Effortless Perfection: “The expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort.”

The term “Effortless Perfection” was coined at my alma mater Duke University in the 2003 Women’s Initiative Report. By the time I arrived for my freshmen year in 2010, the term had been a widely circulated phrase on campus for almost a decade. Albeit, finally naming the ill-fated phenomenon hadn’t done much to alter a college culture that places immense pressure on its students to excel in all categories and to do so with a never-faltering front of confident ease. In fact, the only difference appeared to be that use of the term was spreading to describe the cultural climate on campuses all across the United States.

This mentality, despite being somewhat proudly celebrated and propagated by students, comes with a disconcerting underbelly of undue pressures. When left unchecked, as is often the case, these pressures manifest themselves as serious social problems including stress, anxiety, loneliness, binge drinking, eating disorders, unauthentic and unhealthy sexual expression, and depression. 

I certainly wasn’t one to dodge the bullet on most of these. Throughout all my many joys and excitements as an undergrad, several of these issues remained a constant undertone. I was always struggling with two or more at a time. I might as well have been a case study for the effects of Effortless Perfection. After all, I was already attending Duke—the origin of the term and, thus, the perfect backdrop for studying and understanding the Myth. Mix in the outlook of an eager, but naive teen and the temperament of a people-pleasing “good girl” I brought with me to campus, and my fate was basically sealed.

What kept me afloat was my strong desire to analyze what was happening to me and why. The further I pushed into the space existing behind the gilded front of Effortless Perfection, the more I found it wasn’t just me—so many of the people who looked like they had everything all put together, their lives completely figured out, were struggling just the same and worse. This issue needed serious attention. Effortless Perfection had created an environment wherein, when one did inevitably struggle, that person was sure to feel like the only one. Feeling isolated, they would grow fearful of being exposed as someone who “couldn’t keep up” or who stood out as “broken” in comparison to the rest of a presumably flawless student body. So, they would conclude there was no other way to deal with their problems but alone. Thus, the consequences of their struggles became much more extreme and much more harmful. 

I wanted to believe it didn’t have to be this way. I found myself drawn to the few spaces on campus where authentic discussions were being had. I found myself sharing some of my own vulnerabilities as a way of making others feel more comfortable with sharing their own, and could see the relief in their eyes as they finally let what was happening in their inner worlds be known. I looked to grow the discourse via mentoring programs, student-led initiatives, an opinion column in my school newspaper, and even just spontaneous conversation. I declared a women’s studies major and read everything I could get my hands on about gender and its ties to the quest for perfection, as I could see my female peers being hit especially hard. I could feel the puzzle of Effortless Perfection being pieced together in my head as I went, and could see it being exposed as the myth I now know it to be.

Over time I discovered that the insights I was gleaning along this journey were incredible privileges to possess—regardless that a number of them had required intense personal struggle to acquire—because they blessed me with the ability to mentor others experiencing similar hardships and to help them not feel so alone. Knowing what a person in the midst of struggle needs is difficult unless you yourself have been there, too, as you can only fully empathize with someone to the extent that you have personally felt what that person is feeling. Most times those who are hurting don’t want to be “fixed” or told what to do. They just want proof that it is possible to go through these jolting realizations about the nature of our unpredictable and sometimes overwhelming world, and come out the other side. They want someone to be with them, to feel with them, to understand. They want someone who can say, “Me too, I’ve been there.” 

My forthcoming book The Effortless Perfection Myth is meant to be a compilation of all that I have to give in this way. It is the book I wish I had been able to read before taking my first steps onto my college campus—written about the undergrad period of my life, while I was living that period of my life (and immediately after).