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Why perfectionism is the least of your problems

Okay, to start with—now, today—perfectionism might be your biggest problem.  

It won’t let you finish anything.

It prevents you from starting anything.

You can’t tell the difference between ‘slightly imperfect’ and ‘absolutely shitty’: leading you either to beat yourself up over tiny flaws in your excellent writing; or to hand in really early and unfinished writing to your supervisor who hands it back with lots of criticism.

It means you didn’t listen when your supervisor said, ‘This is great work, and you write really well’. You didn’t listen when she said, ‘You’re on track.’ You didn’t listen when he said, ‘This should be in an article.’

It means you stayed up all night going over what they meant when they said, ‘your sentences are too long,’ or ‘I think you need to add a few more references here.’

You are trapped in the perfect sentence vortex of doom.

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But there is a way out. And smart, self-motivated people with high standards are the best people to take advantage of it.

Perfectionism is the major thing standing between you and success.

Many people kind of accept that perfectionism is a flaw, but in an ‘actually, this is a strength’ way; like working too hard, or being addicted to exercise, or falling for bad boys. You’re not going to change, really. Because you secretly think that perfectionism helps you to do better.  Some part of your hindbrain, and possibly large sections of your prefrontal cortex, truly believes that perfectionism is what has enabled you to reach the intellectual, professional and personal heights that you have.

So I’m going to say it again.  Perfectionism is the major thing standing between you and success.

Perfectionism isn’t the same as ‘having high standards’, or ‘caring about doing a good job’, or ‘getting the work done’, or even ‘being excellent’. It’s a sickness, and it’s ruining your academic career.

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I gave up on being perfect a while ago.  Being perfect meant 99.9% was never good enough; and always aiming for 150% was exhausting.  I always (always!) tried to get things in early, under budget and exceeding their targets, while being a charming, cheerful, team-playing superstar. I mostly succeeded too.  Except when I was flat on my back with debilitating flu, excruciating back pain, five day migraines, or clinical depression.  I was all on, or I was all off. (Hey, no-one does totally sick like a perfectionist.  If I’m not 150% sick, I’m not sick… or something.)  Trying to be perfect was an impossible goal, because a single flaw, however tiny, is still a flaw.  It’s a zero sum game, all or nothing, black or white, yes or no.

So, instead, I decided to be excellent.

I know from marking undergraduate essays (something I do a lot), that an H1 (an A grade, first class essay), is 80%, and such work is described as ‘excellent, scholarly, original’.

I am delighted to produce excellent, scholarly, original work.  So I learned to work to 80%.

Sometimes my work is in a fortnight late. When I submit my work to peer reviewers or writing buddies, I’ve left some space to integrate their input. Sometimes I spend the whole budget; sometimes I ask for a little bit more. I still meet my targets. Sometimes I exceed them, but only if it’s easy.  I’m not perfect, but I’m still successful; in fact, I’m more successful (I haven’t needed a week off for a migraine in years).

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So how can perfectionism be your current biggest problem, but also the least of them?

You just have to get your head around this following statement, and accept it. Really. It’s a kind of magic, it’s one of my gifts, it’s one of the most voodoo-y things I do. Accept this statement as true, and your perfectionism problems are pretty much solved. (Not totally solved, we aren’t doing perfect, we’re doing better).

You love to be excellent; you love to be exceptional; you love to do brilliantly; you love to succeed; you love to be complete.  Perfectionism is stopping you.  

We often say, ‘perfect is the enemy of done‘. Voltaire said ‘perfect is the enemy of the good’. Perfect is your enemy.

Be excellent.  Be exceptional. Do brilliantly. Succeed. Be complete.

If you don’t finish your PhD because you are trying to be perfect, you are not striving for perfection. You are striving for failure.  Perfectionism is stopping you finish, you chose perfectionism over your PhD? You just chose failure.

And that’s why it’s easy. You just have to choose success.

And you are already brilliant at choosing success and pursuing it rigorously, energetically, bravely, persistently. 

This is playing to your strengths.

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I have the absolute honour and delight to spend my days with some of the smartest, most competent, most together adults on the planet. Research students are already excellent, exceptional, brilliant people. And it guts me to see you chose perfectionism over being good, being good enough, being excellent.

So, say, ‘Fuck perfectionism, I’m finishing my thesis.’

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Succeeding in a Research Higher Degree

Doing a Research Higher Degree (like a PhD) is hard, but lots of people have succeeded and you can too. It’s easier if you understand how it works, this blog gives you the insider view.

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