Vulnerability is a particular challenge for PhD students and early career researchers who have yet to establish themselves in academia and whose future is largely dependent on their ability to get their research published. At this stage of our careers, most of us will be insecure: who are we compared to the senior scholars in our fields? It takes a lot of courage to stand up at a conference and tell a room full of smart people what your ideas are, because how can you ever measure up to those people? (Clearly I’m already hinting at the imposter syndrome here, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)
The first bad solution is to just never stand up, to simply avoid any situation in which you would have to deal with vulnerability. This is an attractive solution of course, because if you avoid it, then there’s no way you can ever feel the shame or humiliation of having your ideas criticized by other people. You can be secure in the knowledge that nobody has ever managed to say you’re wrong.
The second strategy is to not put in the effort. It should be obvious why this is a bad strategy, because if you don’t do the work, you will never succeed. But it is an attractive strategy, because if you don’t do the work, then you can’t really fail. You can always say that the reason you failed is not because you can’t do it, but simply that you didn’t try.
This was actually my strategy in high school, and it still is a strategy I lean towards in many of the things I do. In high school I would not study and I would not do homework, because when I would then inevitably fail, my ego would not take a hit. I hadn’t tried, so you couldn’t really say that I had failed. And that is a strategy that does not easily go away. After receiving a lot, and I do mean a lot, of feedback on a recent fellowship application from my PI, my first response was that I never wanted to submit anything to her again, because I could not deal with being recognized as a failure (even though, obviously, writing is a learning process, and a few days later I had recovered from that feeling).
The problem is, everything is wrong with that. Perfectionism is probably one of the most prevalent and worst forms of avoidance, and we don’t recognize what perfectionism is really about. I won’t dispute that there are people who really cannot deal with anything but perfection, but for most of us it’s an excuse to not finish the work. Let me make the point again: when you submit a piece of writing, you make yourself vulnerable, because suddenly everyone can form an opinion about it. Obviously you want that opinion to be positive, and perfectionism is the misguided idea that if you work hard enough, you can please everyone and so don’t actually have to deal with that vulnerability, with the risk of getting rejected. It is, essentially, a coward’s strategies, like the other two I already discussed.
Now my point here is not that perfectionists are actually cowards and should be ashamed of themselves. Striving for perfectionism is perfectly normal given the risk of negative feedback and rejection. But if we are to address it, if we are to help aspiring academics, then we should first acknowledge the actual underlying problem. Perfectionism is bad, not because you can’t ever be perfect, but because it is a form of avoiding vulnerability. And the truth is, no matter how hard you try, peers will still judge you: you can never please everyone. In fact, I would argue, that it’s even harder to deal with feedback for perfectionists, because they’ve produced work they consider perfect, and still a bunch of anonymous strangers will point out that it’s far from perfect.
In the end, writing takes courage. Like anything else, when you invite other people to judge you, you’re going to have a bad time. No matter how senior you are, when people call your work crap, you’re going to feel angry, ashamed, humiliated, and maybe a whole bunch of other stuff. Maybe the problem is that we create this illusion of academia as an ivory tower where people are shielded from the rest of the world. The truth is, academia is more like a colosseum than a tower, and academics are both the gladiators and the audience (so maybe like Fight Club?). Even if you win, it’s going to be a painful experience, there’s no way around that. So instead of striving for perfection, we should be going for what we ourselves think is good enough. The audience can make of that what they want.