Embrace Failure: Challenging Perfectionism and Other Self-Limiting Beliefs

June 5, 2023


Years ago, when I was in the first year of my first full-time academic job, I had a conversation about teaching and research with the chair of my department. The details are foggy, but I do recall mentioning that I spent eight hours prepping every one-hour lecture. She then gave me the following advice: Have you ever heard of the “good enough” mother? All you need to be is the “good enough” teacher. While some people may find this advice helpful, it was not comforting to me. It was baffling. When I heard the phrase “good enough” I unconsciously added the word, “not” before it. Good enough means average, right? And I was not going to be that.

I trained my entire graduate school career to overcome, aspire, achieve, and strive for the very top. Even though I never quite got there, I still strived for it. Why didn’t I get there? Because it does not exist. If I reached a goal, it meant that the goal was not so big after all. If I mastered something that had previously seemed like a huge challenge, it only meant it was not difficult to master. There was no success too great that I did not find a way to diminish. While I am hopeful that this is not every graduate student’s experience, after spending 25 years in higher education, I’m certain that it is not uncommon.

One of the most challenging and paralyzing forms of perfectionism in graduate school is the kind that we bring to our writing – from course papers to prospectus writing, from literature reviews to starting (or finishing) the dissertation. Perhaps you wonder if you will be able to contribute original ideas to your field. Perhaps you think the opposite: you are going to make a contribution that is paradigm-shifting before you land your first job! Whether you consider yourself not good enough and/or are simultaneously telling yourself that you need to be a unicorn, chances are perfectionism is keeping you from doing the work that, deep down, you really want to do.

You Are Not a Problem You Need to Solve

If you search “perfectionism” online you will come across a lot of information that, much like my former chair, tells you to let it go. Other sites treat perfectionism as a mental illness or use platitudes to discuss how you must overcome your problem. What I’m about to say is counterintuitive, but what if you didn’t treat it as a problem? Afterall, do you really need to add one more thing to your list to overcome before you are transformed into a perfectly bullet-proof person? Speaking as someone in recovery from perfectionism, I know the tricks of this saboteur, and can help you negotiate your freedom without running away from your dissertation.

When I say perfectionism is not a problem, I mean first and foremost, you are not a problem you need to overcome. You are perfectly fine just the way you are. I mean this. Try saying it with me: I am not a problem I need to overcome. I am perfectly fine just the way I am. Perfectionism is not who you are. Perfectionism is a habit that needs to be seen for what it is: resistance to reality.

It is perfectionism that keeps those ideas in your head from manifesting on the page. What if your brilliant ideas do not sound as brilliant when you write them down? Who cares! Those words are real and shareable. The brilliant thoughts, or potential thoughts, that stay in your head and do not take shape in the world are not shareable. Also, nothing ever sounds as good on the page as it does in your head. This is the reality that every writer who has ever written anything knows for sure. This fact is as certain as gravity.

Seeing and Naming

In the now famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement address by the late David Foster Wallace, he begins with this parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

The point of using this parable to start his address is to point to the fact that some of our most important realities are very difficult to see and discuss. In graduate school, you are the goldfish, and perfectionism is the water in which you swim. It is everywhere – permeating the most mundane conversations with your peers, professors, and friends. While it remains invisible, it can stop you in your tracks. It can keep you paralyzed all the while tricking you into thinking you are the problem, that you are not good enough. Just because everyone around you might also be swimming in perfectionism, doesn’t mean the water is nice. Once you begin to make your environment conscious, you can slowly begin to change your relationship with it. This may require you to remove yourself from certain situations that trigger the habit of thinking that you’re not good enough, or that you must figure everything out before you start to write. Remember that removing yourself from environments that are not serving you is moving you closer and closer to living in present-time awareness, which is reality.

Writing is a Form of Discovery, Not an Autopsy

Quick lesson: if you already know everything you are going to say before you begin to write it down, it is probably not worth writing. I don’t know what my thesis is! I don’t know how to analyze this data effectively or what it is telling me! If I only had an argument for this chapter, I could start! Why should you know what you are going to say before you write? Who told you that writing works that way? Writing is not simply the product (i.e., the dissertation), but is a process, (i.e., what you discover along the way). Writing is alive and being alive means not being perfect. Being alive means starting where you are, and taking breaks when your body tells you that you need one. When you start writing you will discover your thesis, the best way to analyze a data set, and the argument for that tricky chapter. To be successful, to make a discovery, to surprise yourself, you must fail. A lot. Any great scientist or artist will tell you this. Failing along the way to discovery can be painful but can also lead to breakthroughs that are impossible if we stay within too narrow confines.

Perfectionism, which is really a disguise for resistance, might be a very persistent visitor. After decades of hardwiring, it might not simply be something you can let go (if you can, bravo, but that is certainly not the experience for many of us). A persistent visitor is annoying, but it is also not you. The next time perfectionism stops by for a visit try saying something like, Hey! Thanks for stopping by and sharing all your fears and catastrophic thoughts with me. I’m going to have to take a raincheck today. As much as I enjoy not living in reality, reality is where my work matters, so excuse me while I take this laptop and go off to write my shitty first draft. Read more about early drafting here.

PS. If you want to read the best definition of resistance that I have ever read, check out Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art and read the chapter, “Resistance: Defining the Enemy.” For an excellent discussion of perfectionism and writing, check out this extract from Anne Lamott’s writing guide, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions for Writing and Life.