How Perfectionists Fail (And What To Do About It)

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The academic year is about to start.  Are you going to tackle it with the same attitude that got you in trouble last year — expecting too much of yourself and disappointing yourself over and over? 

Can you imagine having the goal of being a world-class tennis player, but deciding before your first lesson that you would have perfect form and win every game?  You would resent criticisms by the tennis pro, you wouldn’t have fun, you would dread every match, and you might feel like quitting after a few losses.  This is the way many academics approach their career.

Here are ten reasons not to bring a perfectionist attitude into the school year with you, followed by five ways to deal with perfectionism.

Ten Reasons Academics Should Not be Perfectionists

  1. You will feel perpetually anxious about the future, which in your mind can only bring failure.  And you will feel terrible about the past, which just reminds you of how you never lived up to your expectations of yourself.
  2. You will tend to put off your writing so that you’re ultimately working under deadline pressure. Contrary to popular thinking, writing for a deadline does NOT make you produce your best work. Ideally, you’re relaxed.  This helps with creativity, retention of ideas, clarity of thinking, and memory.
  3. Your anxiety about perfection will make you too detailed oriented, so that you won’t see the big picture.  Again, this makes you less creative.
  4. You won’t give yourself enough time to go back at your leisure to make a better draft, thus not getting distance from your work, so as to allow yourself to see what’s wrong with it or appreciate that it’s good enough.  Like that sentence.
  5. Perfectionists fail to reach out to others because of the fear that they’re not good enough.  Thus, you won’t let others hear your ideas at an early stage when it’s not too late to change your research or line of thinking. Similarly, you won’t let others see your writing when it is easy for them to help you with the organization of your paper or an idea that you’re stuck on.
  6. You will have trouble letting go of work – sending it to the publisher or your dissertation advisor, because it’s never quite good enough.
  7. The constant stress of the pressure you put on yourself will lower the quality of your work.
  8. You will delay decision-making, leaving behind a long list of undone tasks.
  9. You are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression because of the constant feeling of failure.
  10.  I couldn’t think of a tenth reason, but I decided this is a good enough list anyway (I’m always trying to be a role model.)

Five Suggestions for Conquering Perfectionism.

  1. Realize that becoming a scholar is a long-term project.
    It takes more than a lifetime to be as good a scholar as you want to be.  You will continue to learn and improve, but the process of scholarly research is difficult.  Your career is an ongoing learning experience.  After all, this challenge is one reason you chose this route.  So it’s Ok not to be “the best” right now.
  2. Know that it’s hard to do scholarly writing
    This is a corollary to the previous point.  If you notice during your writing session that it’s painful and difficult, that’s fine.  You’ll survive.  It’s supposed to be hard.  There’s nothing wrong with you.  This is hard for everyone, no matter what they tell you.
  3. Have faith in the process.
    As you work on your draft, it’s Ok if what you wrote is really, really bad.  You have to have some writing sessions where you write badly, or where your thinking goes nowhere.  It will lead to something eventually.  Trust that you can improve it in subsequent drafts and that this fallow period will lead to more creative thinking.  What counts is that you’re writing.
  4. Monitor “all-or-none” or catastrophic thinking. 
    Perfectionists are prone to thinking that if something is imperfect, it’s horrible.  This attitude can turn into “She doesn’t like this section of the chapter; that means I’m not a good writer, which means I’ll never make it as an academic, which means I’ll be out of work, alone, by the side of the road.”  Try to catch yourself turning minor imperfections into tragedies.  Replace this thinking with more moderate thoughts, such as “I’ll try her suggestion and see if I can improve this section.  At least she liked the other section.”  See the “Positive Affirmations for Academic Writers” that you received when you signed up for this newsletter.  Try adding the words “good enough” to your vocabulary.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself. 
    People with perfectionist tendencies don’t like to share their work until it’s, well, perfect.  That is a big mistake. 

    Perfectionists operate with the belief that people will like you less if they notice your mistakes, or if you show weakness.  In fact, the opposite is true.  People are more comfortable with people who are “real.”  All people have insecurities; therefore they prefer to be with others who are not perfect.  If they look at your work and find mistakes, they will not think less of you, lose respect for you, or dislike you. 

    The coaching groups and writing clubs that I run are predicated on the premise that academics do better when they’re not isolated.  The incredible results that people get when they simply relate to each other about the process of doing their work is a testament to how ending isolation enables you to work more freely.

    I notice that people enrolled in these programs are more likely to share their work with peers.  Isolation can convince you that people are scarier and more critical than they really are.  Finding out that people can support you can enable you to write better and more easily.  Furthermore, sharing your work sooner gives you more practice dealing with negative feedback.

I will have many more suggestions for how to conquer perfectionism and actually enjoy life as an academic in my forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Do You Deserve a Ph.D.?  If I can stop myself from being too much of a perfectionist, I might even finish writing it by the end of the year.


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