My decision to go to graduate school stemmed from a desire to do research and change the world. Upon entering graduate school, however, I realized the difference between undergraduate and graduate school is just as much a leap as from high school to college. This being the case, “research and changing the world” seemed a goal farther out of reach than I expected. The biggest blockade to this goal is a trait about myself that has always been there, but I never knew: I am a bit of a perfectionist.
Sadly, to me, perfectionism is a trait that does not fly in graduate school. Perfectionism takes time, and as a grad student you have none. What must be done instead is output. Output as much as possible, as quick as possible. Do a lot of “pretty good” work rather than just a little “excellent” work.
Working until midnight every night was pretty common this semester. Though a friend of mine, Lane, often had time to go to the gym and take time for himself on Saturdays. His GPA was a little better than mine as an undergrad, and yet he had time off…what was he doing? Then I remembered: when we worked on group projects together it would drive me nuts that he would turn in work that was not done right, or only halfway done. He had no problems turning stuff in that was “sort of on target.”
What was going on here? He was doing things improperly, yet still receiving credit for them… If they are wrong shouldn’t it be negative credit? No. I didn’t realize up until the middle of the semester that that is not how things work. As a graduate student I was able to get a job grading papers for a Discrete Math class. Grading these papers it was clear some people didn’t know what they were talking about when answering a question, but would still put down something, anything at all. As a grader, I felt obligated to give a point or two (on 20 point questions) where an attempt was made. Sometimes they would even get something right and I’d end up giving them even more points.
However, whoever saw my Discrete Math test and found a question I didn’t know how to answer would’ve just seen a blank page. As a (yet unknown to myself) perfectionist, I would have put nothing instead of a “semi right” answer, or guess. The same would go for homework and projects as well. I would spend so much time getting something perfect, that I’d end up not doing a lot of the assignment.
After seeing these kids who would guess at questions gain a few points that would ultimately lead to a letter grade difference, I realized I had the wrong strategy. Taking notes on what Lane was doing, I began “de-perfectionizing” my work. My grades improved and the stress of getting all my assignments done relaxed a little.
Unfortunately, the relaxing of this stress led to another: worry about how my work would be received. When my work was, in my eyes, perfect I knew I would do well. However, I have no feeling for what grades I will get when I don’t view things as perfect. Therefore, there was a constant worry I was going to get horrendous grades. Luckily, this never happened though!
I’ve finally recognized that one of my favorite things is to see an idea from conception through to perfect completion. Whether its a sand castle, legos, a mathematical proof, clothes, furniture, or a program, I love doing things “just right.” In scenarios where output is key though, I’ve finally begun to develop an ability to flood with decent products. Thankfully Lane was there to learn from! While I’m not totally satisfied with my grades (I didn’t get a 4.0, which the perfectionist in me requires), they were better than they would’ve been had I not realized to relax, and just output as much as possible.
I do think perfectionism is a valuable trait to have though, at times. I will still continue to practice it in my free time, and in fact I am right now. I’m building a website which I hope to have an alpha version of ready for spring semester, which will also be the topic of an upcoming blog post.