Perfectionism: The Enemy of the Good



Laughter filled the Lewis kitchen, bubbling over like the pot of simmering vegetables on the stovetop. Pots and pans littered the counters, and the mixture of delicious smells drifted through the dorm’s hallway. That was last semester when my friends and I decided to have a “feast.” One person volunteered to bring appetizers, another sides, someone else made our main dish (focaccia bread) and I offered to make dessert (apple crostata). It was not a five-star meal by any means, and we ate on stools in the kitchen, still messy from the cooking process, but there was unmistakable joy throughout. Why was this meal better than a fancy dinner at a five-star restaurant? Because it was not our cooking skills but rather our friendship that made the night memorable.

That feast with my friends has reaffirmed a thought I’ve had simmering in my mind: the beauty in the effort sometimes surpasses the result. And this has brought about another thought: the importance of hobbies. Pursuing activities aside from our everyday tasks or jobs (in the case of a college student, study) can cultivate a healthy sense of reflection and life-work balance. For my friends and me, cooking strengthened our relationships with each other. This does not mean you have to excel in whatever “hobby” you have; far from it. Instead, the struggle teaches humility. Pursue what you love, and you can cast aside fear of failure.

Cooking (especially baking) has been one of my favorite things to do ever since I was little. I owe this to my family and my mom’s southern roots. My grandfather thrived in the kitchen, testing out recipes, mixing French and southern cuisines. Yet he was also a lawyer and a father of four. My grandmother made a family cookbook full of recipes from generations of cooks. I grew up with these recipes, as I’m sure many other families have with their own cookbooks. My love for cooking stems from a love for my grandfather and a similar love to create. Like my grandfather, I might not be a famous chef, but I will always cook no matter what.

Saint Thérèse of Lisieux once said, “You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.” An exemplar of humility, St. Therese reinforces the importance of acting with love rather than with an insatiable desire for worldly success. She was perfectly at peace as God’s “little flower” and as an instrument of God’s grace.

This is not to say that we should throw success out the window. In fact, several successful figures from history also had hobbies. Few know that the reclusive poet, Emily Dickinson, loved to bake. She entered her bread into competitions and shared it with her family. She even wrote many of her poem drafts on the backs of old recipes. Napoleon was an avid chess player. Sylvia Plath, another poet, kept bees. Nabokov collected butterflies. Teddy Roosevelt was a boxer and a brown belt in Judo, and Thomas Jefferson played the violin. There is something comforting in knowing that someone like Emily Dickinson baked for the pure joy of it—she comes into our more ordinary world. Whenever I bake, I like to think of Emily Dickinson also measuring out the flour and even spilling it on the countertop, as I do all the time.

College students, especially at Notre Dame, can easily become perfectionists, afraid of failure and professional setbacks later in life. Understandably, there is a lot of pressure on college students, perhaps from their families or quite possibly from themselves. Many times we fear failure because we mistakenly think it will diminish our worth.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy counteracts this obsession with perfectionism. In his trilogy, the hobbits—the little humble folk of the Shire—are the ones who save Middle Earth from destruction. Two hobbits, Frodo and Sam, are the unexpected heroes of the story. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf says to Frodo, “My dear Frodo! Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.”

Several characters throughout the trilogy doubt the hobbits’ ability fulfill their mission to destroy the ring. To the eyes of the world, hobbits are the least likely candidates for saving anyone. Yet they, as Gandalf remarks, surprise all with their courage, loyalty, and humility. These virtues give  Frodo and Sam the strength necessary to save Middle Earth. Virtues, not external advantages, lead the hobbits to success. Nevertheless, throughout the trilogy they maintain a joyful love for life. At the end of the day, Frodo and Sam still love the Shire in all its simplicity and return home strengthened by their journey.

Likewise, an overwhelming need to succeed at everything can kill the joy of the simple pleasures in life. Above all, simplicity fosters true success. Pastimes are not just luxuries for those with time to spare. I will admit that I do not bake often while at Notre Dame—or draw, another hobby of mine—because of many commitments and responsibilities. Yet when I do make that time to bake with a friend or sketch by St. Mary’s lake, I uncover a new reflectiveness and peace that helps me fulfill my duties. There is nothing wrong with slowing down and appreciating life a little more.

Cooking, drawing, or any other hobbies, however, are not all about pleasing oneself. We should share the joy we find in these activities and allow that peace and joy to spill over and touch the lives of others. Goodness does produce ripple effects. Preparing dinner with friends does not end with the enjoyment of their company and the meal. The time spent together, working in collaboration, truly does strengthen our friendships.

Focusing too much on one’s personal success can be a danger in college. We are human beings, body and soul, not machines wired for success. Time spent baking cookies with a friend that end up tasting awful, drawing a mediocre picture, or losing a sports game, etc., can be time well-spent if seen with the right perspective. If we approach these activities with love, we can grow in humility and remember that success is not the sole aim of our lives.

Sarah Ortiz is a sophomore studying PLS and classics and living in Lewis Hall. A dedicated admirer of the simplicity of hobbits, she dreams of moving to the Shire and baking pie in a hobbit hole. Contact Sarah at sortiz2@nd.edu.

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