Reprinted with permission from You Do You by Sarah Knight, copyright © 2017. Published by Voracious, an imprint of Little, Brown Books.
What would Marty McFly do? Once I became a self-help “expert,” people started asking me, “If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?”
My answer is always the same: “You don’t have to be perfect.”
(Though if I could give my younger self a second piece of advice, it would be, “In fifteen years, that $29 tongue piercing is going to cost you $700 in dental work, so you might wanna reconsider this decision.”)
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a Robert Zemeckis movie, so Young Me will never receive Future Me’s hard-won counsel on the dangers of perfectionism and metal mouth jewelry. But I bet that Current You could benefit from at least one of these lessons, so I’ve taken the liberty of drafting a letter.
Feel free to tear it out and mount it in your locker, cubicle, or bathroom, or inside your underwear drawer— wherever you’re likely to see it on a daily basis. (I really hope you open your underwear drawer on a daily basis, BTW.) And do share it with anyone else in your life who loses sleep over their GPA, their colleagues’ opinions, or being the glue that holds an entire team together.
Dear Young Me,
Doing your best— performing to your maximum capacity, always— is not sustainable. You’re going to have bad days and slow days and hungover days, and if you beat yourself up over all of them and don’t allow yourself time to recuperate, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening one day in oh, say, 1997.
Lesson #1: Slack off every once in a while, or someday, you will ruin Christmas.
Barely a semester into your freshman year of college, you will get sick. It will start as a common cold, sinus infection–type thing, and despite your burning forehead and throbbing glands, you will soldier on. You will show up for every class and do all the reading and turn the papers in on time. You will remain convinced that it’s possible to get straight A’s at one of the country’s premier universities just like you did at your tiny public school in the thirty-ninth-largest state in the union. You will keep setting your alarm in the morning and studying late into the night. (You’ll also HANDWRITE all of your English lit essays before typing them up, because computers are still new to you and you’re a glutton for punishment.)
Eventually, for several days following your eighteenth birthday, you will find yourself flat on your back in your single dorm bed with a golf ball–sized lump in your neck and your new college friends stopping by with store-brand OJ and worried looks in their eyes.
You’ll never get a diagnosis, though Older You thinks it’s safe to assume that a combination of stress, toxins, and sleep deprivation was the culprit, and the cure was to go home to the thirty-ninth-largest state in the union for the holidays and lie flat on your back some more until that gross neck thing went away. (Your relatives had to pretend they weren’t looking at your bulge. You could barely hold your nog. It wasn’t pretty.)
So please note: Clinging tight to the highest standards until your body stages a feverish, mucus-filled revolt— is nobody’s idea of a joyeux Noël. Seriously, even Jesus took a break on Sundays, and people worship the ground that guy walks on.
Lesson #2: Perfection is in the eye of the beholder.
Three years later, when you are twenty-one— fresh off of graduation, your first job, and your first round of start-up layoffs— you will work on the ground floor of a gloomy, cigarette smoke–filled town house on the Upper East Side of New York City for a lady who rarely has anything nice to say to or about anybody. She’s a tough nut to crack, but you’ll make it your personal mission to wow her with your brilliance, your unparalleled work ethic, and your unimpeachable instincts for improving her fifty-year-old business practices.
You are convinced you will be the BEST assistant she has ever had.
Against rather tall odds, everything will be going well until one random day when you make an innocent comment for which she will— almost gleefully— berate you. You will (to your horror) start crying right in front of her, and as she’s climbing the stairs to her smoky lair, she will turn around and say, “I’m glad you’re crying, because it shows that you’re human.”
You will realize that this woman had regarded you as some kind of automaton. You were always Sarah-on- the-spot— yet far from pleasing her, it actually raised her hackles. Because as a world-weary seventysomething, she knew that NOBODY IS PERFECT, least of all a nervy little twentysomething with a Harvard degree and a bunch of big ideas. So the moment you said something that could possibly be twisted to engage her legendary temper, she pounced— and you were blindsided because of your own naïve belief that she couldn’t possibly ever find any fault with you.
Well, guess what? You can study and strive and genuflect all you want, but that’s not going to stop a professor from grading your essay subjectively, a team member from taking credit for your work, or your boss from serving you your ass on a platter, whether you deserve it or not.
Lesson #3: Damn, it feels good to be a gangster.
This’ll cheer you up. One time when you are about twenty-seven, a highly respected senior member of your business will accuse you via phone of being “the worst fucking editor [he’s] ever worked with,” and you will promptly hang up on him. When he calls back and tells your assistant he wants to “offer an olive branch,” you will not only not take his call, you will never speak to him again.
Lesson #4: Stop and smell your new business cards.
As the years go by, ambition will continue to be a guiding force in your life. That’s not a terrible thing all by itself, but when you get promoted, instead of pausing to enjoy the improved view, you’ll have already set your sights a few rungs higher up the ladder. You’ll have exciting and commendable successes, but the glow never lasts long before you’re itching to outdo yourself.
A smart person will one day tell you this is called “hedonic adaptation,” but you just call it “my late twenties and early thirties.”
It’s like those “personal bests” runners are always posting on Facebook, cogs in a vicious cycle of Never Enough. Achieving a personal best means that what they did last time— which was at that point their “best”— was not good enough for them, so they kept pushing to improve it. Ergo, they are NEVER SATISFIED.
Of course, there’s much to be said in favor of self-improvement, but if your best is never good enough, then what good is it? (You’re no ultramarathoner, but this lesson will come in handy when you write a few very popular self-help books and yet Oprah seems to have permanently misplaced your number.)
Lesson #5: Dial back on the “git ’er done.” It’s good for you and keeps everyone else on their toes.
This is something you’ll figure out on your own pretty early on, but it’s worth reiterating for anyone else who may be reading this letter, of whom Future You hopes there are several hundred thousand, including many happy Germans:
Know that while you’re busy perfecting your modus operandi, other people will notice.
And start taking advantage of you.
These people will see that you are an unstoppable machine of excellence and they will, consciously or unconsciously, begin depending on you to prop them up. It happens to you in school when other kids crane their necks to copy off your paper, and it’ll happen to you at jobs and within friendships. If you were to someday join a prison gang, you would be in the gym every day and your rivals would keep dropping weight, knowing you would keep adding it to your metaphorical barbell until you were crushed by your own awesomeness.
Anyway, what I’m saying, Young Me, is don’t join a prison gang. But also that doing your best can be exhausting enough without doing everyone else’s best while you’re at it. (Plus, it’s fun to watch people squirm when they haven’t done the reading.) How about we let them do their goddamn best for a change?
Well, that’s it for now, kiddo. I hope you’ll take these lessons to heart. Although if you do, I guess that means a lot of the events I’ve described will never come to pass and you might not wind up writing this book in 2017, which means Future You can’t actually teach you the lessons, which means… it’s a very good thing we don’t live in a Robert Zemeckis movie. So yeah, you’re a little bit screwed in your teens and twenties, but what doesn’t kill us makes us bestselling anti-gurus who can help a lot more people on the back end, which isn’t such a bad outcome.
PS No matter how much time you spend straightening the bath towels, your future husband or your future houseguests or your future cat are just going to fuck them up anyway. Relax.
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