December 8, 2007

Perfectionism + Academia = Misery

"The graveyard is filled with indispensable people."

A recent NY Times article, "Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You're Just a Perfectionist," discusses the price you pay for expecting too much of yourself, engaging in all-or-none thinking, and being too self-critical. In other words, if you act like 99% of academics. Although this article does not mention academics, it does describe three types of perfectionists. Academics tend to fall into the first category: "Self-oriented strivers who struggle to live up to their high standards." These unfortunate people are at risk for self-critical depression.

The article describes how a counselor at U.C. Davis had some perfectionists "slack off, " in order to discover that the world didn't collapse when they didn't push themselves to excel. Although I wouldn't prescribe slacking off for most academics I work with, they probably could use some help in being more reasonable in their expectations of themselves, in saying "No" to excessive external demands, and in having more moderate work habits. At Academic Ladder we approach this gently, asking people to start writing in moderately short writing sessions, taking frequent breaks, and being kind in what they say to themselves internally. Our Academic Writing Club uses this approach also -- people are reminded daily not to demand a ridiculously high quality and quantity of scholarly output of themselves. Paradoxically, they perform at a higher level in the long run.

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