A Survival Guide for Perfectionists
Confession time: I’ve been a perfectionist all my life. Working for ten years in Japan, a culture obsessed with orderliness, detail, and “going by the book,” intensified my natural bent. The positive side was that it brought me a modest bit of success in working with my Japanese counterparts in business. On the other hand, there’ve been huge downsides— trying to over-plan things to the detail level of a gnat’s eyebrow, a tendency to be inflexible and judgmental. I have to consciously and continually monitor myself in these areas, lest I become impossible to work with or live with.
Three years ago, I started teaching at a small Thai vocational college in Isan, the first farang ever to work there. My first duty was to plan my courses from scratch, and that meant planning a week-by-week curriculum, then converting it to a syllabus. I was told not to worry about anomalies in the academic schedule, as it was a straightforward 16 weeks of instruction and two weeks of exams.
Ah, a tailor-made job for the obessed perfectionist!
Oh my. That first syllabus. It was beautiful. A six-pager that choreographed nearly every classroom movement. Want a restroom break, students? Check the syllabus. Want to know when you can raise your hand with a question? Check the syllabus. Want to know how many jinjoes (house lizards) were allowed on the classroom walls at any given moment? Check the… OK, you get the picture.
Then, early into the semester, the unthinkable happened.
On one of my more spectacular-to-be teaching days, using a lesson plan created to bedazzle the most jaded student, inspired by my perfect syllabus, I showed up at a ghost school. Not one soul in sight. For some reason, the security guard wasn’t even there.
It was like the twilight zone.
I checked the time—classes should be starting in 19 minutes. I phoned a Thai teacher and inquired whether it might be a Saturday or Sunday. No, it was Friday, just like I thought.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Ajahn! Half the teachers went to Bangkok for a seminar, so no school today. Would you mind making up your classes on Sunday?”
What? Half the staff gone? School canceled? How in the world did I get left out of THAT loop? Moreover, to rub salt into the wound, make-up classes on Sunday? My Sacred Day of Rest? (Ok, my day to write lesson plans for the following week and to visit friends in another part of the province.) I had arranged for the outing weeks ago. I had meticulously arranged my daypack for this trip the previous Tuesday!
I felt my little organized world crumbling about me. Mini-pangs of indignation mixed with frustration grew into sharper jabs of anger, poking at me like little shards of glass flying about my shattered glass bubble. You’ll never know the intensity of these feelings unless you’ve been under the curse of perfectionism.