Be the imperfect academic

Why you should ditch perfectionism

Not that long ago, I was having a conversation with someone who didn’t know me well. At some point, I mentioned that I was a perfectionist. He immediately pointed back to an earlier comment I had made about finishing something when it was good enough and, hence, he thought I was not a perfectionist. I can’t blame him, I used to have the same idea about what perfectionism was. I never gave too much thought to the topic until I bumped into this podcast (Perfect Is the Enemy, from Women at Work by the Harvard Business Review).

I used to think about perfectionism as a mixed bag of positive and negative qualities. Think about the cliché response people give during job interviews when asked about weaknesses: “I’m such a perfectionist”. This answer implies that perfectionism is “bad”, a weakness that probably makes you overthink. But at the same time… it is “good”, because, you know, it’s an interview and you have to look good. You say this because you want your potential employer to know that you produce quality work, even better, “perfect work”.

Right from the beginning of the episode, I could see myself reflected in many of the behaviors they describe. Here’s a list of ideas that particularly resonated with me and changed the way I see perfectionism:

  • Perfectionist tend to dismiss compliments by saying “oh, that’s nothing”
  • They ruminate a lot about negative feedback and spend too much time avoiding making mistakes
  • Someone with high standards focuses on the big picture, a perfectionist gets lost in the details
  • People with impostor syndrome tend to constantly raise their standards and think that high achievement is the only way to escape disaster.
  • Some smart kids learn that high achievement gives them social acceptance

Even if this doesn’t apply to you, chances are that it does apply to someone you work with or interact with regularly, and it’s a good idea to be aware of the process of thinking. Perfectionism, although suffered by both men and women, affects women more. Research shows that when women make mistakes, they are remembered for longer and are judged more harshly. This leads women to believe they need to be perfect to succeed. Because they cannot be perfect at everything, they develop impostor syndrome. I liked how in the podcast, they defined impostor syndrome as a reaction to sexism, and acknowledging this fact gives us power about how to react.

“Perfectionism is not a virtue, but a form of self-sabotage. If we try to be perfect, we just get on our own way. We ruminate over small mistakes and never take risks on conversations” Dr. Alice Boyes

I experience perfectionism both in my personal and professional life. I remember a few years ago when preparing dinner with my boyfriend at the time, he would try to be nice and invite his roommates to join us for dinner. I would see that there was enough food for a nice meal for two people, but it would not be enough for four people. Notice how I said a “nice meal”. He just wanted to spend a nice evening with them (which is what would happen). However, I would experience it as “they are going to be hungry”, “this is not a decent meal”. The truth is that nobody was hungry and nobody was thinking the meal was indecent, it was just all in my head. My head tends to think that if I have someone over for dinner, I need to prepare a three-course banquet with a butler (usually me being the butler). The catch point here is that, would I have been left to my own devices, those meals would not have happened, because they were not perfect. And here is where it gets dangerous and what I’ve been thinking a lot about. How many things have I missed because they were not perfect according to unrealistic expectations created in my head?

Moving to work, you have no idea how painful writing articles is for me. It is a draining experience that leaves me exhausted and makes me want to run away. Among the thoughts that cross my mind are: you are lazy, you just procrastinate all the time, this is mediocre, etc. Being realistic, I am a junior researcher, doing junior things, right? I should probably get that tattooed on my forehead because, when I’m writing, my head thinks that I should write as if I had been doing it for 20 years. Of course, compared to that imaginary noble laureate researcher, what I produce is 💩. The process is so painful, that I just reject the idea altogether and prefer not to do it. But then I go to conferences and I see that what I’m producing is not that bad at all and, actually, people find it interesting.

I first listened to this podcast in October 2020 and I’ve listened to it again a couple more times. Now that I’m forcing myself to write this blog, I realize that I have started taking some steps to try to keep perfectionist-Cristina at bay. One important takeaway is that you cannot wait for your thoughts to change your behavior. You do it the other around: you use your behavior to change your thoughts. I now serve indecent meals when I have friends over, I’m going to start a crappy research project this summer, and I will start making crappy youtube videos about bilingualism 😉.

Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Cristina Lozano Argüelles
Assistant Professor

My research interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, interpreting.

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