Progress not perfection: anxiety, self-doubt, and dealing with criticism

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As anyone who has read any of my posts on this blog might realise, anxiety, fear, and that infamous imposter syndrome are all painfully regular issues within my daily life. At times these crippling feelings have stopped me working; at others they have paralysed my hand above the send button when submitting my work, even, or rather especially, to my supervisors; and on other days they leave me in tears agonising over every comment about my work.

I know that one of the great things about academia is sharing our work and benefitting from the comments and ideas of others. I know that feedback is vital to the development of my research and even me as an academic. And I also know that critical comments do not mean that I’m no good.

But knowing is not the same as feeling.

In trying to get to grips with feeling like a failure and, more importantly, learning to take criticism better, I’ve spoken to several peers and friends. It seems that the fear of sharing our work, our babies, is all too common. What is sadly less common, is a discussion about these fears and how to deal with them in order to be able to best function during the PhD. Sharing these thoughts and fears is vitally important to the wellbeing of researchers at all levels, especially for those of us who are new to academia. By having these conversations we are showing that academia is not a secret masonic club for those highly successful people, who are never riddled with doubt; we are dismantling the walls of authority and hierarchy to welcome in the new generation – us. Not convinced? Take a look at this article published this weekend on the rife problem of imposter syndrome and how we need to talk about it: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/nov/09/impostor-syndrome-oliver-burkeman.

Want to join the conversation? Join this Postgrad Discussion & Support Group on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/PostgradDiscussion/

So how does this help in practical terms when we’re staring down the red pen of shame? Well maybe it doesn’t. But by the far most useful piece of advice I’ve ever come across for dealing with fear and self-doubt over my work was offered to me in a conversation about anxiety and criticism. It was these three gems: “Progress not perfection”.

Progress not perfection. Some lovely soul (I can’t remember who, sorry!) put that in a tweet to me one gloomy day when I was beating myself up over what I deemed to be another failed piece of writing for my PhD thesis. And it helped. It started to change my mindset over the very notion of academic research. The PhD is, after all, a training programme that takes the researcher (yes, researcher, not student!) on a journey of personal and professional progress. That is why first-year, upgrade panels focus on the potential for doctoral research, not the piece of work you have to submit for the panel. And it’s not just training for academia, it is training for independence, for research, for project management, for motivation, I could go on (and maybe will in a later post). We are not slaving over a clattering keyboard and cluttered desk for that thesis manuscript. The idea of the thesis as a final product is a fallacy anyway: it is the culmination of one journey and the starting point for another, be it monograph, articles, or new project ideas. Academia is a path of often life-long learning and progress, because research itself is a process. Changing our outlook on this – from perceiving research as a final product, to envisaging (and valuing!) its process – is, in my opinion, essential.

Now, when I hand something in, I (try and) think that the piece of work merely represents one step in a long journey. And every comment is a (potential!) step in the direction of progress. If in doubt, just remember this sage advice: progress not perfection.

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