Bigger Pictures: Perils of Perfection, Part 2

“If I waited for perfection… I wouldn’t write a word.”

           ~ Margaret Atwood

I’ve been a Margaret Atwood fan for decades. I came across her work in the late ‘80s when I took a Dystopian Literature course. Some of the books, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, I devoured years before. But I didn’t know The Handmaid’s Tale, or its Canadian author.

Margaret Atwood blew me away.

Not only did Atwood’s novel excel at the dystopian level, it also sparkled at the sentence level, and every self-respecting writing student of that distant age (like yours truly) developed an almost perverse eye for what happened in a text at the sentence level. To my developing eye, Margaret Atwood’s sentences were perfect. They shimmer with clarity and convey complex human thought lucidly, even if the character isn’t particularly lucid. This kind of thing doesn’t come through on Hulu.

So, of course, like any novice besotted with the work of a master writer, I got intimidated by her prowess. I mean, if I couldn’t write like that…well, what was the point?

Which brings us back again to our opening quote: If I waited for perfection I wouldn’t write a word. Come, unpack with me.

If I waited. Our great woman of letters tells us that avoidance isn’t going to get it done. Atwood knows writing something even just “good enough” requires work. (She also quipped that the greatest writing invention is the trash can.) Moreover, she implies that perfection at that earliest stage is out of the question.

And then we get I wouldn’t write a word, the frightening inertia that too often tags along with being overly perfectionist.  

I once went through a bout of writer’s block that lasted nearly two years. While there were more than a few factors that dried me up, I later determined that the biggest factor was fear, and a very special type of fear at that. I called it fear of criticism not yet voiced. The damning criticism that blocked the flow of words I once took for granted didn’t come from anyone actually directing criticism from the outside, all the nagging criticism lived in my only in my own head, whispered in my own voice. Criticism not yet voiced.

What I had to learn (the hard way, of course) is that I had to get out of my own way. Nobody else said the things I heard in my head. Workshop taught me to filter outside criticism, to consider the source and what have you. But once I realized that I had gotten in my own way, I was able to write again. I just had to get by criticism not yet voiced.

This little epiphany got me writing again. It can work for you, too.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Bigger Pictures: The Perils of Perfection, Part 1

“The pursuit of perfection often impedes improvement.”

         ~ George Will

As we rapidly approach the end game of the semester, it seems appropriate that we take a moment or two to consider the Penn student’s perennial perplexing predicament: perfectionism. (Loyal readers of this space should be well aware by now of your humble blogger’s penchant for alliteration – and if you weren’t… well, you are now.)

Perfection seems to be an intrinsic part of the Penn student body DNA. It starts before the acceptance letter from Penn arrives, when future Quakers set sights not only on achievement but on flawless achievement. In short, perfection.

In fact, the flawless achievement mind set often takes root at an early age, and left unexamined, can lead to all kinds of academics-related problems. Just a few, in no particular order:

  • Writers block – it is hard to jump into the writing process if you’re already worried about how the paper won’t pass muster, even if you haven’t written word one.
  • Non selective exam prep – this happens when you’re so worried about knowing absolutely everything for the test that you fail to prioritize and master the material most likely to be on the test.
  • Procrastination – why not avoid a task that you’re convinced will not meet your self-imposed standard of perfection?

You don’t need to be a Weingarten learning instructor to recognize how detrimental to academic achievement any of the above can be.

Some things, of course, need to be perfect or as close to perfect as humanly possible. But honestly, those things are few and far between. Stressing out and losing sleep over how everything has to be absolutely perfect is no way to live.

So, might I suggest going for simple excellence?

Striving for excellence is a different matter entirely than constantly grinding away at perfection. Excellence does not carry with it the notion of flawlessness that perfection brings along. Excellence accepts that working towards excellence can, in fact, lead to something that approaches perfection, even attain perfection.

In other words, don’t let perfectionism get in the way of excellence.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Reflection & Wellness: Mindful Attachment, Detachment, Centering & Focus

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We live in a modern world, which in many ways hyper-stimulates our senses through technology and high-speed connectivity. What are the wellness implications of our new norm: 24×7 data availability, data connectivity and data sharing?

It’s no wonder that we are over-committed, restless and unrested, and fatigued. We call it brain fog, when processing-demand surpasses our own body’s limits. Limits, what a concept, huh? We push and push ourselves, expecting to produce continued, increased and optimal output, like a machine.

In the Academy, our students report increased difficulty focusing, prioritizing and making decisions. They experience stress, anxiety and social isolation. In addition to seeking professional counseling and support (e.g. Penn CAPS, Penn Advisor, etc.) when needed, we can also develop and refine some metacognitive wellness practices to help us pause, center ourselves, and focus on what is important. Consider the practice of attachment, detachment, centering and focus:

Identify Your Attachments
  1. Become aware of your attachments. The things that we’re attached to tend to trigger a physical, emotional and/or psychological reaction in us. Is it family? friends? school work? professional obligations? the causes to which you’re committed? We pour all of our energy into external activities, commitments and triggers, herein, our attachments.
Practice Detachment
  1. Practice detachment. Once you identify your attachments, practice noting and letting go. If you can’t let it go, then set it aside momentarily. That from which we cannot let go has power over us. Practice ambivalence. It does not mean that you do not care anymore, it does mean that you put a distance between you and the trigger, so that you can behold it from a distance and with reason, without it enveloping you. What can you control, and what does it make sense to acknowledge as ultimately outside your sphere of influence?
Focus on What Matters Most
  1. Re-center and focus on what truly matters to you the most. What is most important to you? What is essential to your wellness? What feeds your inner being? Who is in your love circle? Who is in your support network? When you re-center yourself and start focusing on internal growth factors, a.k.a. healthy attachments, you will start restoring, recharging and fostering healthy energy, rather than seeing your energy sipping away in a myriad of activities, obligations and conflicts.

The process of attachment, detachment, centering and focus is not a one-time task. It is not an esoteric state of being; it is not an arrival. It is an active, daily practice, which is part of an intentional and iterative process. By practicing this process mindfully, and returning to it over and over again, you can develop a healthier and more sustainable wellness state of mind. This will support your studies and personal and professional life. Modern life has a way to pull you away from your center, from your true mission, towards sources of hyper-stimulation, which can often be triggering and draining. Close your eyes, breathe, and practice returning to center, over and over again. Resist, channel and flourish.

By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Fellow

 

Reflection: The Necessity of Failure

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Are you afraid of failure?

I am. At times, terrified.

Have you ever felt like a failure?

Countless times. More than I’d like to admit.

Do we talk enough about failure?

Probably not.

That last question is a tricky one. There isn’t a lack of literature about failure, especially when it comes to organizational failure, performance analysis, process improvement and case analysis.

What is more needed in educational contexts, especially in highly selective higher education environments like PENN, is open discourse about failure. I once heard about a college professor who kept a copy of her curriculum vitae along with a comparatively voluminous 3-ring binder of her failures. Another college professor posted all of his rejection letters along his office walls for plain view. In both instances, the professors intentionally revealed and shared their academic and professional vulnerabilities, inviting conversation with students about success that did not preclude, but preempted failure.

Failure can be predictable or unpredictable, but often unavoidable. 

Failure can be policy-centric, process-centric, technical, relational or communal, but always feels personal.

Failure can occur in the context of uniformity, inadvertent oversight, contention, change and complexity: Context Matters. 

In order to nourish that which can only be seeded, sprouted, grown and blossomed through failure, focus on the specific type of support that you need in each step of the failure-to-success process:

a confidant? a shoulder to cry on? an empath?

a relative? a friend? a colleague? a neighbor?  

a devil’s advocate?

an accountability partner? a supervisor? a guide? a counselor? a therapist?

how about a failure mentor?

Know that you’re thoroughly equipped with all of the personal, academic and professional attributes, wisdom and discernment, to design and navigate through your failure to growth pathways. Be good to yourself. Embrace failures, like successes, as stepping stones to your journey.

At Weingarten, we are committed to supporting you through all of your academic successes, failures and things in between that come to mark and shape your wonderful, authentic and humane self.

By Staff Writer: Min Derry, Learning Fellow

 

Bigger Pictures: Let’s Try Again, Shall We?

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Oh, dear. Winter break ended. Now what?

If you’re among those lucky souls who looked up their Fall ’18 grades with a sense of pride in accomplishment, an almost giddy feeling of work well done, then congratulations. That’s no easy feat here at Fun Times on the Schuylkill.

But what if your semester went awry?

What if your best laid academic plans of late August transmogrified into the second act of a low budget horror movie?

What if looking at that grade report made you relive the whole ordeal in all its gory detail?

What if you’re sitting there now, watching the horror unfold yet again, screaming at your past self, “Don’t skip the practice exam! Don’t skip the practice exam!” but there you go again, skipping the practice exam like that kid who just has to play with the Ouija board just one last time, thus opening the Hell Mouth and setting loose the demons who run amok in the second act of a low budget horror movie? Then what?

Even worse: what if it’s all happened before?

Let’s face it, you don’t want to be the recurring protagonist in a lousy horror franchise. You’ll wind up getting type cast and then you’ll find yourself telling people things like, “What I really want to do is direct,” while you read through the script for Schuylkill Terror 3: It Came From Under The Button. The academic equivalent of that goes something like, “I’m going to work really, really hard, and this semester is going to be totally different.” And then you promptly double down on doing things roughly the same way you tried to do them last semester, but with a “serious” and unyielding approach doomed for failure after about three and a half weeks. Lots of times it’s not about working harder.

It is amazing how often people take the same approach over and over, expecting different results, ignoring all evidence to the contrary. And if your Fall ’18 grade report felt like the trailer for Insidious 4, then you DO NOT want to do things the same way in Spring ’19.

So yes, this is a shameless plug for ambling over to your learning center and meeting with one of the friendly Weingarten Learning Instructors. We can help you figure out where things broke bad. Yes, it will be time well spent.

In the meantime, put away the Ouija board.

By Staff Writer: Pete Kimchuk, Senior Learning Instructor

Sadly, this quote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”, is at best apocryphal. But it so sounds like something Mark Twain would say that no one really wants to change the attribution.