The Imperfection of Success

I must admit it: I am a perfectionist.

That doesn’t mean I’m perfect (far from it), but it does mean that I spend hours hunched over my desk, poring over draft after scribbled draft of every essay, confirming that each comma is in the right place, that “posit” is the better word than “claim,” that my ideas fit together logically and smoothly like gears in an intricate machine.

I know I’m not alone when I say that high school groomed me to think of perfection as the pathway to success. A’s paved the way to college, a good job, and implicitly, to fulfillment. Therefore, every misplaced comma, every “claim” instead of “posit,” and every squeaky idea was a potential obstacle between me and my future happiness.

More and more, though, I’m coming to realize not only that perfection is unattainable (duh, you might think), but also that perfectionism is not necessarily a means to success. In fact, we should regard the concept of success itself with a healthy dose of skepticism.

After all, what does it mean to be successful? This is, of course, an enormously broad question with which many of us will grapple for the rest of our lives. I have no intention of suggesting a concrete definition; rather, I’m proposing that we have all been culturally ingrained with such an intense fear of failure that we cling to success by any means necessary, even when doing so is no longer fulfilling.

The United States is by no means unique in this regard, but the fact is that our national consciousness is built upon entrepreneurship, individualism, and achieving one’s dreams. I could point to any number of examples as evidence of our collective aversion to failure, but I find critics’ reception of two films, both released about a year ago, particularly illuminating.

Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy, recounts The Boston Globe’s investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church. It received the Academy Award for best picture and was lauded by critics, including Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post. Hornaday claimed, “It’s not a stretch to suggest that Spotlight is the finest newspaper movie of its era, joining Citizen Kane and All the President’s Men in the pantheon of classics of the genre.”

Truth, on the other hand, which traces the fall of Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Dan Rathers (Robert Redford) from CBS following a flawed investigation of George W. Bush's time in the Air National Guard, was received with disappointment, and even disdain. Directed by James Vanderbilt, the film was not universally criticized—Stephen Holden of The New York Times called it “a gripping, beautifully executed journalistic thriller”—but overall, reactions to the film were unenthusiastic. The Atlantic’s review was titled “Truth: A Terrible, Terrible Movie About Journalism.”

Why such different receptions of two well-made, intelligent, suspenseful (I thought) films? The answer is no doubt multi-layered, but I think success has much to do with it. Scott concludes his review of Spotlight by writing, “Everything in this movie works, which is only fitting, since its vision of heroism involves showing up in the morning and ... doing the job.”

Spotlight is about “heroism,” about success. But in Truth, the most qualified and well-meaning individuals fail. They make mistakes. And we as a culture find that profoundly disturbing.

Now, I’m not claiming that the mistakes made by Mapes’ team were insignificant. They used documents of questionable authenticity in their rush to arrive at “truth.” Indeed, in this case a more perfectionist attitude would have served them well. But I do think that the contrasting receptions of these two films reflect our cultural aversion to failure, whether it be others’ failure or our own.

So I urge you to get in the habit of asking yourself what success means. Is a successful paper one that gets an A—the “perfect” paper—or one that pushes you to think differently? Is the “top” position a successful one if you’re not happy? Is fear of failure preventing you from pursuing a dream?

Natalie McDonald PO '19 hails from Los Angeles and majors in history.