmark. Eventually, after much experimentation, her husband gives her a vial, she drinks it, and falls asleep. The birthmark begins to fade, and while Aylmer rejoices, she wakes, claims she is dying, and then she……dies.
When I was in high school I competed against a debater from another school. He was best in:
- Extemporaneous Speaking
He seemed invincible, winning tournament after tournament, mastering every side of every argument, and always finding a way of making a point more poignantly than anyone else. He was in the judgement of many the perfect debater, the perfect speaker, the embodiment of a renaissance man.
Then came the state championships.
He had crushed the competition in three events. When it came time for the finals it was assumed he would win the championship for his high school.
I had made into the oratory finals and was feeling anything but excited. In my mind I was going to get clobbered by my opponent as I’d been in so many prior competitions.
In my mind he was the picture of perfection and I was not.
I told my coach I was not expecting to win, and seriously wondered whether I should even bother to show up. If I couldn’t compete on the level of of my opponent why should I compete at all? Mr. Carroll listened to me patiently until I had exhausted all my arguments as to why I should quit. He then took me by my the shoulder and walked me down the hall toward the auditorium where the final speeches were to be given.
He said to me that there was only one standard that ought to move me, motivate me, and drive me. The only mark of excellence worth achieving, indeed the only mark of excellence that made any sense at all, was the mark measuring my own improvement. He said, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”
He encouraged me to do one thing: excel beyond the level of my last competition.
So I swallowed my pride, entered the auditorium and performed my oration better than I’d done in earlier rounds. To my everlasting joy I placed third in the competition.
The superstar competitor placed first.
After the competition, in the men’s room, I heard a whimpering noise in the stall next to mine. Someone was crying. I waited to see if there was anything I could do. Shortly, a guy came out and much to my astonishment it was the competition winner. I asked, “Is there something wrong? Do you need any help?”
He said NO! NO! NO!
He went on to dump on his last performance, excoriating himself in every way possible, all because he performed below the standard of perfection he’d set for himself.
He continued his lament while clutching his first place trophy. Holding my own third place trophy, I patted him on the back, told him I was sorry he felt this way, and left him in his misery.
I met up with Coach Carroll and thanked him for the advice he’d given me.
Just a thought…
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