I listed to Thomas Curran’s TedTalk ‘Our dangerous obsession with perfectionism is getting worse’ before I left for work this morning. Curran warns against perfectionism, and his warning kept me thinking all day. Here are three mini-stories that explain why this resonates with me.
Put off today what you won’t start tomorrow
I’ve lost the habit, the skill, and increasingly the identity of the Fine Artist I was when I graduated in 1993. Every day pernicious self-doubt has eroded a precious part of me – am I still an artist? Being requires Doing. Lack of Doing is most un-Becoming. Practice makes perfect, while lack of practice may not create imperfection, it does create an insurmountable obstacle and anxiety. So, when I moved with my new job into a flat for my weekdays many miles away from home I packed all my art things with the intention that I would rediscover my drawing habit. Until this morning they remained packed up, untouched, but a threatening presence out of the corner of my eye.
So thank you @beatrixacevedoX for setting me a doodle homework challenge for the workshop you ran today. I did as you told me: “listen to a podcast and doodle.” (see above). I pretty randomly selected Curran’s podcast, but it was my lucky day.
I began with words and then began to find associations, and the colours seemed to help accentuate, differentiate and connect some ideas. I did it! (And later in the workshop the colour flowed again).
Resilience is over-rated and a bandaid for perfectionism
Curran makes a good point – desire for the unattainable status of perfection as exemplified by the selfie generation’s use of social media is psychologically damaging. It is self-defeating.
Today’s workshop was to help my team of Employability Leads get to the bottom of communicating our 5GCs+1 model of integrated employability. The ‘GCs’ bit refers to Graduate Capitals (Tomlinson, 2017), one of which is Psychological Capital (we refer to it as ‘adaptability’). Resilience, a real buzzword, is part of this dimension. I distrust the prominence of the resilience discourse in higher education. We need to develop a more critical approach to appreciating it. It is something we should talk to students about, but we must never communicate it as “You must be able to cope with all the crap you will inevitably experience in the world.” Its virtue is more to do with ideas like tenacity, perseverance, versatility, agility and accepting one’s ‘good enough’ self rather than the mythical, unattainable status of perfection.
The oppression of impositional perfection
Curran identities three sources of perfectionism:
- the personal prescription – the pressure we exert on ourselves to ‘be perfect’
- the social prescription – how socially we establish standards that are difficult to maintain
- the impositional prescription – the requirements we impose on others.
Impositional prescription and higher education go hand-in-hand, especially in promoting employability, but also in our careless approach to formative and summative assessment. Firstly, it is too easy for academics to set unnecessarily unrealistic standards and expectations for defining student success. In setting expectations (e.g. designing assessment criteria) we need to calculate and consider reasonable effort and develop a critique of the measures we use, especially where they are quantitive and removed, therefore, from the effort and experience that a qualitative evaluation would accommodate. Further, we can make effort more worthwhile while making assessment more relevant and less abstract. By committing to authentic assessment and by adopting a negotiated assessment approach (i.e. negotiating assessment briefs, outcomes, criteria, tasks, feedback with students) we can reduce student stress and increase student motivation and energy.
While I’m here I must condemn (although it’s an inescapable reality) the endless rounds and hoops our graduates are expected to deal with each time they apply for a job. What happened to the more streamlined application processes I remember in my youth? It seemed to work, but now we assess just because we can – psychologically that is punishing, exclusive and discriminatory and higher education should take a stand against it.
Celebrate imperfection. Celebrate creativity.
I am an artist. One of the defining outcomes of an artist’s education is an appreciation of the unresolved, incomplete, ambiguous, uncertain and imperfect. It is around the edges of ideas that we allow room for connections and ideas to be formed by our users/participants/audiences. So the pen, the brush, and the pixel are simply technologies and media used to convey creativity and artistry. It is the shaky line, like handwriting, that encapsulates meaning, nuance, identity and ideas that matter.