Apr 22, 2008

On the Pursuit of Excellence versus Obsession with Perfection

In a recent post I described my participation in the academic rite of passage known as comprehensive doctoral exams, which have both a written and oral component in the history program in which I am enrolled. I successfully passed the written exams, and I finally took and passed my oral exam today.

Yet in the process I recognized in myself a recurrent tendency that interferes with my ability to enjoy such successes. Instead of treasuring the praise extended by members of my exam committee on my work, I focused on the grammatical and factual mistakes I made in these exams. Most of these were quite minor, yet I chided myself for making simple errors. For example, I referred to the 1890 German Empire as "Prussia" at one point (Prussia ceasing to exist as of the 1871 German unification), and I incorrectly substituted the Russian word khutor when I meant kulak.

These are insignificant in the scheme of a pressure-filled, make-or-break graduate exam without the benefit of reference texts, yet I could not let go of my self-criticism today. I also spent an hour after the oral exam kicking myself for not seeing a way to outmaneuver my adviser's successful attempts to punch holes in a sub-argument I made about the period of Portuguese history known as the Spanish Captivity.

Mind you: these exams are pass-fail, and - while a PhD student wants to excel to avoid the ignominy of being booted from a doctoral program - there are no academic plums that await someone who turns in an error-free and impeccable set of exams.

Now, I am not a perfectionist in all facets of my life, as a quick inspection of my messy desk will demonstrate, yet I sometimes demand a level of perfection in my research, teaching, and writing that is impossible to attain. The precise term for this personality quirk is maladaptive perfectionism, and I exhibited this tendency once again by editing the just-linked Wikipedia article.

My perfectionist inclinations, however, are self-directed in nature, as I am not bothered by other people failing to achieve perfection (except my favorite sports teams). I feel no compulsion to point out the errors of others, or to fix their mistakes, yet even the smallest mistake in my own work can set me into a cycle of personal faultfinding that sometimes interferes with my productivity, like a person whose face is usually blemish-free but who spends hours searching for the perfect acne treatment.

I appreciate the opportunity to vent my self-criticism, and I always enjoy suggestions, but in re-reading this essay (keeping in perfectionist mode), I suspect that even the process of publicly outing myself as a maladaptive perfectionist is an exercise in clandestine perfectionism.



historymike said...

For the record, I re-edited this published post four times, making stylistic changes and searching for a few "perfect" adjectives.

I am not proud of this, either.

Anonymous said...

Really, Mike, your only fault is in thinking you have faults. We who admire you know better.

microdot said...

While I admire those who strive for perfection, I have long ago abandoned any pathetic attempt by myself to achieve it. I can try to do it right, get carpentry squared, spell within reason, but my approach is more like impressionistic painting. I would never have made a very good professional mechanic.

historymike said...


ADMIRERS? Yikes - I am not worthy!

I mean, thanks...

historymike said...


I know my mechanical limitations, and I avoid undertaking projects for which I am wholly untrained.It is usually less expensive to hire an expert than to spend months trying to master a complicated new skill, such as transmission repair.

Tim Higgins said...


Congratulations on the completion of a task of sonsequence and significance, errors not withstanding. And don't worry about focusing on the minor mistakes. Though I have never achieved such academic credit, I believe that it is the struggle that makes the goal worthwhile.

Historychic said...

Congrats on passing!!!!!!! I knew you could do it. There is no way to out manuver (not sure if I spelled that right) our adviser during orals. I tried too and failed miserably in that department. Stop beating yourself up and celebrate your accomplishment!!!!!!