The trap of perfectionism

90% Perfection

Early this morning, I woke from a nightmare. In the dream, I had landed a job at the university where I had done my PhD research. In this job, I was supposed to be teaching a large (300 students) lecture course in microbiology. This was the course that I had been a teaching assistant in during grad school. It was the first day of class and I had just handed out the syllabus. Just as I was about to speak, one of the co-teachers (I didn’t know there were co-teachers until that point) expressed dismay at the number of exams I had scheduled. Apparently they usually only gave two exams a semester.  I had totally messed up the normal routine. Then I realized that I had scheduled the entire course using the wrong textbook. Clearly, I was wholly unprepared for the class. It was at this point where I was backpedaling and trying to make sense of the situation that I woke up.

I frequently have dreams like this at the beginning of each semester. I spend a lot of time fretting over the courses that lie ahead and all of the work necessary to plan them out. I’ve dreamed about not having the syllabus ready in time or even showing up to class inappropriately dressed. All of this is an expression of my anxiety over wanting to deliver the best course possible, but not feeling ready. I have learned that I am a bit of a perfectionist. I didn’t realize this until a friend of mine was telling me about the perfectionist cycle, also known as the three P’s: perfectionism, procrastination, and paralysis. It describes my personality too well. I can get so wrapped up in wanting a lesson plan or lab activity to be perfect that I put off planning because I’m not sure how to make it just right. This eventually leads to decision paralysis and then at the last minute I throw it all together.

I’m currently in that position. This semester I am teaching a course in cell and molecular biology for majors. It is one of the core courses for the degree in biology at our institution. This is the first time that I have been asked to teach a course like this and I want to do it right. I’ve got a pretty good plan in place for the lecture portion of the class, but I am struggling with the lab. I have looked at what other professors have done and I’ve explored the curriculum resources offered from various sources, but I just can’t seem to make a decision. It’s crunch time. I’ve got to make decisions this weekend so that supplies can be ordered in time.  Hence the anxiety ridden dreams.

What can we do about the perfectionist trap? There are some great articles addressing this very topic. Here is one from Inside Higher Ed that specifically addresses the problem within the context of academia. For me, I have to remind myself that sometimes its best just to write the first sentence or move forward on a project accepting that I will need to make adjustments and changes along the way. For me it can be a matter of just getting that forward inertia to get things rolling. Will my classes be perfect? Nope. But it is ok, and accepting that is an important aspect of avoiding the trap of perfectionism.


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