I’m sitting in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, charging my computer in a rather awkward spot right in the middle of the cookbook section because that’s where the available outlets are on this floor; being surrounded by books covers displaying succulent dishes is tempting when it’s dinner time and I haven’t eaten yet, but luckily I am sustained by the white chocolate mocha I purchased from the nearby café. This doesn’t stop me from eyeing the shelves, though, and it probably looks like I’m taking inventory of the store because I keep glancing up as I write. Fortunately, there’s more than just cookbooks here, and one particular title catches my attention: “The Gifts of Imperfection.” Intriguing title, I thought, continuing to type. Then it hits me: what an absolutely perfect phrase for the message of this article. Even more poignantly, what a perfect paraphrase of my life as a student and, I suspect, for many others like me.
As a student, there have been seasons in my education where my inability to live up to the standards I have set for myself and even the expectation of others has hit me square in the face. Let’s take this semester, for example: I have been a student at Regent University for the past several years and was used to the expectations of college, but in January I began a program at a small music school and the experience has been completely different. People say that music is its own language and after five months of intense study I would definitely agree. From learning to distinguish different chords and intervals, to performing in front of my entire class, to singing on a team of musicians and struggling to find the right pitch, the journey has been wildly fun but, to be honest, “imperfect.” And, I can tell you, I didn’t always see these imperfections as “gifts.”
But with this struggle of facing imperfections comes a valuable lesson: if education is meant to prepare me for life, then what better context could I find to make mistakes and learn to love myself in them?
The answer to this question is that there truly is no better time than now, but this is easier said than done. For instance, I have always struggled with defining myself by a letter grade and I suspect that, especially in the highly competitive education system we have here in the West, many other students do as well. It is a constant weight, feeling the anxiety of waiting for the assessment of your work to come in and wondering if you’ve done well enough to feel at peace with your abilities and intelligence or if you should internally (and often subconsciously) chastise yourself for not being able to literally “make the grade.”
Very recently, it hit me that I was making my education far more about whether I get an “A” or “B” than I was about what I was actually learning. When my grades occasionally fall below the standards I set for myself, my self-worth often tends to plummet with them and my education can easily become a game in which I strive to win, even if that means beating myself up and losing sleep to do it.
The thing is, though, it’s not about “winning” or even getting a grade. Education is, by definition, the process of learning something that you did not know before and of gaining knowledge and experience in subjects both of your choosing and otherwise. All of this naturally guarantees that mistakes are going to be made, that imperfections are going to be a reality, and that grades aren’t always going to satisfy. But guess what, students, these imperfections really can be gifts.
The gift is that you and I get to practice defining ourselves by who we are and not by what we do or achieve, including grades. Be it A, B, C, D, or F, we are the same people no matter what and we are worth far more than just one grade on one assignment.
I am realizing as a student that there is no better time to practice being secure in myself despite how I do at something. Let’s face it, once my education is complete, there’s going to be constant chances to fail and succeed at much more important things in life, including a job, marriage, parenting, finances, etc. There will be imperfections that crop up all over the place in those contexts, just as there are now, and it will be up to me to deal with them in grace and courage. So, I might as well start now with identifying “the gifts of imperfection.”