Hello. My name is Tony Brainstorms, and I am a perfectionist. It has been over 31 years since my last perfect action, but only 31 seconds since the last time I expected perfect action of myself. I've been wrestling with a question lately:
Did I get where I am thanks to, or in spite of my perfectionism?
What brought on these thoughts? Well, I recently completed my PhD. I am in the process of chopping my 346-page dissertation into digestible chunks in an effort to build up my wealth in the most important of academic currencies: peer-reviewed journal articles. It took me about two weeks of re-reading, highlighting, and outlining to identify 19 potential articles.
Along the way I've conducted two "straw polls" that relate: first, I have determined that my dissertation is about twice as long as typical (at least for my field). Second, most people will write somewhere between 2 and 4 articles from their dissertation work. At first I was quite proud of myself. I convinced myself that these statistics showed my PhD to be superior to others (ahem). Now I see them as symptoms of a severe problem: I am a perfectionist.
When I was writing my dissertation, I couldn't stomach the thought that a single good idea or bit of analysis I had done be left out. As I now try to break it into articles, I can't accept the idea that a single potential paper slip through the cracks. I just spent the last 2 weeks writing the rough draft of the first of these papers. 2 weeks. At this rate I'll spend the next year doing nothing other than working on these articles.
I think it is clear to see that something needs to change or I'll never get on to doing new and important work. And by the way, this isn't a new problem. It took me over 6 years to finish my PhD. I can see now that I have perfectionism to thank for that as well.
How did this happen? First, I am happy to admit that my personality lends itself to perfectionism the way that others' may be predisposed to alcoholism. However, I believe that my educational experience reinforced these tendencies.
Our education system encourages perfectionism and rewards the negative behaviors it leads to. The results are stunted growth and a false sense that perfection is real. If only we worked harder, we could achieve it.
I recently had a conversation about grading. My colleague and I were trying to determine what an 87% (B) compared to an 88% (B+) means. After a bit more digestion, I've realized that the grading system encourages perfectionism.
The grading system tells us (falsely) that we can be perfect at something.
I can know 100% of a subject. Anything less than that is due to a MISTAKE that I made. How many times do well-meaning teachers try to motivate students by telling them, "I believe you all can get A's. You all start with 100% in my class. It is up to you whether or not you keep it."
A common example that we see in engineering: students are wildly uncomfortable with the idea of rounding or estimating values. When solving problems (I hate that language, by the way), students try to (1) find the "right" equation, (2) substitute the "right" values, and (3) compute the "right" final answer. Their calculators spit out a number that looks something like "445.54860302940912" and they write it down and draw a box around it.
If we are lucky, we might convince students that writing down the units of the final answer is important (i.e. "445.54860302940912 miles"). The part that eludes the student is that by writing this answer, they are implying that 0.00000000000002 miles (smaller than 1 quadrillionth of an inch) is somehow relevant when compared to 445 miles. And then we bemoan their lack of critical thinking.
Whose fault is this anyhow? "My students are uncomfortable with rounding and estimating." NO KIDDING! LOOK HOW YOU TEST THEM!
Freshmen courses at large universities have more in common with going to the movies than going to class. 600 students cram into a giant lecture hall and watch a person on stage perform calculus lectures. They go back to their dorms and try to solve the homework problems. The dedicated few email a question, or attend office hours. 3-4 times in the semester they come in and take multiple choice MATH tests that have 10 options per question. Often these options only differ by a small amount to prevent "cheating" or "lucky guesses." Their grade in the course is simply the summation of the number of these questions they managed to get correct.
And so John gets an 87% and Jane gets an 88% and they both move on with their lives. Is Jane better at calculus than Joe? What does "better" mean? One thing is certain. The students are striving for over 93% so they can get an "A," a 4.0 GPA, a B.S. Summa Cum Laude, and a J-O-B.
We obsess over grades as the magic elixir that will unlock (or banish forever) our dreams.
We should be teaching students to learn and live in a way that reflects reality: Exactness doesn't matter.
If you're a non-engineer reading this, don't let this statement scare you out of flying on an airplane or trusting the bridge you're about to drive over. The truth is, there is a reason we have the concept, "good enough."
The idea that the equations themselves are built on assumptions that simplify the situation is very uncomfortable for students. They believe that equations should be able to exactly predict behavior, and so they plug the numbers into their calculators and take the output as exactly what will happen. The big problem is, we can never exactly measure the behavior to prove that we got it right. How far is it across the room you're sitting in? 12 feet? 12.1 feet? 12.01 feet? You can always get a more accurate measuring device and go further. Eventually you are comparing distances at the atomic level.
To make the measurement useful, we need to define an acceptable level of "not knowing" and move forward. For example, when building a bridge, computing the stresses in a certain bolt to exact precision is not only a waste of time, it is impossible. The real question to be answered is: "how should this bolt be designed (material, size, thread count, torque, etc.) so that we can be 100% certain that the bridge won't fall down?" We need to balance that consideration with the economics of the situation (we can't build every bridge with 3-foot diameter, solid titanium bolts). Does answering this question require computing the "exact" stresses in the bolt? No. It involves making an appropriately accurate estimate.
I apologize for the lengthy engineering example, its most comfortable for me. This concept applies to other fields as well. For example, does my grammar have to be perfect? I'm sure it isn't. I, use, commas, way, too, much. The real question to ask is: What is the purpose of my writing? To communicate. The goal then isn't perfect grammar, but communication of the ideas (which is inexact to begin with since everyone consumes every idea through a number of lenses based on the experiences and performances of the message sender as well as the receiver). Yet we grade most written assignments with a disproportionate emphasis on grammar. Loosing a point (out of 100) for a bad comma in a 10-page paper about the civil war teaches students that commas (grammatical precision) are more important than ideas.
Am I advocating grammatical anarchy? Of course not, or we couldn't communicate our ideas. However, we need to teach our students that good enough is good enough. Should a policy maker attempting to solve poverty in our cities spend an hour researching ideas, talking to poor people, brainstorming polices to help, or editing their papers for proper semicolon use?
By encouraging the pursuit of perfection, our educational structure distracts from actual useful thinking.
The funny thing is that (at least in engineering) we start out teaching freshmen this idea. Then we spend the next three years trying to demolish it with grading policies designed to enable large-scale classes.
Freshmen engineering courses teach the ideas of defining requirements and goals for the thing the students are designing. Why do we teach this up front? I get the feeling that the answer is largely that "young students don't know enough physics to actually do engineering yet." So we throw them in this class first. The feeling I had when I finished it was "now I know what my boss will be doing someday while I actually engineer something."
The rest of the engineering program focuses on learning the physics. These courses are taught from the perspective of "getting the right answer." Students are encouraged to "find the right formula" for every problem so they get it right on the test. There is no discussion in these courses about determining the relative importance of the answers, or how accurately we might need to know something. This builds and builds until students want to compute EVERYTHING EXACTLY before ever beginning to build or test an idea.
Finally, we have a capstone senior project that supposedly brings back the ideas of generating requirements, defining the performance of our device. My experience was a group of students who had learned to play the game and get their desired grade with the minimum effort and critical thought. I don't believe the issue is motivation. I believe the issue is perfectionism. By now, the seniors have learned to chase perfection, and they are daunted by the idea. So much so that they don't even want to start.
Education promotes perfectionism, which is why so many of us procrastinate.
We perfectionists have a lot of trouble starting, and then completing projects. Why? Because the idea we have in our heads of what completion looks like seems so far out of reach. We know we will never catch a unicorn, yet we convince ourselves that only then will we successfully complete the project.
Somehow, we need to tear down the idea of perfection and instead learn that:
good enough really is good enough.
(as a first exercise, I wrote this post in one sitting. I only proof-read once. Normally, I'd go for 10 or so revisions and take 3 writing sessions. Hence the reason you haven't heard from me since 2014. Cheers.)