Why perfectionism is the least of your problems

Okay, to start with—now, today—perfectionism might be your biggest problem.  

It won’t let you finish anything.

It prevents you from starting anything.

You can’t tell the difference between ‘slightly imperfect’ and ‘absolutely shitty’: leading you either to beat yourself up over tiny flaws in your excellent writing; or to hand in really early and unfinished writing to your supervisor who hands it back with lots of criticism.

It means you didn’t listen when your supervisor said, ‘This is great work, and you write really well’. You didn’t listen when she said, ‘You’re on track.’ You didn’t listen when he said, ‘This should be in an article.’

It means you stayed up all night going over what they meant when they said, ‘your sentences are too long,’ or ‘I think you need to add a few more references here.’

You are trapped in the perfect sentence vortex of doom.

****

But there is a way out. And smart, self-motivated people with high standards are the best people to take advantage of it.

Perfectionism is the major thing standing between you and success.

Many people kind of accept that perfectionism is a flaw, but in an ‘actually, this is a strength’ way; like working too hard, or being addicted to exercise, or falling for bad boys. You’re not going to change, really. Because you secretly think that perfectionism helps you to do better.  Some part of your hindbrain, and possibly large sections of your prefrontal cortex, truly believes that perfectionism is what has enabled you to reach the intellectual, professional and personal heights that you have.

So I’m going to say it again.  Perfectionism is the major thing standing between you and success.

Perfectionism isn’t the same as ‘having high standards’, or ‘caring about doing a good job’, or ‘getting the work done’, or even ‘being excellent’. It’s a sickness, and it’s ruining your academic career.

****

I gave up on being perfect a while ago.  Being perfect meant 99.9% was never good enough; and always aiming for 150% was exhausting.  I always (always!) tried to get things in early, under budget and exceeding their targets, while being a charming, cheerful, team-playing superstar. I mostly succeeded too.  Except when I was flat on my back with debilitating flu, excruciating back pain, five day migraines, or clinical depression.  I was all on, or I was all off. (Hey, no-one does totally sick like a perfectionist.  If I’m not 150% sick, I’m not sick… or something.)  Trying to be perfect was an impossible goal, because a single flaw, however tiny, is still a flaw.  It’s a zero sum game, all or nothing, black or white, yes or no.

So, instead, I decided to be excellent.

I know from marking undergraduate essays (something I do a lot), that an H1 (an A grade, first class essay), is 80%, and such work is described as ‘excellent, scholarly, original’.

I am delighted to produce excellent, scholarly, original work.  So I learned to work to 80%.

Sometimes my work is in a fortnight late. When I submit my work to peer reviewers or writing buddies, I’ve left some space to integrate their input. Sometimes I spend the whole budget; sometimes I ask for a little bit more. I still meet my targets. Sometimes I exceed them, but only if it’s easy.  I’m not perfect, but I’m still successful; in fact, I’m more successful (I haven’t needed a week off for a migraine in years).

****

So how can perfectionism be your current biggest problem, but also the least of them?

You just have to get your head around this following statement, and accept it. Really. It’s a kind of magic, it’s one of my gifts, it’s one of the most voodoo-y things I do. Accept this statement as true, and your perfectionism problems are pretty much solved. (Not totally solved, we aren’t doing perfect, we’re doing better).

You love to be excellent; you love to be exceptional; you love to do brilliantly; you love to succeed; you love to be complete.  Perfectionism is stopping you.  

We often say, ‘perfect is the enemy of done‘. Voltaire said ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’. Perfect is your enemy.

Be excellent.  Be exceptional. Do brilliantly. Succeed. Be complete.

If you don’t finish your PhD because you are trying to be perfect, you are not striving for perfection. You are striving for failure.  Perfectionism is stopping you finish, you chose perfectionism over your PhD? You just chose failure.

And that’s why it’s easy. You just have to choose success.

And you are already brilliant at choosing success and pursuing it rigorously, energetically, bravely, persistently. 

This is playing to your strengths.

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I have the absolute honour and delight to spend my days with some of the smartest, most competent, most together adults on the planet. Research students are already excellent, exceptional, brilliant people. And it guts me to see you chose perfectionism over being good, being good enough, being excellent.

So, say, ‘Fuck perfectionism, I’m finishing my thesis.’

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12 Comments

  1. This is brilliant! I’m trying to get out of the perfect sentence vortex and the easiest way so far is to avoid writing to do other work. Not helpful. Aiming for good rather than perfect might be the way forward. Thank you!

    1. Delighted it helps! Yes, aiming for good rather than perfect is a great way forward. Even God only got to the end of the day, looked at what he had made, and said ‘It was good.’

  2. So sad to see myself so clearly in your description. Reminded me of my supervisor a few months ago saying that the thesis would teach me how not-to-be perfect. I am learning!

  3. Hi Katherine,

    I found this post at just the right time (via @thesiswhisperer on twitter). I can’t quite express just how valuable your words have been in getting me through the last few months of serious PhD block. I have bookmarked this post on my phone and have return to it almost daily.

    Without realising it, I have been suffering from perfectionism. I got completely stuck in writing my final data chapter for my very interdisciplinary thesis, this one is very theoretical and I’m trained in applied research so was really out of my depth. My supervisor was being incredibly supportive but she didn’t have the expertise at all to guide me through the literature and thoughts I had on the chapter. Instead of getting something on paper and working from there I did NOTHING for months on end. I got more and more spirally and panicky, which made me less able to get work done. When I finally got some words on paper I couldn’t hear my supervisor telling me time and again that I was doing a good job. In my mind I knew I had so much more I could do, so much I didn’t understand. I hadn’t reached the 150% perfect I have in my head. I now realise that that ideal doesn’t exist. The work I am doing has never been done in my field, my country or my department before- and that is enough. It is an original, scholarly and excellent idea – so that just needs to be 80%. I learnt that from you.

    I have managed to get a full draft of my chapter finished at the start of this month! I have also found a new supervisor who can help me clarify my ideas and make sure I have got the theory I need to get right, right. And I have left space for his input – in my draft I have put comments and questions rather than trying to get it perfect.

    I am now striving for grace not perfection in my thesis and am on track to submit in just a few months from now 🙂

    Thank you.

    Emily

    1. Dear Emily,

      Thank you for your comment. I cannot say how moved I was by it. This is the very reason that I started this blog, and why I keep going, and why I try to be honest about my own challenges and imperfections. I love the phrase “Striving for grace not perfection”–that’s exactly right!

      I’m so pleased that you had a supportive supervisor (that matters) and great that you also went out and found a new supervisor who can give you the support you need for this next stage. It really does take a village to write a PhD!

      CONGRATULATIONS on finishing the full draft done. I hope it feels like it, but regardless, you’ll look back and feel that this was a major turning point in your doctoral journey. My Thesis Boot Camp colleague Liam says, ‘At every other stage of the journey, it’s easier to stop than keep going. Once you have the first full draft, it’s actually harder to stop.’ Use that momentum to carry you those last few months over the finish line!

      All the best for the last stages of your doctoral journey. It sounds like you’ve set yourself a major intellectual challenge that will make a significant contribution to scholarship in your field.

      Wishing you writing grace and editing clarity and eagle-eyed polishing and kind technology and the right examiners!

      Katherine

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