Perfectionist gridlock is being stuck in place for fear of not doing something at the highest level of excellence. It plagues many grad students, perhaps especially those in the humanities. It is bred by the culture of academia, which places a high value on achievement and critique.
Perfectionist gridlock is particularly debilitating in dissertation writing and career decision making.
Traffic gridlock resolves itself slowly, inch by inch. Likewise, students can come unstuck by moving forward in baby steps.
Perfectionism is the desire to be excellent—indeed, perfect—at everything you do. It manifests itself as a critical voice in your head, sitting in tribunal over your life and raining down judgment on your imperfections. Left unchallenged, this voice keeps you in a state of paralysis, preempting you from doing anything that falls short of perfection. Perfectionism keeps you idling. It keeps you from taking risks. Yet doing nothing—inaction—is a choice itself.
Perfectionism and Academic Culture
Academic culture does much to encourage perfectionism. Most doctoral students possess a long record of academic achievement in high school and college. Students who emerge victorious from the achievement gauntlet often come to base their identities on their accomplishments, argues William Deresiewicz in Excellent Sheep. As a result, they view every new challenge as a high stakes referendum on their self-worth.
Once in doctoral programs, humanists in particular spend much of their first two years in seminars learning how to tear apart arguments in their field. This critical function is important, but when students are finally turned loose to build something of their own—or to teach their subject to undergraduates—they struggle to say anything under the weight of all these critiques.
The intense pressure of the academic job market adds a third ingredient to the mix. The ever-escalating arms race of achievements required for a tenure-track job may be producing scholars who try to accomplish more but take fewer intellectual risks. (Louis Menand expands on this in The Marketplace of Ideas.)
In this atmosphere, grad students often assume that they are under constant scrutiny by their professors—that their worthiness is continuously reevaluated on the basis of every comment or action. (In fact, this is a myth. For better or worse, your professors probably think about you far less than you think about them).
Dissertation Writing and Perfectionist Gridlock
These pressures can come to a head in the dissertation, resulting in paralysis. Writing a dissertation, especially in the humanities, is a creative act, requiring you to come up with a new way of seeing or understanding something. Yet you must also thread your ideas through those of others in your field.
It is easy to imagine a tribunal sitting in judgement. They mutter to one another: “But that is silly.” “There is an obvious counter argument.” “That was said 25 years ago.”
You feel their scrutiny acutely. You don’t want to say anything, for fear that it will be immediately dismissed. With derision.
As a result of mounting a preventive defense, everything you say is couched with so many caveats that it becomes hard to say anything. The critical function overwhelms the creative function, and writer’s block sets in.
Career Choices and Perfectionist Gridlock
Gridlock also afflicts students when they attempt to make decisions about their career. It can stop you from starting to explore, especially options beyond the professoriate. In the face of virtually limitless possibilities (there are a lot of paths open to PhDs, check out Versatile PhD, MLA’s Connected Academics, PhDs at Work, From PhD to Life, Beyond Academe) paralysis is common.
The inner critic preempts you from making decisions until you possess total information about their consequences, for fear of making a mistake. You need to know everything about that career path, that firm, that place to live. Which will never happen.
In the grips of perfectionist gridlock, it is easy to obsess on all of the imagined negatives. That can sink the ship before it ever sails.
“I won’t like the job. It won’t match my personality. They have never worked with a PhD. I don’t have the skills. I hate the idea of having a profit motive; it is selling out. I can’t work in the mornings. I won’t like the people; we won’t have anything in common.”
The unusual character of the academic job market may help to encourage this problem. Unlike other occupations, academia operates on a model where—at least in theory—you do a single job search and then are set for life. You wedge your way onto the tenure track and then just move up. In this system, the path is clear, and everything rides on doing it right the first time.
Yet most people change careers and jobs all the time. That is the norm. Zig and zag. In this (arguably more normal) paradigm, the stakes are lower. If you don’t like a job, you learn from the experience and move on. There is a lot less riding on the initial choice.
Remember that failing to act—making no choices—also has consequences.
Overcoming Perfectionist Gridlock
Here are eight approaches to inching your way out perfectionist gridlock.
Take baby steps. Writing: Write little bits and slowly knit them together. You can’t see the whole from the start. Remember that we only see other people’s finished products. We don’t see the messiness along the way. Career: One informational interview will give you some information. It is not enough. Do a second one. You get more information. You keep moving forward.
Teach general courses. Teaching, especially broad introductory courses, is way out of gridlock. These courses require shifting from a narrow band of expertise to broad sweeps of knowledge. This is teaching confidently from a place of imperfect knowledge. These courses focus on teaching how to learn, rather than mastering details.
Reframe choices, especially jobs, as a series of steps, not a life-long choice. Don’t expect to have a clear long-range plan from the outset, only a next step. If you don’t like your first job, then you have learned what you don’t like, gained more skills, and broadened your network.
Setbacks are not pleasant, but they are necessary and are part of the process. Value the person you have become as a result of some bad experiences. Remind yourself, “I will be better for having gone through this.”
Iterate. You can only discover a good job fit (or a good piece of writing) through experience, by trying things out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. In this iterative process, false steps are not “mistakes,” but necessary learning experiences.
Be gentle with yourself. Don’t be perfectionist about learning new habits and mindsets. You may have “relapses” to old tendencies. Forgive yourself. You are human!
Avoid choice overload. Too many options render us unable to decide. Research suggests that 5-7 options is the most we can handle.
Read more. There is good advice for grad students: Katie Shives and Julie Platt address perfectionism at GradHacker, Fanuel Muindi shuts up the negative committee, Dora Farkas has five strategies for breaking out of paralysis. There are plenty of books, including When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism and Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day. My post about Impostor Syndrome is also relevant.
Perfectionism is a flaw. It can mess up your life. Perfectionism keeps you frozen in a place of inaction. Do whatever you can to get unstuck.
This essay was co-authored with Jeff Schwegman, who coined the phrase “perfectionist gridlock.” Dr. Schwegman works as the Humanities and Arts Initiatives Coordinator for the School of Humanities and Sciences Dean’s Office at Stanford University. He moved into an administrative career after teaching introductory humanities courses to Stanford freshman, and realizing that he did not want to pursue a faculty position. His PhD is in history from Princeton University and he held a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Max Plank Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.
Published May 18, 2016.