The Best Academic Advice I Ever Received
The best academic advice I’ve ever received didn’t come from an internet guru, a guidance counselor, or a professor. It came from my voice instructor. A while back, I sang at a friend’s wedding. I’ve always sung in choirs, but this was the first time I would sing solo in front of an audience. And I was terrified.
During one lesson, I was having a really hard time. My own emotions kept getting in the way of my singing. After taking a short break, she gave me the best advice of my entire life.
“You’re striving for perfection when excellence will do.”
The Best Advice I’ve Ever Received
I’ve always been a perfectionist. While that means you can produce great stuff, it can also keep you from actually getting work completed or turning it in. In my case, my perfectionism was giving me anxiety. I literally couldn’t sing because I was so afraid to mess up.
My voice teacher’s advice helped me to start to let go. I was trying to attain something that was unattainable and I was driving myself crazy in the process. I had to lower my expectations to something I could actually produce. Once I did that, my anxiety fell away.
This is not to say that perfectionist tendencies have gone away. But I have learned to temper them and keep my expectations for myself reasonable. Are those cookies for the neighbor’s party as beautifully iced as possible? No, but does it really matter? Nope.
Perfectionism in the Classroom
As a teacher and tutor, I have passed this advice on to my students as well. I can recognize my fellow perfectionists pretty quickly and it’s not unusual for perfectionism to get in the way of their work. The kid who stays up all night finishing a project so it looks just right, but doesn’t finish homework for other classes. The one who never turns in an essay because he couldn’t master the first paragraph. The girl who has the most beautiful notebook known to man, but isn’t passing tests.
One of my students Trevor wanted to speed up his note-taking skills. It was taking him hours to take notes from just a few pages of text. Once we dug into his process, I discovered why it was taking him so long. He wanted his notes to “look” perfect. He would type, erase, type, and erase. And he was nervous about what to include, so he basically copied the book. No wonder note-taking lasted forever!
Trevor and I worked on him letting go of those high expectations and making them more realistic. What good were his “perfect” notes? Not that great. Once he stopped trying to make them perfect, he sped up considerably. And his hand-written notes, while not always perfect, were more useful to him.
Hey teachers, I see you perfectionists there! I was the perfectionist teacher down the hall for much too long. Anytime I use the word “assignment” simply sub in “lesson plan”. And boom!
How to Handle Perfectionism
If you’re stuck on something and you suspect you are spending waaay too long on it, I want you to stop and think about this advice. Are you striving for perfection when excellence will do? Here are some questions to think about:
- What is the worst that might happen if you turned in the assignment or completed the lesson plan right now?
- How much more would you learn from that “perfect” assignment than you would learn from what you currently have completed?
- If you keep working, what else are you giving up – sleep, other work, time with family and friends? Is it worth that cost?
Listen, don’t use this as an excuse to hand in something that’s not complete or needs a LOT of work. But if the assignment is done, then be like Elsa and let it go.
If this makes you super nervous, start with small assignments and work up. Complete that homework without spending an extra 10 minutes making it perfect. Did you lose a ton of points? If not, move on up to a larger assignment.
I learned to trust my voice treacher’s advice and performed at my friend’s wedding. Did I flub a line? Yes, I did. But I kept singing and smiling. Over ten years later, I can’t even remember what part of the song I messed up, but I do remember how thankful my friend was for being part of her wedding. And that’s all that matters.