You won’t often find me admitting to be in the wrong, but I think it’s high-time I face the music. My problem is that I always set the bar too high. Some of you may think that this is surely a good trait: after all, what’s wrong with a little aspiration? And better yet, how great is it when that unachievable task you set on your list is conquered and quite determinedly crossed off your list?
It’s not that great, really. Ask any perfectionist. Any high goal achieved will automatically mean that the next time, the goal should be even higher. The adrenaline of a challenge is unparalleled, the threat of defeat such an ulcer-inducing experience, the fervor of achievement only a punch-drunk second. I fall for it again and again and again.
I first realized this in December. I greeted the 12 days of Christmas with utter anti-consumerist spite and had decided to do something more personal and genuine for our long list of friends for Christmas 2010 (last year). I ended up baking a series of cookies and treats, boxing them up with personalized gingerbread men and adding Dutch stamps and twine in an attempt at a faux-parcel. It was a great surprise for everyone, but mostly for myself, for pulling off 12 boxes filled with at least 5 different baked goods by yours truly. This year, I knew that if anything, I had to exceed expectations, if not meet them. The overachiever in me wanted to go all out, convinced that I couldn’t bake the same goods. What complete shame to deliver the same box of goodies a year later? I scavenged for recipes that would impress, I drafted ideas for a theme, in fact, I spent entirely too much time on something that didn’t really merit it. Testament to this was our friends’ response: 1 second appraisal of box, before ripping it open to begin devouring contents. Who cared about presentation? Who stopped to think, Boy I’ve eaten this before…
No one. And that’s normal. Now I know this.
And though I recognize my over-ambition as, perhaps, my biggest flaw, I can’t help but feel disappointed at myself whenever I underperform by my standards. Take the summer, for instance. Come this glorious season of smelly armpits and drones of mosquitoes, I make a list of goals I wish to see through by the end of my two month vacation (the perks of teaching, I’m afraid). And on my list, around the top, float the same words year in, year out: Read a lot of books. I assume that this is on the list of most ordinary people in the summer, with the possible omission of the words “a lot of” for obvious reasons. Now, the problem this year, is that sometime in December again, I decided to join the online book community Goodreads, which eagerly prompted me to set a reading goal for 2012. At that point I had just received an order by Amazon for 15 books and I was overjoyed and optimistic at my reading capabilities during the year. So I decided to set the goal to what I considered an acceptable, if not essential, target of 50 books in the year. During the two-week Christmas vacation, I read four books and I was in such a high spirit that I thought I had regained my peace of mind and my fast reading pace. That number dwindled to a staggering three books until the next vacation, Easter, during which I managed to trudge through a mere 130 pages of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. What an embarrassment.
To think, that in college, I read at least 25 books per semester and that’s not counting the ones I devoured for pleasure. At the back of my mind, this was my most productive reading time, I assume, and for that I hold on to it with a competitive ardor that even intimidates me on some days. You see, in all honesty, a part of me knows that it doesn’t really matter how many books I read this summer. In fact, I’m doing quite well, I’ve managed to go through 5 books in the last month. But yet another, more empirical side of me, seeks the quantitative data with strong desire to hold it up as a trophy of achievement, so I can look back at my former younger self who is quite surely disappointed at my sluggish reading. And even when I’m trying to not think of anything, there’s still that parenthetical reminder on Goodreads that furtively informs me: “Congratulations! You’ve read 13 books out of 50. (At your current pace you’re 18 books behind).”
It’s a castigation of sorts. It inflames my inner pride. It makes me the wrong kind of reader, too. Immersing myself in a book has nothing to do with numbers, after all. It’s about striking that connection, getting lost, even momentarily, from lists and personal insecurities and entering a world that I’m sure I value more now, in my 29-year-old worrisome head, that I did as a 20-something student.