Read an article, read a book, read the next book, return grades to students, manage research, write with beauty and clarity. It feels like a success if we keep all the balls in the air, let alone engage the depth of the big questions and challenging projects that attracted us to graduate school in the first place.
Set early alarms to get into the lab, read on the bus and while walking across campus, plan and schedule and systematize. It works. Until it doesn’t. Things might start getting complicated when overworking leads to burnout. Or when worry about being able to accomplish something keeps us from taking on the most challenging projects. Or when we stop taking feedback seriously or stop seeking any feedback at all.
When we experience these things we might be leaning into perfectionism. This is not some kind of failure of fortitude. It’s a pretty normal response to a desire to achieve ambitious goals in complicated environments. But at some point, perfectionism is going to stop being effective and start complicating success and wellbeing.
Giving up perfectionism does not mean giving up ambitious goals. It means reframing our approach to ambitious goals so that we meet them without experiencing burnout. It means our self worth becomes removed from our performance and productivity.
Recognize that this is a continuum
The language for ambition without perfectionism is often “healthy striving.” It includes things like setting measurable, attainable goals, managing inaccurate thought patterns (like “the thing I’ve achieved is actually not important,” or “I don’t know how to do this, so I don’t belong here”), and detaching our self worth from our achievements, productivity, and business. But there’s no clear line between working really hard on a worthwhile and demanding goal and overwork.
One of the best ways we can avoid the trap of perfectionism is to grow self-awareness about when we are leaning into perfectionism in ways that are counter-productive. We can try to pay attention to the situations in which we tend toward perfectionistic thoughts or behaviors. We can consider what perfectionism is trying to protect us from, and consider how we could approach it a different way.
Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable
There’s no way around it: grad school is hard. It most likely entails things you have never done before: from moving to a new place, to learning new research techniques, to writing a dissertation. We should expect mistakes and setbacks, normalize them as part of the project, and build in space to be able to adjust. We have to practice feeling okay in situations where we aren’t perfectly competent and recognize those as places where we are learning.
This allows us space to focus on the process and not just the outcome. The purpose of graduate school is to earn a degree – the outcome matters. But the degree matters because of the process – the things we do in the course of earning the degree that help us gain the knowledge, skills, and experiences needed to accomplish our future goals.
Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of feedback
When our value as people is deeply tied to our productivity, mistakes or setbacks feel like value judgments rather than opportunities for learning. It’s easy to feel like we should know every answer and be able to solve every problem (on the first try!). When we lean into perfectionism, we tend to under-value positive feedback and over-value negative feedback. We might want to make it look like we’ve got it all together when we could use some guidance and remind ourselves that feedback – both affirmation and critique – can be a valuable way to move forward.
Attend to basic wellbeing needs
Wherever we find ourselves on the continuum of perfectionism to healthy striving, the foundations apply: try to get enough sleep, eat nourishing food, move your body, connect with people. Let’s be honest, this is one of the most trite-sounding solutions, but it's also one that works really well to keep us moving toward the healthy side of ambition.
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