Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pobody's Nerfect

No, my tutor didn't really say that, but my brain did

Friday was International Women's Day, and that got me thinking about the Superwoman phenomenon, and the pressure we often put ourselves under to be perfect in all spheres of our lives.

I find that an especial problem with studying.  I'm reasonably intelligent, so I know I'm capable of getting good marks if I try hard enough, which means I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to always achieve the highest possible grades no matter what.  Sometimes that can be a good thing (it's a great antidote to my natural instinct to laziness), but it's easy to take it too far; like feeling like I'd failed when I 'only' got an A- for a course - that's not ambition, that's craziness.

The reality is, it's impossible to achieve perfection in any area, and particularly not in education, where, if you think about it, the whole point is that you're not perfect - that's why you're there.  In fact, in a well-designed course, the assessment forms part of the teaching and learning process - you write a good essay, the marker points out where it's not perfect, and from those errors you learn how to write an even better one.  In fact (unless you're purely being tested on memorising a bunch of facts) it should be almost impossible to score 100% on an assessment, because if you did, that would imply you had nothing left to learn, so what more can university offer you?

 And then there's the question of return on investment.  To raise your grades from a C to a B isn't all that hard - it's usually the difference between using Google as your primary research tool and actually visiting the library.  Getting from a B to an A is a bit harder - you need to really put in the hours to make sure you've truly understood the topic, and then you need to be able to express your ideas about the topic clearly and logically.  And that final step from an A to an A+ (or from A+ to top of the class) is really tough.  That's when you need to show something special - that you've read outside the set readings, that you've understood the topic enough to add your own ideas, and that you've really polished your writing.  Not that you shouldn't be trying to do those things, of course - that's all part of getting the most you can out of your study - but there has to come a point where the amount of extra work needed becomes utterly disproportionate to the tiny increase in marks it will gain you.  And you'll never reach that elusive goal of perfection anyway - the marker will still find something you could improve on, because that's their job.

Which is not to say you should settle for a C (or a B, or an A) just because it's easier (no matter what the "C's earn degrees" types tell you).  Strive for excellence, yes.  But don't worry about being perfect.  If you aim for perfection, you're not only guaranteeing yourself disappointment, but you're going to put yourself under a lot of unnecessary stress in the process.  As Deb Lee of says,
Be excellent, not perfect. Reaching for perfection will make it more difficult to remain stress-free. The notion of perfection is just that — a lofty idea, one that is impossible to attain. Trying to achieve perfection takes a lot of mental energy, wastes your time, and leaves you feeling unsatisfied. Excellence, however, can be achieved by anyone. Have a plan ready, strive to do your best, and put those notions of perfection aside.
Not only is perfectionism bad for your health, it can actually lead to poorer results.  Bill Knaus on Psychology Today discusses the way that perfectionism can easily turn into procrastination:
Perfectionism is a risk factor for performance anxiety and procrastination.  You expect a great performance. You have doubts whether you can achieve perfection. You have an urge to diverge and do something less threatening.  You wait until you can be perfect.
So because you know your essay won't be perfect, you keep putting off starting to write it until you've done a bit more research, until you find yourself the night before it's due with an enormous pile of research notes but not a word of the actual essay written, and you end up handing in a rushed first draft, or worse, missing the deadline completely.  Voltaire had it right, "The best is the enemy of good."

That's why I was interested to stumble across the Good Enough Woman's blog.  She is consciously trying to replace the urge to be perfect with the more reasonable aim of being good enough.  This post explains her philosophy in a little more detail.  It's a fascinating idea, but I can also see the pitfalls.  On the one hand, "good enough", to me anyway, brings to mind someone excusing a shoddy job (or is that just a reflection of my antipodean culture, where "that'll do" and "she'll be right" often substitute for quality?).  And on the other hand, for a perfectionist, will anything ever be good enough? The Good Enough Woman acknowledges that
...many of us never feel as if we get over the good enough bar. Is that because we're truly not good enough? Or is that because other people have confused being good enough with being perfect?
I can easily convince myself that perfectionism is reasonable behaviour - after all, I want to keep my GPA high enough to qualify for a scholarship if I go on to postgrad, so "good enough" for me starts looking pretty similar to perfection.

So what's the solution?  I'm not sure.  I suspect, though, that it's like a lot of things: just knowing it's a problem is the beginnings of a solution.  By being aware of my tendency to perfectionism I can watch out for it, and when I find myself wanting to just do that little bit more, remember to ask myself if that extra effort will actually pay off, or will it just add stress without adding extra value.

Are you a perfectionist?  How do you find a balance between aiming for excellence and overdoing it?  Let me know in the comments below.

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