Every morning I wake up groggy and dazed from the lack of sleep that has been accumulating from days before. Yet, by the time I walk out of the door, I put on a big smile. My eyes open wide to complement it, making the whole set-up a bit more convincing. As I enter this role, I know I look like a different person. Heck, I am sometimes so convincing that I feel like a different person. I am performing effortless perfection, and the smile is its most important prop.
Being at the College is like engaging in a delicate balancing act for all four years. I am expected to exert an enormous amount of effort in academics, clubs, having-a-life, athletics and more. But that balance sits on one side of another bigger scale, with “effortlessness” on the other side. I am expected to exude sunniness at all times, to make the products of my effort seem as clear as possible without letting anyone see the background process. Then, I get immense satisfaction by appearing successful without an ounce of stress or complaint. The marvel of others (which I either receive or conjure up in my head) validates and sustains my act.
While the effortless perfection persona is not specific to the College, I have been aware of it ever since I came to Previews. I remember my first and strongest impression was of all the students here who seemed super energetic and motivated. Most importantly, they were wearing that tireless smile on their faces at all time. They exuded a kind of self-confidence that I dreamed of having. Of course, I knew this impression was neither representative nor true, but none-theless, it became fossilized in my imagination as an ideal persona that I should be striving for in order to fit in and become a “model” Williams student.
Effortless perfection, as a role, has a mythical component shaped by my own imagination and students past and present. Calling effortless perfection a “myth” is obviously an effort to undermine the concept, but it unintentionally underscores how deeply rooted it is in the collective Williams identity. I feel like a Williams student when I, say, work on problem sets while having dinner while spinning in the gym, because it makes me feel connected to Williams students before and around me. I feel like I am living the mythical construction of the “perfect” Williams student, keeping it alive and passing it on to new first-years.
The myth of effortless perfection is nothing new. Most students at the College are not only acutely aware of it, but talk openly about it. New students are warned about its consequences that materialize as internalized stress and depression during First Days. I was told of this myth from my Junior Advisors during our first entry meeting, and programs like “Voices” have older students openly talk about the immense stress and trauma they go through at the College. But awareness and even active pushback don’t seem to curtail the myth’s influence, at least for me. Every day, I continue to put on that smile, despite feeling extremely conflicted on the inside. To me, the myth seems to have only evolved ever since we acknowledged it. The ideal of perfection now also requires the ability to be publicly open and aware of stress while paradoxically following all the old rules. Now, I have to periodically disrupt my performance so it can be even more convincing. These little moments of disruption convince others I’m still somewhat grounded and aware — so I can get away with much more.
So, how can I really “call out” something that is publicly acknowledged around campus? Well, it’s really hard to do, and that’s the problem. Our conversations have stalled and turned into jokes and clichéd Williams “let’s catch up” conversations. I recognize that my perspective is pessimistic, and there are lots of people in our community actively involved in changing this culture. I appreciate their efforts immensely, and I do not mean to undercut their work. In writing this, I want to point out how deep-seeded the myth of effortless perfection is from my experience, and how it is not a static concept, but one that is very much alive and constantly adapting for survival. So, isn’t it time to update our approach to stress as well?
Peter Le ’21 is from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. His major is undecided.