“RALF PLAYS THE role of the compassionate, genuine leader in The Lord of the Flies’ societal microcosm,” I wisely typed in my thirteen-year-old critique of William Golding’s famously controversial novel. Aggressively analytical, tenaciously self-assured, I was determined to make a name for myself as “local literary genius” not only among my preteen peers but also in the eyes of the high-reigning, supreme being of the classroom, the English teacher. And this first analytical paper was just my chance to do it. However, my ego was mortifyingly steamrolled by the tip of a red ballpoint pen when the main complaint in the whitespace was “Rachael, you have managed to spell ‘Ralph’ as ‘Ralf’ for the entire paper.” As I stared in disbelief at the deceptively benevolent loops of the red-ink cursive, blood instantly rushed not only to my cheeks, but also to my neck and chest—the first appearance of my trademark tell-tale blushing, belying any twinge of embarrassment even in adulthood unless I proactively don a turtleneck. It mattered not that I received a 98 (to the simultaneous despair and admiration of the other seventh graders around me in their shining private-school desks) or that my analysis was considered, overall, excellent. The ever-loving shame of misspelling the main character’s name approximately 17 times was doubly compounded by the ease of the name’s spelling (“Ralph? I misspelled RALPH??”). If Ralph “wept for the end of innocence,” then surely I wept (internally) for the end of the innocent pursuit of perfectionism.
Perfectionism, you see, was my mantra. Born in California to a father serving as a doctor in the Navy and a mother eager to provide every opportunity to my older brother and me to grow and succeed, I was raised to be happily curious and diligently studious in a home that fostered a love for learning. Yet the pursuit of perfection was inspired by our move to my parents’ native state of Texas and my subsequent enrolment at aged ten in an academically rigorous private school. The challenges of various classroom studies, the arts, and athletics sparked in me the aspiration to succeed tremendously in all of them—not for competition’s sake, not for my parents’ sake, but for my own personal pride and development. I wanted it all, and, for a while, sustained actually achieving it all. But it was moments that struck blows to my power trip of success (like the infamous “Ralf” incident) that forced me to develop a more humble, attainable, and applicable understanding of perfectionism. Thus far in my limited twenty-one years of experience, I have discovered at least these few things:
- Perfection is unattainable, but the pursuit of it is still desirable.
- Just when I think I have neared some shining glimpse of perfection is when I am most likely to commit an egregious error.
- And it is these errors that remind me to be humble, to laugh at myself (and at the rest of the humans with perceptions of the world similar to mine), and to always, always, always, double—no, triple—check your work.
In fact, my innate and never-ceasing desire to understand all the detailed glory of esoteric and intricately difficult new subjects, and the resulting desire to communicate it properly to others, has recently led me to commit to the prospective career path into the Technical Writing field. In a summer-before-senior-year panic, I sat on my parents’ living room couch stricken with the worry that all pursuits in my English major have been for naught, for the endless analyses of things like synecdoche within an 18th century poem as a Vanderbilt undergraduate will surely never benefit anyone who has ever breathed the word “literature.” But then I began to admit something to myself about my literature studies that I never have allowed to creep up before: It has been the communicative power of transferring information from one mind to another, rather than the artistic and aesthetic qualities per se, of various contemporary writing that truly draws me to literature, language, and communication like a bee to honey. I dream of being the professional who explains complicated ideas by writing clearly and efficiently to an audience in need of those ideas. But I aim to never so confident in my skills as to be above acknowledging error, for it is then that I have opportunity to learn to communicate most effectively, and if nothing else, acquire some general humor and humility. And this lifelong journey starts with lesson number one: I swear that I will never, ever, ever misspell Ralf again, until the day I die.