One of the most pervasive problems I see among academic writers is perfectionism. It's so ubiquitous and manifests in so many ugly ways that I’ve decided to dedicate a five-part series to overcoming academic perfectionism. And yes, there's a unique flavor to academic perfectionism and it is exacerbated by the culture of colleges and universities (particularly for tenure-track faculty members).
As a recovering perfectionist, my heart goes out to people who are in a state of self-inflicted misery. Because I’ve been able to help many people to the other side on an individual basis, I thought I would share the process with you. If you’re game, we’ll walk through the following steps over the next five weeks: 1) Recognize what academic perfectionism looks like and understand what it’s costing you; 2) Start breaking the cycle of perfectionism on a daily basis; 3) Experiment with strategies for overcoming perfectionism in your writing; 4) Experiment with strategies for overcoming perfectionism in your teaching and service; and 5) learn the high art of intentionally varying your standards across your work and life.
First things first, we need to get clear on what academic perfectionism looks like. This is critically important because while some perfectionists are painfully aware of their problem, many of the most miserable perfectionists are reactive and resistant to the idea that they have perfectionist tendencies. They either think everyone else is flawed or that they couldn’t possibly be a perfectionist because their life isn’t yet … perfect.
If you’re not sure if academic perfectionism is at work in your life, ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you highly conscious and hypercritical of mistakes (yours and those of others)?
- Do you aim to be the best in everything you do (even if it’s something that you’re not interested in)?
- Would you rather sacrifice your well-being (sleep, exercise, relationships) than let a manuscript, report, or class be less than you imagine it can be?
- Do you beat yourself up over the smallest things that go wrong in your writing, research, and teaching?
- Do you struggle to draft new text at early stages of the writing process because you just can’t stop editing every word as it comes out (each word on the page elicits your inner critic’s wrath)?
- Do you hold onto your drafts until you think they are perfect and only share manuscripts with others when they are in their most advanced stage?
- Do you experience defensiveness towards criticism when you do share your work with others and feel like the comments represent a personal attack?
- Do you have an intense fear of failure because it might reveal to others that you are not perfect (or have as much potential as others thought you had)?
- Are you so fixated on the end goal of publishing your paper, receiving a grant, and/or getting stellar teaching evaluations that if you don’t meet the goal, it doesn’t even matter what happened in the process?
- Do you have difficulty letting go of departmental politics and outcomes that don’t go your way, and find yourself obsessing over what else you could have done to change the outcome?
- Do you feel extremely self-conscious in situations that might reveal to others that you are not perfect (job talks, conference presentations, lecturing in large courses, etc.)?
- When you get above-average teaching evaluations, do you fixate on the handful of students who gave you negative reviews to the exclusion of the overwhelmingly positive pattern?
- No matter how many papers you publish, students adore you, grants get funded, or awards you win, do you feel like it’s never quite enough?
If you responded yes to many of these questions, it’s O.K. I’m offering them as observations (not judgments) so you can identify if you have a bit of perfectionism at work in your work life. I’m using illustrative examples because I think it’s important to see what perfectionism looks like for academics. Many times people get confused because they think that perfectionism is really just a form of striving, being goal-oriented, having ambition, being driven and/or having high expectations for your career. All those things are great, but they are not perfectionism.
Perfectionism feels completely different because it involves self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that are aimed at reaching an unrealistic goal (perfection). In other words, it’s fundamentally different to set high goals ("My teaching evaluations will be above-average this semester") vs. unrealistically high goals ("100 percent of students will give me the highest rating"). There’s a difference between wanting something to be as good as it can be ("I’ve taken this manuscript as far as I can for now, so let me hand it over to someone else for feedback") and the illusion that something could actually be perfect ("If I just work on this manuscript one more semester it will be perfect and then I can let someone else read it"). And there’s a difference between having a desire to do your work well ("I feel successful when I’ve done my best work") and needing external validation to feel work is well-done ("I will allow myself to feel successful when I’ve won a MacArthur Genius Award").
The difference is simple: high standards allow us to stretch and feel a sense of accomplishment when we meet them. When perfection is the goal and external validation is required to know we’ve met the goal, it leaves us constantly feeling frustrated and disappointed, even when we’re doing an extraordinary amount of high-quality work.
It’s important to also note that if you have perfectionist tendencies, the academy is an awfully difficult place to overcome them because the culture and structure of academic institutions exacerbates perfectionism. Environments where there are no objective and transparent criteria for tenure and promotion, but instead a moving target of ever-escalating expectations (that are subjectively applied), are particularly challenging for perfectionists. Given that the production of knowledge is a political process, where success is largely under the control of others and rejection rates are astronomically high, it’s not uncommon for perfectionism to fester and lead to excessive and unhealthy work patterns. In short, the entire setup of a tenure-track position embodies the perfectionist’s nightmare: after years of nonstop work to prove yourself, a room full of people will close the door, discuss your imperfections at length, and anonymously vote on whether you’re good enough.
Ironically, while academic culture exacerbates perfectionist tendencies among many faculty members, perfectionism has been shown to have a negative impact on scholarly productivity. A recent study  found that perfectionist professors have lower research productivity, fewer first-authored publications, and fewer citations than their peers. While it’s bad enough that perfectionism can make us feel perpetually miserable and tortured, the single greatest reason to overcome your perfectionism may be that it isn’t helpful to your scholarly productivity.
If you’re interested in starting the process of overcoming academic perfectionism, then I want to challenge you to do the following this week:
- Review the questions above and ask yourself: Am I suffering from academic perfectionism?
- If you recognize signs of perfectionism in your behavior, gently acknowledge all the ways that high standards have helped you in your life AND the reality that perfection is impossible to achieve.
- Start making your expectations explicit and asking yourself: Is this realistic?
- Try visualizing your standards on a continuum from realistically high to perfection and begin to locate your expectations in various areas of your life along that continuum.
- Notice the moments this week where you feel frustration, impatience, and agitation because something isn’t "perfect."
- Patiently ask yourself why _______ needs to be perfect, what perfection is costing you, and what alternatives may exist?
Ultimately, if perfectionism is making you miserable, you want to recognize it and start to make the necessary inner shifts and adjustments that will make change possible. I hope this week brings you an acute awareness of where your perfectionism may be making you (as well as your colleagues, students, co-authors, and family members) miserable and a spirit of commitment to moving in a new direction.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore