Sure, the only good dissertation is a done dissertation, but can we learn to be ok even without that?
Back before I knew better, I used to think perfectionism was a label meant for people who did everything perfectly. Back when I thought it was some kind of compliment for people who were just great at everything.
Now I know that perfectionism can mean getting nothing done at all. Perfectionism and procrastination might in fact, be BFFs.
When I was in graduate school I spent a good many years stressed out. I enjoyed it, of course. Most of it. Because where else in this society can you spend all day reading, writing, going to classes where you are hopefully and supposedly and many times actually with smart people who have done the reading and done the thinking and you can have conversations.
Neoliberal Higher Ed: Rewarding Mindlessness
As I teach undergrad students, with each passing year, those who do the reading dwindles down to nothing. This might be because many colleges require instructors to use the most awful of textbooks with a correspondingly equal awful online learning package that sucks up money and sucks up potential critical thinking time.
I don’t think it is because they feel any pressure to be perfect. I think it is because shifts in the way we do education as an institution in our culture have shortchanged thinking and learning in ways that students have come to depend upon, aka most undergrad college students know they can get away with doing the least amount of reading, the least amount of work, and still pass the class with an A or a B. Not kidding.
A lot of it is due to the widespread and unspokenly assumed pattern of grade inflation. A lot of it is due to some tenured professors and adjunct instructors being tapped out when it comes to the number of students, the lack of pay and health benefits, and the general sense that if students are unhappy and complain about anything, then well, for the adjuncts at least, we are out of a job.
College is run like a retail business now. Students are the customer and the customer is simultaneously always right and always ripped off. The workers are always exploited.
PhD, ABD, and OK
But oh how did I get here when my whole point was going to be to talk about how procrastination is actually often the main driving force behind procrastination? Because that’s what it is in my experience. And that’s what it is for many of us.
I am nowhere near as bad as I used to be. I am amazed at myself right now, to be honest. But there was a time when oh, let’s say I almost had my PhD.
That’s right. I am one of the few, the brave, the shamed PhD (ABD)’s out here trying to deal with being not done and maybe never done. And all I had to do was write my dissertation. That’s it. But life happened, moving across the country happened, losing touch with my committee happened, a massive traumatic abusive divorce and custody battle happened, moving to a new city happened, — a lot has happened. But in all this what mostly happened was that I lost confidence in my ability to turn in a good piece of writing. I wanted my dissertation to be perfect. To be everything it was in my head. And so, to this day, that is where she resides: in my head and my head alone.
And I have made some peace with it. Sure, maybe if I find 4,000 dollars and the right words to say my department might let me back in and let me wrap it up and get that degree. But maybe I have found other things to do, to be, to focus on, and maybe I can let the pressure of this whole thing go.
In my head I am a PhD. I did well. I learned a lot. I did research. I have theories.
But out here in the world, I guess I have to say I am only an MA. Which is cool too, right?
My overall wisdom gained is that we really do have to be ok with things being just ok. The only good piece of writing when it comes to things that are gate-keeping us from graduating or gaining credentials is a done piece of writing. We can always edit. We can always rework it. But we cannot cross the finish line without something tangible in hand.
Pressure to be Perfect =Procrastination
Perfectionism and procrastination go hand in hand in other smaller, less psychologically battering ways as well. Like when you have a form to fill out but it intimidates you because forms are always full of so much pressure in the questions the ask and the answers they want. So, you don’t fill it out for weeks. And when you finally do fill it out it still sits on the kitchen table awaiting the next step in its journey: the mailbox. Cue “Don’t Stop Believing” for me, fam. I will mail it on Monday.
Pressure to be perfect can stall us out. Because there is no such thing as perfect. We can and do and will make mistakes. We can and do and will not always do our best. But we can think of it as drafting. People don’t always get things right the first time, but if we hold in our minds and spirits that we can try again, without fear or shame or without worry, we have some space to work with that eases the pressure.
I do not know if I will get my PhD. But I have spoken to many people in higher education who have let me know that it is maybe truly ok if I don’t. I’ve been told that academia is increasingly a more and more toxic environment. That many of my PhD in hand friends have regrets about their experiences. That many of them are not deeply fulfilled or working amazing well-paid tenured dream jobs either. That many PhDs are doing what I am doing freelancing, hoping and praying.
The average millennial has only about 8,000 in net worth. By our powers combined, us average college graduates are sinking under 1.5 trillion in student loan debt (loan corporations often ask for 3,000 or more from us individually a month). And the average American would be devastated to the point of potential homelessness by any emergency costing over 400 dollars.
So, yeah, I think we can all learn to let perfectionism go.
Mindfulness, Reflection and Our Imperfect Now
Again and again it comes down to practicing mindfulness and also deep reflection. What do we actually need to be our best selves, to live well and to feel appreciated in sharing our gifts and values?
Do we need titles and status for anything at all? Maybe they would add something that would get us taken more seriously in some circles, but again, studies show many adjunct instructors and other folks with PhD’s are sleeping in their cars and on food stamps.
What can we do that will make us feel the best about our life, and that will let us get meaningful things done without fear, pressure, or some arbitrary measure of success that rarely takes actual life or the human spirit into account.
Add to all of this reflection an idea of the structures and contexts within which we live and how they shape and impact our lives and our futures.
An economy where all wealth and resources go to the global 1%, an environment where things are under water or burned to the ground that didn’t used to be this chaotic or unstable, and a government that has not let up on its march towards fascism.
What can you do with who you are and what you have to get through all of this in ways that yes, might save and protect you and your loved ones, if possible, and that add benefit and hope to a world running out of time?
We all are working with the gift of life and the yes often surreal strange gift of being alive right now in this fairly troubling period of history.
Within all of this, for all things, it comes down to getting woke and getting kind for me. And I can do that and help others do that with or without a PhD at the end of my name.