There is a phrase invoked here at Williams College, an expression that echoes in the halls of our school and in ivory towers everywhere. It is a phrase spoken with reverence, resolve, incredulity, even irony – “effortless perfection,” we say, as if we invented the term.
Duke, however, has dibs on its coinage. The university published a report in 2003, determining that many of its students, particularly women, felt tremendous pressure to be successful in all aspects of their lives – and to do so without ever appearing to break a sweat. “The expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular,” the report determined, was “significantly detrimental.” Subsequent studies have come to similar conclusions: Effortless perfection has a pervasive and pernicious presence at elite colleges across the country.
Are we worried at Williams? Is there an outcry against appearing “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular?” Of course not. We are a school of winners. A culture of success may be disastrous for some – causing debilitating neuroses, a diminished quality of life – but we pull it off. When it was announced that Martha Coakley would give the 2010 Baccalaureate address, we guffawed. What a joke! After all, her loss in the Senate race to Scott Brown represents the antithesis of the breezy triumph we hold in such high esteem. She should have had Kennedy’s seat in the bag and never looked back.
At Williams, the effortlessly perfect student glides through each day like a well-oiled machine. Odds are good that she is a Junior Advisor (or has been, or will be). Regardless, the student is universally adored and certifiably indestructible. Twelve jello shots in one night? No problem. She will ace any exam the following morning. The student is a skilled multitasker – able to eat a sandwich with one hand, talk on the phone in the other, and do homework with a third hand that appears at will. In a single afternoon she will rally enough money to build an environmentally friendly, economically viable, socially responsible super highway system in Kazakhstan, then appear in a cello recital (another brilliant performance), then hit the playing field, win a national championship, get carried through Spring Street by cheering teammates, remember to call her grandmother (she never forgets), have dinner with someone distinguished (who offers her a prestigious internship), then go to the observatory and discover a new star.
You may know this person. This person may be you. This person, however, is not me– not by a long shot. In fact, I try really hard at stuff, really throw myself into things and still often manage to fail. I call this “effortful imperfection.” I don’t glide through life, I lurch. Sometimes I get parking tickets. Sometimes I forget to shower. Sometimes I study for exams (make myself flash cards, outlines, vocab lists) and still barely pass. I’ve been unfriended on Facebook. I have a legacy of spectacularly botched relationships (it’s not me babe, it’s you). As a runner on the cross-country team, my crowning athletic achievement was the title of “Most Improved” my sophomore season. It turned out I should have improved more – I was cut from track the following spring. Despite my best efforts, I was waitlisted by the Williams in New York program. I was denied an alumni-sponsored internship, a Ruchman Student Fellowship, a Fulbright to the island nation of Malta, and, most recently, my coup de grace, the capstone on a resume of unachievement: I received a big, fat, “We regret to inform you” from the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship.
Perhaps this is the appropriate place for a motivational quote about persistence, or a stoic adage from Michael Jordan. Maybe I should make a reference to “inspiration and perspiration.” The thing is, though, under the reign of effortless perfection, perspiration is unacceptable, and even if exertion could be acknowledged, success would be assumed. As an accomplished failure, I find myself more grounded by a remark from Tristin Lowe, an artist who recently installed a sculpture at WCMA. “It’s good to get used to rejection,” he said, without irony, to a group of Williams students. Lowe’s piece, Mocha Dick, is a 50-foot-long model of a white sperm whale, and an unmistakable allusion to Herman Melville’s literary leviathan – the ultimate symbol of elusive pursuit. Lowe may have landed his figurative whale, gotten his artwork into a legitimate museum, but he evidently knows what it feels like to be Captain Ahab, to have your legs chewed off and still come up with nothing, to put your heart into something and still be rejected.
As a senior, teetering on the brink of graduation, Lowe’s comment felt meaningful, not because he confirmed that failure was imminent, but because he acknowledged the possibility. For Williams students, the white elephant (or white whale) in the room is the reality that after receiving our diplomas, we are not guaranteed wild success. We may be fired from our jobs, develop incurable diseases, get divorced, lose a political race or – bear with me on this one – be average. What if the only benefit of our expensive education from an elite institution is the ability to reflect articulately on an imperfect life? I guess that’s why I’m looking forward to hearing Coakley speak. Out in the real world, everyone isn’t necessarily, “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular,” and maybe – inside the purple bubble – we aren’t either.