Being a perfectionist kills your chances of _______

by morgan · 5 comments

 

The biggest impediment I see to most people’s success (not only in science careers) is perfectionism.

You can’t be a perfectionist and be successful. Period. End of story.

I’m not talking about doing shoddy work here – one should always strive for excellence.

But excellence is an ongoing process, whereas perfection is an unachievable end state. There is no perfection in the universe.

If you don’t believe me, try to draw a mathematically perfect circle.

Bet you can’t do it.

Nobody can. It is impossible. Quantum physics won’t let you locate atoms or electrons precisely enough to achieve it.

So if you set out to draw a perfect circle, you’ll never get there.

Just the same – if you set out for perfection in your scientific work, you’ll never get there.

I have seen perfectionism destroy more than one career.

It is particularly pernicious when it involves your own judgement.

See, in a job, or in an undergraduate class, you don’t have to worry about “perfection” because you’ve usually got documented standards for “perfect” to go by.

To get an A in a class, the teacher sets forth exactly what you must do. And so you do it (or not) and get the A (or not).

But the world of science, from Graduate School onward, isn’t like that. There is no pre-set criteria for “perfection” (or even for an A grade). There is simply a set of human interpretations about what works and what doesn’t, or about what is the “right” and what is “wrong” way to interpret data. That doesn’t mean there’s an actual eye in the sky judging what is “right” and “wrong” – just human guesses at it (guesses which are often proven wrong in the lens of history).

Many people let this trip them up. I have let this trip myself up – countless times in my career.

But trying to achieve perfection gets in the way of doing. But you have to be constantly doing to really get anywhere.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Grant

If you ever do a video of this, perhaps set it to Tracy Chapman’s Just a First Try?:

“… Can’t learn to accept that it’s alright
To struggle with the limits of this ordinary life …”

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morgan

Grant, that’s a good one!

Reply

Jane

All the projects I’ve ever set out to accomplished have been guillotined by perfectionism. I have glorious daydreams of being a phenomenal pianist, artist, writer etc, all ending in a failure to carry through. The word ‘potential’ hangs over me like a foul smell. I admire the brevity and effectiveness of your article, I will now strive to focus on the process instead of an impossible, model of perfection :)

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Caren

Hi Morgan,
William is my 15 year old son. He’s planning a career in science and is very high achieving academically, but very hard on himself when he messes up. I would like to help him overcome his perfectionism, but he says that scientists are perfectionist. I doing a google search on perfectionist scientists and found your blog. Do you had any words of encouragement for a high school student who thinks scientists have to be perfect?

Reply

morgan

Hi Caren, for some reason I missed your comment until now – sorry about that!!

Well, scientists are certainly NOT perfect!! I grew up in a family of scientists – people who have been nominated for the Nobel prize and who hang out with Stephen Hawking – that kind of stuff. I hung out with some of the world’s top genomics researchers. Not a single one of these people was perfect… or even close. And that’s totally fine. It’s not a condemnation of them. Perfection is boring. Perfection is uncreative. Perfection is… nothing remotely possible in this world of ours.

So, I hope you can encourage your son to escape the perfectionism. It’s not needed or helpful in a science career ;)

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