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.