Enemy of the Good

Day 14 of #100DaysToOffload

It came as something of a surprise when someone I knew called me a perfectionist. I had never connected that label with me; it just seemed normal to be hard on myself, particularly academically and particularly professionally. But it was a flash of truth, not so much to get caught up in the labels, but to recognize that I had, for as long as I could remember, been unrelenting with myself. It is the kind of perfectionism that is easy for others to miss, or for teachers to reward, because it masquerades as high achievement or over-achievement in the academic context. It isn't something I expect of others, and so it is directed inward, quietly consuming from the inside out.

What amazes me now is that I was able to get anything done under those conditions, with that kind of pressure and inner monologue. I am fairly conscious now of where I balk on projects because of fear of failure, fear of being an imposter, fear of what others will think — aka the holy trinity of perfectionist terrors. These sorts of reactions don't go away completely, no matter how much you talk them down. Certain kinds of projects bring them out more than others. And, unfortunately, the kinds of projects that are in my wheelhouse where imposter syndrome is unthinkable are also those where the sensitivity dial for “what will others think?” gets turned way up. Conversely, where I don't care what others think and failure is less a concern, I have a heightened sense that I'm an imposter or that my skills, such as they are, fall between amateur and incompetent.

I've been thinking about this a lot as I assess what kinds of projects I want to keep working on, particularly in the general realm of “side-gig.” That category includes a bunch of writing projects, some possible teaching projects, some long term learning goals, and a few software projects. I have long recognized that personal strengths are typically also vulnerabilities, and in my case one of those strength/weakness combos is in voluminous appetite for learning. I have the foolish notion, still at this less than youthful age, that I can learn anything. It's what causes me to decide that I should brush up on my linear algebra at one point and my Middle Egyptian at another point. Or maybe I should do some graphic design. Or an MBA— at least the content. I'd like to know what they teach; I don't really care about the degrees anymore.

Craziness. Utter insanity on my part.

That is a great gift, for which I am deeply thankful, but also a source of constant pain, if only because fitting rotating passions into a progressing career can be a tricky business. (Barbara Sher lays out the idea well: https://www.amazon.com/Refuse-Choose-Interests-Passions-Hobbies/dp/1594866260). Sidenote here: the idea of a career that progresses linearly is of course problematic to begin with, particularly nowadays. One of the reasons for my departure from academia, beyond the frustrations tied to my particular university and the business of my field(s), is simply boredom. The idea of doing that for another 20+ years is just.... ugh.

I've been thinking a lot about why I like(d) teaching. That is, what exactly do I like the actual stuff of teaching and learning? — I'm not talking here about the business of the modern university, something which is at best a devil's bargain and more regularly a sham and shell game. I think one part of teaching that I always find amenable is a structural feature, particularly in university level teaching. There's a pace and a rhythm where I can build out an ongoing discussion, and big themes and ideas, through bits and pieces. Each class is a sort of manageable chunk. In the practice of teaching I'm most certainly a short story writer, not a novelist. (Sidenote: that's what makes the current teaching situation untenable. It's more like writing the same novel over and over again year after year. That kind of teaching, while exactly what some people want— rinse and repeat for the entirety of your career — is torture for me.)

There's some built-in anti-perfectionism in all that. The term rolls on, relentlessly, and whatever I come up with for a given class session is what I have to bank and live with, at least until another iteration of that class or a related class. You can't take things back. It's like a typewriter or refusing to backspace and choosing not to erase. I can treat things as constant revision from previous iterations, constantly overwriting and tweaking, and it works pretty well. Students don't know that I don't think of anything I do with them as “finished” or that I may be experimenting with something. And it lets me off the hook. It can be good enough, because the constraints are temporal and good enough will still get the job done. The product — a class session or assignment or whatever — has to ship, no matter how much more tinkering I could do.

I've been trying to atomize much of what I do in similar ways. That may well be the criterion that matters in choosing among various side-gigs: what can I do in short bursts, in an hour a day, with a relentless schedule dictated by time, where the form itself casts a counter-spell against those perfectionist fears?

There's considerable evidence that experts in many fields work this way, through short and regular attention, whether regular writing each day or a musician's practice sessions. Relentless, but process-based as a means towards production. I think for too long as an academic I didn't appreciate that. There's something in the academic structure of risk and rewards, in the long-term slowness of it all that makes it hard to work in this way — even though I always imagined working in this sort of habitual processual way. I smack myself in retrospect. I wish someone had recognized what I was doing to myself, or taught me some techniques for finding the good when you feel like good isn't good enough.

But that kind of regret... well, nobody's perfect.