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Mar 22, 2021

Perfectionists and slackers in academia

Academia rewards perfectionism, until it does not. Grad school instills in us an internal auditor, an ethical control mechanism against slaking, cutting corners, and just doing shoddy work. We are taught to always to the right thing, and follow the rules out of internal conviction, not because of the threat of punishment. Graduate education is about excellence, and excellent graduates tend to become faculty members, and some of them – chairs, directors, deans, and other university administrators. At some point, many discover that the good old perfectionism just does not work. There are too many things to do, too many reports to write, too many surveys to complete, and too many trainings to attend. It becomes impossible to do it all equally well. One is brought up short by the sudden awareness that the game has changed. One finds oneself holding a chess piece on a tennis court. You are a better chess player, but people seem to be playing tennis around here. It is now about the ability to prioritize, to lose certain smaller skirmishes while trying to win the war.

The internal auditor, however, does not give up easily. It raises an alarm every time one needs to submit a sloppy product or ignore a requirement. The constant buzz of alarm is frustrating, and often provokes us to snap at other people, or create self-doubt, guilt, and other unpleasant experiences. The perfectionist in you does not give up easily. You end up writing that 20-page self-study report no one is likely to read very closely.  You keep asking about some deadlines no one cares to remember anymore. The perfectionism can also make teaching and service overwhelming. I have seen painstakingly designed complex courses that bury their author under mountains of student papers to grade every week. People have been known to burn out on excessive committee work as well. Perfectionism gives a strong short-term high when you admire another excellent piece of work you produce. However, seeing the long list of other things to do will trigger a long withdrawal.

The problem with perfectionism is that it encourages us to spend all the time on defensive play and leaves no time for offense. In other words, we neglect development, moving forward, and simply thinking. Our own personal scholarship also tends to suffer. Perfectionism eats up our time that could be spent better.

Everyone must find the inner slacker and remember where they are. Depending on the task, let the perfectionist run wild, or allow the slacker to do it, or ignore it altogether. Your slacker will whine and complain that something cannot be done at all, it is too hard. And s/he might be right. Not every problem is solvable.

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