How do you react if someone suggests you put less time and effort into your teaching preparation? Or, be stricter about office hours? What about the phrase “good enough”? What does that say to you?
Confusing excellence with perfection
As Kerry Ann Rocquemore pointed out in her excellent blog series on perfectionism.
Many times people get confused because they think that perfectionism is really just a form of striving, being goal-oriented, having ambition, being driven and/or having high expectations for your career. All those things are great, but they are not perfectionism.
Perfectionism is a form of all or nothing thinking.
You are either committed to teaching or you aren’t.
You are responsive to students or you aren’t.
Your paper is excellent or it’s crap.
As a student, this might mean seeing no practical difference between a B and an F.
All or nothing thinking is harmful
Whether or not the “all” is perfection, if you think like this you will have a hard time managing your workload. You can’t identify priorities if you think in terms of all or nothing.
You will either burn out from overwork, or abandon crucial elements of your job in favour of other (equally crucial) elements. You will probably do both because chances are that looking after yourself will be a crucial element that gets abandoned either way.
This kind of thinking might also make grading student work demoralizing given that most students don’t even aspire to A+ grades much less earn them. Marking the work of a student who has decided to work hard enough to maintain a B average while also participating in sports or student politics or raising a family or just enjoying their undergraduate years before they knuckle down to 40 years of wage labour must be incredibly frustrating.
In fact, all or nothing thinking probably makes all of your work unsatisfying since you can’t do it all. And if that means all you can see is nothing, you probably feel pretty bad about what you get done.
Concrete vs abstract goals
I think this kind of all or nothing thinking gets disseminated through cultural messages that set abstract goals like “the best”. For example, how often do you hear something like “But don’t you want the best for your child?” What does that even mean? I have no idea what “the best” looks like, for my child or anything else.
“The best” is not a concrete goal. Furthermore, it is embedded in that all or nothing frame that suggests that if you don’t want the best, then it doesn’t really matter. You don’t care.
If you have a more concrete goal, you can actually make decisions about what might contribute to achieving that goal and how it will contribute. You can prioritize different tasks. To return to more academic examples, if you can concretize your goal of being responsive to students, you can make decisions about whether an open door policy actually helps you achieve that goal or not. Or consider teaching preparation. Sometimes spending less time will actually make you a better teacher, if you focus on concrete outcomes and prioritize the tasks most likely to generate those outcomes. Knowing what you mean by thorough and fair will help you get your grading done in a reasonable amount of time without feeling like you are cutting corners.
At the end of the day you have to have a working definition of “good enough” for whatever task you are working on. The fact that it could be better, in the abstract, is irrelevant. The question is, given the context in which you are doing this, and considering all the other things you also need to achieve, is this good enough to meet the concrete needs of whoever you are doing this for?
Edited March 28, 2016.