You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Successful
A few summers ago I went to the circus with my family in Hungary.
I watched in awe as a group of 5 trapeze artists (3 men and 2 women) in glittering white and gold costumes performed a series of stunts that seemed to defy the laws of physics.
Trapeze swings were flying from three different stands, and the five performers were taking turns swinging, doing flips, and catching each other in the air.
But, in the midst of this complex choreography, one of the men missed his partners arms by a fraction of a second after flipping in the air, and fell straight down towards the ground.
The crowd gasped.
Fortunately, there was nothing to worry about, as he landed on a safety net unharmed.
Smiling at the crowd, he climbed back to the top of his stand, and gave the signal to his team to start the series of stunts again.
The choreography started, and I could feel the tension in audience as we got closer to the part where the artist fell down earlier.
This time he caught his partners’ arms, and the crowd cheered, whistled, clapped and gave the team a standing ovation as they wrapped up their act.
In fact, when the show was over and all of the performers came onto the circus ring, this particular trapeze artist got more cheers than any of the other performers, who had not made any (noticeable) mistakes.
Why is it that the trapeze artist who had made a mistake got the most claps from the audience?
Shouldn’t the crowd be upset that they paid to watch a show where one of the artists had made a mistake?
While I cannot read anyone else’s mind, I cheered for this artist because he bounced back from his mistake so quickly and gracefully, and made a commitment to perform his act again, even at the risk of making another mistake in front of hundreds of people.
Just Get Started, Keep Moving, and Be Your Own Safety Net
How would you life be different if you weren’t afraid of making a mistake or being judged by others?
What if you were rewarded for trying new things, whether or not you did them well?
This nagging feeling can lead to either perfectionism (being obsessive about the quality of your work) or procrastination (not getting started at all).
Either way, the fear of making a mistake will cost you time (because you either work too much or take too long to get started) and energy (perfectionism leads to a burnout and procrastination will fill you with guilt and shame).
After all, what is the worst thing that can happen if you make mistakes?
It turns out that one of the deepest fears that graduate students have is that your supervisor or thesis committee will read your work, judge it and they will discover that you are not as smart as they thought you were.
This fear is so deeply rooted in some students that it can lead to months of procrastination, or working to the point of exhaustion (as a result of perfectionism) at the expense of their health, or even relationships.
I experienced a severe case of procrastination when I had to write my thesis proposal in my second year of graduate school.
There were several directions in which I could take my research and I had a fear that if I chose the wrong direction I would end up with a dead-end project and be in graduate school forever.
I tried to write my proposal for weeks with very little progress, until I realized that the reason that I felt stuck was that I was trying to make it too perfect.
At that point, I decided to make a commitment to one topic and just go with it.
Then, my worst fear came true.
I had a dead-end project.
After more than one year I had no publishable data and I had to switch directions.
The second project failed as well, and so did the the third and the fourth.
Fast forward to the beginning of my sixth year in graduate school: I had no publishable data, and I suffered from a serious case of tendinitis (brought on by stress) that limited my ability to type or do lab-work.
I thought I had no chance of ever getting my PhD.
Having my worst fear come true was the best thing that happened to me, because I learned one of the most important lessons in life:
No matter what happens, you will find a way to move on and find new opportunities
If this weren’t true, you wouldn’t be here today reading this article.
I made hundreds of mistakes in graduate school, and my work was judged by professors during my seminars.
While I had no publishable data, I had gathered enough research experience by my sixth year to design a project that had a high likelihood of generating publishable data.
And, it worked.
I graduated in six years just as I planned when I started my program, even though at that point I could not have imagined the path that I would need to take.
If your worst fear is making a mistake, or being judged by others, just remember:
You can become own safety net
5 Myths That Lead to Procrastination or Perfectionism and Will Hold You Back from Finishing Your Thesis
Myth #1: If you make a mistake others will think less of you
Truth: If you make a mistake others will not necessarily think less of you.
Most people are too busy with their own lives to contemplate on how smart their peers or students are.
Everyone makes mistakes, but it is your reaction to your mistake that will determine what others think of you.
If you make a mistake, own it. Admit that you made the mistake.
Don’t make excuses (even if they are true), because no one cares why you made a mistake.
What they do care about is how you will move on after making this mistake.
Will you do things differently in the future to make sure that this mistake doesn’t happen again?
If you admit your mistake and use it as an opportunity to do things better in the future, people will have more respect for you.
Myth #2: The longer you work on something the better it will be
Truth: You need to work on your thesis project long enough to satisfy the requirements from your thesis committee.
Be sure that the expectation from your committee are clear.
Otherwise you may be spending time working on projects or writing parts of your thesis that your thesis committee doesn’t find relevant.
Remember that the best thesis is a “finished thesis” (one that satisfied the requirements) not a perfect thesis (which doesn’t exist anyway).
Myth #3: I have to create large chunks of time to work on something
Truth: Many people finish their thesis while working full-time and taking care of their families.
They don’t have large chunks of time (except maybe on the weekends), but frequently they also work on their thesis during the week using 15-30 minutes blocks of time.
You can make progress on your thesis even if your time is limited.
A small 15-30 minute break in your schedule is enough to read an article or write a few paragraphs.
It is easier to motivate yourself to write a few paragraphs for 30 minutes than to write a whole chapter during a weekend, because the latter sounds more overwhelming.
Best of all, these small blocks of time help you to sustain momentum and over the course of a few weeks or months they do add up to substantial work.
Myth #4: If I am not in the mood to write, it is not a good day to write
Most people do not feel like writing any day.
Writing is isolating and tiring – who wants to deal with that?
You may wait for a day when you feel better or get inspired, but the only way to get in the mood of writing is to start writing.
If you suffer from writer’s block, try free-writing for 15 minutes.
Most writer’s find that the initial discomfort that you feel when you start writing goes away within about 10-15 minutes.
The best way to avoid writer’s block is to write every day (whether you feel like it or not) for at last fifteen minutes.
This will give you the momentum you need to keep generating ideas.
Myth #5: My work is a direct reflection of who I am as a person
Truth: You are separate from your work.
The quality of your research is independent of who you are as a person.
You can end up with a series of dead-end projects, and still maintain your confidence and optimism.
I know that after years of being isolated from the rest of the world and doing research, it can seem like your thesis represents who you are.
You have no control over the actions of others or the outcome of your research (the data is what it is), but you do have control over how you react to situation.
You can decide who you want to be – kind, generous, energetic – regardless of how your research is going.
Once you separate your identity from the quality of your thesis, it will be easier to let go of the fear that your thesis is not “good enough” or that you are not “smart enough” for graduate school.
Making mistakes or being criticized are not a sign of weakness.
On the contrary, they are signs that you are pushing the limits of your comfort zone and learning, which is why you came to graduate school in the first place.