How Leslie Knope Taught Me to Love Being a Perfectionist

leslie knope, sitting at her desk

I was a difficult kid. Not because I was a rebel or a trouble-maker or something similarly interesting, but because I was a know-it-all. I was an anxiety-ridden, perfectionist child who read the dictionary for fun. I grew into a struggling perfectionist adolescent who just wanted to be liked. And eventually, I became a determined perfectionist adult who just wanted to succeed.

Before Leslie Knope and the Pawnee, Indiana Department of Parks and Recreation, I had never seen a pop culture character like me. In movies, the perfectionist was a mean girl villain or an uptight prude, a mistake waiting to fixed by the loosen-up-already love of a good man (see: Two Weeks Notice, the entire Katherine Heigl oeuvre). On television, perfectionists were relegated to sidekick status: the controlling Monica Gellar to the cool-girl Rachel Green, the obnoxious Paris to the beloved Rory Gilmore. From the moment she took a dive into the empty pit where she would one day build a park, Leslie Knope was the perfectionist role model I never knew I had always wanted: likable, determined, passionate, kind, flawed, and real.  

Leslie’s perfectionist tendencies are her strength, not her weakness. Over and over, she demonstrates that it’s possible to be focused, determined, traumatically anxious and, yes, even a little annoying, and still build a life and legacy worth admiring. On the occasion of this last Galentine’s Day together (nooo!), a love letter to lessons from Leslie Knope.

You are in over your head, and that’s ok.

“It sounds like you’re telling me to go for it.” – Leslie Knope

The instant you decide to do something, it occurs to you that you have no real authority, power, or clue how to do it. That’s normal. That’s how you grow. That’s how you go from one complaint by a beautiful naïve land-mermaid at a town meeting to spending the next seven years of your life turning a pit into a park. You get in over your head, and then you learn to swim. Go for it, you beautiful tropical fish. 

You will experience setbacks.

“The show must go wrong.” – Andy Dwyer

A million things will go wrong, and almost all of them will be Jerry’s fault. Setbacks are normal. Failure is a part of the learning process. If you stop now, you'll never get where you want to go. Keep fighting, like the talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox you are. 

The best perfectionism comes from the best of you.

“We need to remember what's important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn't matter, but work is third.” – Leslie Knope

Perfectionism is a hire wire act, and if that wire were strung between two extreme poles, one of them would be labeled “nobody’s going home until this is perfect” and the other would be labeled “I know we can do it so I made us team t-shirts and baked enough brownies to stay up all night and triumph!” Like any tricky line we walk, we go backwards and forwards on it, finding our footing. Leslie is stubborn, difficult, and competitive to a fault, but her perfectionism comes from the best of her: her love for her family, her friends, and her town. Perfect from the best of you.

People see you.

“You had a dream and we wanted to support your dream. That’s what you do when you care about someone.” – Ron Swanson

You think it goes unnoticed, the late nights, the hard work, the carefully curated Galentine's brunches – but it doesn't. People see you. They see what you do for them. They bank it for later, and when they pay you back, it is with such interest that the incomprehensible sum of the love before you will humble you to your knees. The reputation you’re building, the favors you’re doing, the friends you’re making and supporting and throwing yourself in front of a runaway Tammy-train for are the foundation for your campaign for city council, your spur-of-the-moment wedding, and the rest of your amazing life.

The hardest times inspire your best work.

“That was amazing. That was a flu-ridden Michael Jordan at the ‘97 NBA finals. That was Kurt Gibson, hobbling up to the plate and hitting a homer off of Dennis Eckersley. That was… that was Leslie Knope.” – Ben Wyatt

When nothing you know works, you will have the freedom to explore the unknown. When everything else gets smaller, you will think and create in your brightest, most expansive ways. When it’s hardest, you’ll find the best of yourself. Trust that instinct. Jump.

Your life is going to be more awesome than you can possibly imagine yet.

“I need to remember every little thing about how perfect my life is right now.” – Leslie Knope

When you’re working on something, the details of it and its success or failure are all you can see. The long-view of life—the big goals and dreams you fall asleep thinking about—seem impossibly far away as you fall down the rabbit hole of whatever particular obsession you’re in: building a park, throwing a festival, defeating Greg Pikitis. But Leslie Knope started off in a small room as a Deputy Assistant of a small department in a small town, and she’s finishing this victory-lap of a final season as a candidate for the Operations Director of the Interior. She once pined for Mark Brendanawicz; she’s now happily married to a man who unconditionally loves and supports her and just happens to have an ass that would make an angel cry. 

Writer Hanna Brooks recently said that everyone should want to be Leslie Knope. But, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t. Not in my heart of hearts. I wish I were brave enough to be Donna. Realistically, it would be nice to be Ann, who is sweet and smart and has a real job with a tangible skill set. Being April would be fun. Being Andy would, for a day or two, be the greatest experience of anyone's life. But I know who I am, and Leslie Knope—great friend, waffle-lover, feminist, sexual aggressor in a relationship of equals, and perfectionist—taught me that might not be such a terrible thing. 

Related Reading: Here's a Set of Illustrated Galentines to Share With Friends.

Kaitlyn Soligan is a writer from Boston living in Louisville, KY. She writes about that at I've Had Worse Ideas and tweets @ksoligan

by Kaitlyn Soligan
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