Perfectionism

…by Theoklitos / from Greece / PhD Precision Medicine / 3rd Year

 

I thought that for this month’s post I should write about a subject that is very often on my mind and is very challenging for me. That is perfectionism.

I believe that, to some extent, anyone reading this post will have experienced feelings similar to mine. Since we are all in higher education, we all probably got relatively good grades in school, we all were the “good student”, the “good child”. And to do that, to become that, most of us were taught by our parents, or our teachers, that making mistakes is bad. And so, to avoid being “bad”, we learned to avoid making mistakes at any cost. We strived to be perfect, so that we could maintain our self-image as “good” and to retain the love and acceptance of our loved ones.

Of course, I’m not making a case against studying hard and working with focus. Those are obviously commendable traits. However, perfectionism has many faces, and most of them are not as pretty. For example, I believe that one of its manifestations is procrastination, something that we all deal with on a regular basis (at least according to everyone I know). We avoid starting that article, that assignment, that presentation, that experiment – that blog post – because we have to do a perfect job at it. We have to “eat the elephant” (also the title of the newest album by A Perfect Circle) and the task seems insurmountable. And since we cannot complete the task perfectly right now, we just put it off for a later time, presumably when our future self will be able to do so. Of course, that time never comes and the world – in the form of deadlines – forces us to a much more hurried, stressful, and substandard completion than we would have liked. And the obvious irony is that by wanting to have a perfect end result and nothing less, we actually end up with something much more inferior.

The alternative to that is to just begin. Write one word. Read one sentence. Create a new document. And then you don’t have to do anything else for a while. Then do something small again. I’ve had this experience quite recently. I’m designing new behavioural experiments for my PhD project and I also have to make the equipment needed. It’s work that requires using epoxy glues to glue tubes with syringes, cutting and soldering wires, grinding and sanding metal tubes, etc. It’s fun once you get into it, but it takes time and my workstation looks something like this at the end (on a good day).

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So, I avoided starting it, because I knew it would take time to finish the whole thing and I would need to be focused. Until one day this week I decided to make just one little part of the apparatus, something that I knew would take me 10 minutes or less. But after I finished that, I realized that it was quite quick and, since I was already there, I could make another small part. Long story short, I ended up repeating the same process until I finished the whole thing, without ever feeling the pressure of “oh man, I have to do ALL these things at the same time”. I somehow accidentally tricked myself into doing the whole project by just focusing on the parts. And I was so happy to have done it at the end!

But the problem with perfectionism isn’t only that it costs us time and causes us stress. At least in biological research, most often we simply do not have sufficient knowledge to design an experiment in a perfect way. This is another thing that I’ve been struggling to accept since the start of my PhD. I always believed in good – perfect – preparation. If I read enough and thought enough I should be able to design an experiment once and it should work, right? Nope. Biological systems can be very unpredictable (as anyone with research experience can tell you) and before you actually try out some of your ideas in practise, it’s very difficult to predict whether they will work or not. I will draw again from my own experience for an example. The experiments I am running involve mice performing a behavioural task in virtual reality, with the aim to assess sensory processing in autism spectrum disorders. After reading the relevant literature in the field, I designed what I thought was the most appropriate task that would give us the answers we are looking for. However, when I actually run a pilot cohort of mice, it turned out that the optimal strategy for the mice was very different from what I imagined they would do. And even though it was quite obvious after the experiment, I couldn’t have imagined it before. Currently I’m modifying the task accordingly and I will try again. And that’s how most of research works, as I’m slowly starting to understand. There are all sorts of constraints that we don’t know about until we get hands-on experience.

Finally, perfectionism can also mess with our self-esteem. When we expect from ourselves to be perfect, we will inevitably be let down, since perfection doesn’t exist. Anytime we make a mistake, it will be a blow to our self-image. And what is worse, we will never realise the value of those mistakes as teaching signals. In artificial neural networks and machine learning in general there is usually a cost function which aims to minimize the error (the difference between prediction and actual data) the program is producing. That is what drives learning. We have good evidence that something analogous takes place in the brain, at least unconsciously. Why then should we not try to do the same consciously, instead of treating mistakes as personal failures? Why not treat them as opportunities to grow and become better? Another example from lab life. A while ago I was trying to get a brain infusion system to work. I was encountering many problems and I was getting discouraged. At some point I asked for the help of one of our senior postdocs, someone whose judgement I really trust. We tried together and we made some progress, but the end product was still out of reach. After trying a few different things, the system was still not fully functional and I was getting discouraged again, saying something like “let’s leave it, it’s not going to work”. But he said, “it’s ok, we’re gathering data, we’re gathering data!”. And that approach had a really strong impact on me and stayed with me since. We’re gathering data. We are all flawed, none of us is perfect, but we can use our errors as data to learn from and improve.

This is after all the essence of the scientific method. We make some observation and formulate a theory, but then we need to test it experimentally. And then we use the results of the experiments to refine our theories. And the process repeats itself ad infinitum. I think it’s reasonable to assume that we won’t have a perfect theory of everything any time soon. If we wanted to figure out all of reality all at once, we wouldn’t start at all. But it’s all trial and error. And so with our selves.

 

Just begin!


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