At long last, the new year is upon us, and perhaps you are looking for a resolution. I have never been a big fan of setting resolutions for the new year since they seem to go by the by somewhere between January 2nd and January 31st, with the guilt setting in sometime around February 3rd. By Valentine's Day, all those resolutions seem to have been utterly abandoned and forgotten, but the guilt somehow lingers. At least that is my experience.
Since I started meditating a few years ago, I have come to understand that it is better to set intentions rather than resolutions. Intentions are more forgiving. If you slip up and don't meet your intention, you need only remind yourself that it was something you wanted to do not had to do, a pursuit more than a goal, and it then becomes much easier to absolve yourself and get back to that pursuit. A resolution is more final. The word even has "solution" built right into it. If you don't meet a resolution, you have failed. Cue the guilt! A resolution is a promise. An intention is an aspiration.
Whether you prefer resolutions or intentions, now is as good a time as any to reflect on the past and set some purposes for the future. I am going to propose a purpose for myself that will take some fortitude. I am going to stuff my ego in a sack and throw it in the river.
The act I am describing is one of neither homicide nor suicide. It is egocide, the murder of the narcissistic self. The ego,.
At this point, the sharp reader may object that professing to do such a thing is an act of narcissism itself. By drowning the ego you are paradoxically focusing on it and thereby nurturing it. Like advertisements and politicians, the ego thrives on being seen and acknowledged, and even negative attention nourishes it. Certainly, if you are indeed that sharpest of sharp readers, you would be right. Which is why this whole exercise sucks and why it is so crucial.
Every day, we confront situations that challenge our sense of self and imperil our complacency. What if, and stay with me here, what if those challenges are not threats? What if they are opportunities for self-discovery and growth.
I readily acknowledge that these challenges could very well result in the destruction of our sense of self-satisfaction and self-confidence. But if so, wouldn't that suggest that these self-assurances were unwarranted to begin with or fundamentally flawed? A more beneficial outcome would be to treat such challenges as a chance to stress-test our sense of identity and make adjustments to strengthen it through self-assessment and build resilience.
The challenges I speak of are too myriad and varied to list or describe, but they are common. Most often, they arrive in the form of of questions or criticism from other people or they occur within as self-doubt.
Always, though, how we receive them is entirely within our control.
Yup. I wrote that, and I can hardly believe it either. Frankly, I hate when people say things like "Oh, so and so is criticizing you? So what? Don't let it bother you. You're just giving them power." The reason such so-called advice is so annoying is because it shifts the burden to the victim and makes nonreactivity seem easy, within reach, and we all know how hard it is not to become defensive in the face of challenges to the self, which is only natural and, to a point, appropriate. And let's face it, other people can do horrible things to us. When I review just my past year, I can quickly compile a litany of grievances born of injustices, so I get it. But I also know, when I am being honest, that those grievances are all inside me. In fact, a little candid reflection reveals to me that the very people who committed injustices against me in the past year likely all congratulate themselves for having done some great service to the world in taking me on, for they, like me, are the heroes in their own stories. And knowing that fact makes the injustice sting all the worse. My ire rises, and my ego, beaten and battered, swells like like a welt on a bruise on an abrasion. Let it go? How can I?
Nonetheless, I owe it to myself to step back. What does it matter that they congratulate themselves for a job well done when I can prove incontrovertibly, I assure you, that they are incompetent and malevolent hypocrites? The kind of people the worst people consider the worst people. What does it do for me, exactly? Even as I write these words, I can feel the flesh of my face tingling, flush with anger and pain. All of it, though, is me. Just me. Just me. My self. My ego. It takes every bit of strength of purpose I have to gather my poor beaten and wounded ego, stuff it in a sack, tie the opening, walk it down to the river, and toss it in.
Disclaimer: No actual littering will take place during this little act of egocide.
My ego will be back, maybe a bit soggy, but it will return even before I pivot from the river to head home. The point is, though, that I must train myself to understand that my ego is both vulnerable and invincible. It requires protection, but I should also be willing to abandon it, to drown it. It won't die, and neither will I. I won't even suffer. And doing so gives me a modicum of agency over my own life and guides me in my next choices.
And this exercise must happen every day, maybe several times a day. It must happen in my personal relationships. It must happen in my professional relationships. Sometimes it even must happen in my casual encounters.
A Digression Concerning a Casual Encounter
Here I am, pushing my cart up the aisle of a grocery store. The aisles each have clearly marked directional arrows in this time of COVID in order to keep people flowing with and away from and not toward each other. And here is some guy, oblivious or arrogant, coming the wrong way. Worse still, the aisle is busy enough that now my path is blocked because of him. I could get angry. I could even say something. If it weren't for my mask, I could give him such a frowning he would not soon forget! We could have a confrontation. After all, I am doing everything in my power to keep both myself and others safe during this pandemic (yay, me!), and this guy couldn't be bothered (boo, he!). I could shame him for being a self-centered ass, and he could shame me for being a sheeple. Or I could just seethe with anger for the next little while in the hopes that my wrath will telepathically assault him and disrupt his smug contentment. Instead, I take a deep breath, I look straight ahead with a neutral expression. I am down at the river watching my poor ego, trapped in a sack, writhing as it goes under seemingly for the last time. It's a goner.
As soon as I have entered the next aisle, I am already engrossed in my search for clam juice. You don't want to ask an employee where the clam juice is. It is just too weird. How would that look? How embarrassing! Oh. See that? My stupid ego is back, and it is glowing with the pride in not reacting to that rude jerk. A paradox.
So that is my intention for the new year, for 2021: to learn to stuff my ridiculous ego in a sack, tie it tight, and flip the bloated thing into the river with great regularity and glee. Wish me luck.
By the way, I have another intention for the new year that will be much easier to pursue. I intend to really, really hate and resent this annus horribilis 2020.
One final note for those of an etymological turn: I had assumed that "sheeple" was a very recent neologism and was surprised that my spell check did not flag it. Turns out, according to Merriam-Webster (an authoritative source for American usage) the term dates all the way back at least to 1945. I also used the word "yay" in the same paragraph, which was, according to M-W, first used in 1963. That makes it a relative youngster compared to sheeple. Huzzah!
A short while back I wrote about the power of decency, but what about the superpower of decency?
Dr. Nichols' patient was struggling to breathe and begging the doctor to save his life. When his shirt was removed for treatment, the medical team, which Nichols described as "a Jewish physician, a Black nurse, and an Asian respiratory therapist," could see that his body was defaced with Nazi symbols, including a swastika tattooed prominently on his chest. As they set about treating the patient, Nichols reflected that a man with such emblems of hatred inked on his skin had likely devoted himself to devaluing, or worse, the lives of the very people working to save his. Nonetheless, the team prepared to intubate their patient, a procedure that would expose them to considerable risk of contagion in this age of COVID.
The scene Nichols paints deserves further rumination.
Think about it. Here we see a patient whose naked flesh proclaims his raw hatred for these individuals who risk their own health and lives to preserve his life even as they know their success would free him to continue to promote his noxious views and threaten their wellbeing and that of their families and loved ones..
Nazi tattoos are not some deplorable cosplay fad. They indicate a commitment to white supremacy and to classifying specific groups of people as subhuman or not quite human and decidedly intolerable. His Jewish doctor even recognized one tattoo as the insignia of the SS, who were responsible for designing and executing the "Final Solution," otherwise known as the Holocaust. Perhaps, you may argue, this patient had an explanation for the repugnant tattoos. Perhaps he got them in prison because he needed the protection of a gang, or some such thing. Perhaps he had or would come to regret them. But why so many? And why keep them?
Reasserting the Human in Humanist
Nichols describes himself as a humanist in his Twitter profile, which can indicate a number of things. Based on his story, I would guess that he means that he derives his morality from serving humanity rather than from the doctrine and mores of an established religion, dogma, or code. If I am right, Nichols' humble commitment to the service to others is a stellar example of humanist morality in action. Clearly, the point of his thread is not to garner praise for himself and his colleagues for doing their jobs. Indeed, the narrative culminates in a moment of crisis when, exhausted by months of battling COVID in the face of those who deny its existence and reflecting on the hatred this particular patient expresses via his body markings, Nichols hesitates.
Again, the story is about Nichols' moral dilemma in the fog of his exhaustion.
It is a story of human decency decently told in 280-character bites. It even starts in medias res. For Nichols and his colleagues, this nightmarish scenario is just the quotidian, the day-to-day routine. Worn down as he must be, he still constantly does the right thing, the decent thing, no matter his feelings. His story is a companion to that of Jodi Doering, a nurse in South Dakota who told her tale of moral outrage in the midst of gruesomeness on Twitter and CNN at around the same time. She spoke of patients who deny the existence of COVID and call her names even as they are dying of the disease. Like Nichols and his team, she continues to care for them in the face of their hateful contempt. Her Twitter profile, which now apparently lists her name as Jodi Orth (@jodiorth), has a banner that reads "Be a Good Human," sadly an increasingly radical stance. In fairness, I must note that her testimonial has been disputed as exaggerated, but I doubt the charge is true. Whatever the case, as Nichols observed, simply continuing to treat patients in the midst of COVID denial and hostility to medical personnel from a wide swath of the population is demoralizing in the extreme, and even more so in a place like South Dakota where the governor herself has abetted the spread of the disease and openly contributed to the widespread denial and consequent contempt for medical professionals.
These tales of frontline medical professionals, but two samples standing in for an untold number of told and untold stories, are more extreme than what most of us will ever experience. Still, they are clear instances of the power of decency, of remaining "a good human," in the face of horror.
I would go even further. For those of us in other walks of life, it is hard to imagine having to face anger, unreason, resentment, and hatred every day from the very people you are committed to serving, be they patients on a gurney or governors in the statehouse. Practitioners in other professions may confront similar dilemmas, (law enforcement officers, teachers, and, yes, even lawyers come to mind), but not perhaps in such stark terms and under such constant duress.
In this way, maintaining basic human decency, being a good human, is not just a power, but it is a superpower. It takes an extraordinary amount of fortitude to assert decency day in and day out even without the onslaught of abuse and offense that medical professionals, these human beings, face. Maintaining decency along with its attendant virtues of integrity and compassion is simple but not easy, for it is not enough to declare "I am an honorable person, a good human" or to merely intend to be a virtuous person. Decency demands constant vigilance, vigilance that itself is enervating, which is partially why Nichols flagged for a moment before proceeding to work on his patient.
Human decency, being a good person in the face of it all, is indeed a superpower. It is an act of heroism that may just save us all. While it is not as cool and fanciful as the ability to fly or turn invisible or punch through brick walls, it remains the only superpower that challenges our humanity and thereby the only one that can help make us fully human.
You are at the baseball stadium watching your favorite team. The game is entering the sixth inning, and your team's starting pitcher has given up no hits and no walks. There is a buzz in the air, a strained hush combined with a tense murmur. People are furtively pointing toward the scoreboard to alert their neighbors. Meanwhile, you are dismayed that although his pitch count is low, the pitcher is looking gassed, and his speed and accuracy are dropping.
Just then, you notice the guy sitting next to you—some rube wearing a tee-shirt with an image of the opposing team's mascot and sporting a baseball hat with the Cabella's logo. He's drinking ballpark Chardonnay of all things, which might be what prompts him to gush loudly to his wife, "Gee, honey. we might get to see a perfect game! Too bad it’s the other team." The entire row in front of you winces as do you. Sure enough, the next batter up, the opposing team's best slugger, launches one over the centerfield fence. You seethe with rage. So much for the perfect game! So much for the no-hitter! So much for the shut-out!
As much as the acolytes and guardians of baseball superstition may want the answer to be A or B, logic dictates that the answer is E, but how do we know? After all, even if you are not superstitious, isn't it within the realm of possibility that there is such a thing in this universe as jinxing? Can you prove there is no such thing? By the same reasoning, can you prove that there was no tremor? Or no collusion?
While such assertions constitute the logical fallacy called argument from ignorance, it remains impossible to prove a negative to an absolute. The possibility of a jinx or of an undetected tremor or of criminal collusion or of extraterrestrial influence or of a magic whammy executed by the opposing team's official sorcerer or of any number of reasons you can imagine all remain in the category of the possible, not the probable or even the serious. Simply put, because you can conceive such scenarios, they are, by definition, not inconceivable, however illogical. After all, the human mind is a meaning-making machine well oiled by a lubricious (in every sense) imagination, and our ability to speculate is, frankly, awesome.
Every day and in many situations we face the dilemma of determining what is most likely true and what is merely possible on an infinitely diminishing scale. Whether large or small, distant or local, we must make sense of these dilemmas in order to successfully navigate our world. A disciplined, rational mind can do so with relative aplomb. Rationality does not yield perfection, but it does operate with a high degree of accuracy, much more so than irrational imaginings.
Nonetheless, without getting political, I am sure that anyone bothering to read this piece can readily think of current circumstances in which vast swaths of the population deny verified facts and basic logic to come to all manner of wild conclusions with profound and dangerous consequences for individuals and society. A perfect example of the futility of rebutting arguments from ignorance is the persistence of challenges to the 2020 presidential election results, which morph from moment to moment always with the assumption that each new objection must be real because it is imaginable. Be they election truthers, flat-Earthers, Holocaust deniers, COVID deniers, or Qanon, the ascendancy and sway of such nonsensical and often self-contradictory theories have led some to speculate that we are coming to the end of the influence of the Enlightenment.
The Enlightenment or Age of Reason is a roughly eighteenth-century epistemological shift that, for better or worse, helped dissolve Europe's adherence to superstition and magical thinking and brought about a new era marked by the dominance of logic and rationality. And, yes, I am aware how problematic this narrative I have just sketched is for a variety or reasons, not the least of which being its inherent Eurocentrism and the fact that pathologically illogical evils still thrived, such as the concurrent rise of chattel slavery. Nonetheless, that period's movement away from Medieval metaphysics has allowed Americans to enjoy a long, inequitable, and imperfect period of ascendant rationality, which now shows some signs of coming to a close. So, how can we dependably cut through rising irrational speculation and unwarranted belief and get to the heart of truth? In order to reliably do so, we would need a pretty sharp implement.
Which brings us to good old Occam.
Well before the Enlightenment, William of Ockham, commonly Occam, a fourteenth-century friar and philosopher, formulated a beautifully elegant heuristic, which has come to be known as Occam's razor. Occam's razor is often rendered as something like, "when faced with a problem, the simplest answer is usually the correct one." This formulation is a bit misleading, but it is serviceable for most daily situations. In actuality, though, Occam merely suggested that in solving problems, we should not add anything and thereby keep speculation down to a minimum. In other words, try to solve problems and dilemmas using only the evidence available. So, in the case of our disappointed baseball pitcher, in the absence of evidence of an earthquake, a nefarious gambling scheme, or a wondrous cosmic influence that bizarrely and confoundingly seems entirely localized on baseball diamonds, Occam's razor or plain reason, if you will, dictates that the pitcher just ran out of energy and thereby blew a perfect game.
While Occam’s razor is remarkably and almost universally useful, there are two dangers I can think of in utilizing it. The first is that Occam's razor is not and was never intended to be an absolute. For instance, there may very well be evidence that you are not aware of when you deploy the razor, so try to be thorough in your search for evidence and keep an open mind when applying Occam. Which leads us to the other, greater, danger, which is the human inclination to relentlessly search for evidence in a desire to reach a particular outcome or to overturn accepted wisdom. In this scenario, the problem-solver may overlook or dismiss evidence that does not support the foregone conclusion in favor of evidence that does. This tendency, known as confirmation bias, can lead to conspiracy thinking and other discredited belief systems, which Occam's razor, when properly applied, happens to be superb at slicing to shreds.
Despite these concerns, Occam's razor remains an indispensable tool for reaching conclusions, solving problems, and resolving dilemmas. It relies on a simple principle that what you see is what you get, that the evidence that exists is all you need to reach a logical end and the truth of a matter. Wielded wisely, Occam's razor can cut through poor habits of mind and help avoid wild and magical beliefs. It can shave away confirmation bias and group think. It is a tool as equally wonderful for everyday household use as for solving global conundrums. It is capable of slashing through lies, superstition, wild-eyed conspiracy theories, urban legends, and standard BS.
As miraculous as it may sound, though, it is not magic at all. It is just a razor.
Meetings in the professional workplace are an unavoidable reality. If you don't have time to read all the advice on conducting meetings published over the decades (and who does?), do not despair. As a public service, I will sum it up pretty succinctly for you:
No, you may scrub meetings and workspaces with antiseptics all you want, but employees will all persist, stubbornly and hideously, as humans. A wise leader knows to capitalize on our shared humanity to construct a healthier and more productive workplace by allowing and encouraging (and never insisting upon!) levity. For, it is a fact that the team that can laugh together can work together.
To be sure, humor can be a risky thing in the workplace. A leader who is not confident in his or her ability to crack a joke should not try, but that does not preclude allowing others to trip the light comedic. For those who fear they are humor challenged, I recommend conducting a simple "humor audit," which will help gauge your inclination to laugh.
Of course, certain rules of decorum and decency must never be compromised. Humor too often leads, intentionally or unintentionally, to sharp divisions between insiders and outsiders, so humor in the workplace is best if inclusive. And humor should land within the parameters that are generally accepted in your specific workplace's culture or in the culture at large, which means that a budding jokester needs to have a good idea what those shared parameters are. Some workplaces may be more tolerant of lighthearted irreverence, for instance. Others, may demand a certain decorum with strict attention paid to the niceties of proper respect, the hierarchical strictures of subordination, and the astringent mores of Victorian stoicism. In other words, some places will be lively and fun and others deadly dull.
And the humor should never be demeaning to individuals or groups, including individuals and groups not represented at the meeting or in that workplace. Cracking a joke about a colleague who is participating in a meeting or about an identity group represented during the meeting can be rude, alienating, and at least borderline bullying. Cracking a joke about someone not in the meeting or an identity group not represented is almost certainly crude, cowardly, and unduly cruel. Whatever the case, such attempts at humor are potentially discriminatory. If the moral imperative toward decency is not enough to maintain order, everyone should be painfully conscious that inappropriate humor is not only offensive, but it is often legally actionable as well.
In addition, humor in the workplace should not become a stand-up routine with one individual cracking up the room. And, if you are the boss attempting this comedic act, just go ahead and assume that every titter from every person in the room has effectively been coerced, a sure way to sow seeds of discontent. If your position allows no hecklers, why the heck are you on stage? Not convinced? Simply chew on this phrase: "enforced fun and levity on command." Mmm. Delightful.
Whatever your role in the workplace, if you fantasize about standing in front of an exposed brick wall, a spotlight in your eyes and microphone in your hand, you best not test your material during a business meeting. And bosses beware, if only one or two people are cracking wise during meetings, that can be a sign of dysfunctional stress even if everyone is laughing. The fact is that your jokester is just trying to break the tension that your meeting is generating. I know. I have been that lone clown.
Alternately, there are ways to open up the floor for everyone to participate, but doing so will require conscious effort and sharing the spotlight. Even the seemingly humorless can shine in these settings.
Personally, I have been told that my sense of humor can be a tad dry and, well, sardonic, so I have to read the room carefully. Needless to say, my reading comprehension in such situations can be limited, so recently, I took this cool Humor Typology Test created by the authors of the forthcoming book Humor, Seriously. The test plots your humor style using four categories:
What is better than perfection?
This is not an idle question. It may have an answer.
So many of us imagine that we can and should constantly strive for perfection in our workaday lives, but no one ever seems to achieve it. Why not? I will leave it to philosophers and theologians of all stripes to formulate an answer and to conceptualize perfection as a metaphysical construct. My focus is on the common, everyday application of perfection, and I would pose this alternative question: in the face of sure failure, of a guarantee that you will fall far short of perfection, why try?
And yet, vast numbers of us continue to toil toward perfection, and I get its appeal. Workaday perfection is a great motivator. Since you cannot possibly achieve perfection, then its pursuit keeps you constantly moving upward toward achievement and even overachievement, which is admirable, right? Perfectionism would logically keep us sharp and on the right and righteous path. Since perfection is precise and unforgiving, perfectionism is a precise and unforgiving approach to life. Perfectionism gives you the impetus to eliminate errors in yourself and in others so that you can move closer to your goal, perfection.
I heard the following saga many years ago, from an administrator at a small university. We shall call her Mary. Mary was named the chief administrator of her new academic unit, and, having moved straight from faculty with no clear rules and few experiences to rely on, she looked for a role model to emulate. She began to closely watch her fellow administrators, who all had considerably more administrative experience than she did.
One in particular drew Mary's attention. He appeared to have a strong sense of self and always seemed to be on the ball due, perhaps, to his long experience in similar positions at that small university. We shall call him John. Mary imagined that, inexperienced as she was, she suffered from imposter syndrome more than most, but John seemed to have no such misgivings. He was always in control and constantly and decisively fixing, poking, and recalibrating every action and every outcome. No 'i' was left undotted. No 't' was left uncrossed. Each move, no matter how slight, was calculated and precise, from the way he drank his coffee to where he sat during a meeting. Nothing was left to chance.
Mary would watch as he burst into every meeting precisely on time to start because he had been working on something critical until the last second. He would leave the meeting the same way. Others might linger to chit-chat or share thoughts, but he would zip right by them on his way to his next crisis. He was a problem-solver to be sure, and he was set on perfecting his practice as an administrator. It was an impressive display, and Mary was duly impressed. In fact, she started emulating John. Not in everything of course. Her coffee, she insists, did not have to be just so, and she has a habit of sitting where she wants. But that restive busyness, that sense that there was always something that needed doing because there was no other way to perfect it, affected her profoundly. Soon, Mary too found herself rushing everywhere, from crucial event to crucial event, and she knew she had become impressive as well. People noticed and would comment on how hard she was working and how meticulous she had become. She dazzled even herself with her own significance and seeming willingness to rise to any occasion. You could always be sure to see Mary flying about campus with barely time to say hello to colleagues and friends. Students, she admits, were out of the question.
Just as John was prone to do, Mary started identifying crises everywhere, large or small. She regularly announced as she rushed out of meetings that she had to go "put out a fire." These crises were real, as real as those her fellow administrator, John, faced every moment. Administrating was hard. She observed John laboring constantly to synchronize every action, always with that elusive perfection just on the horizon line. He produced reports and studies and plans that were epic in their scope and epically captured on prodigious spreadsheets. Mary was impressed and inspired.
John was not altogether well, though. All his work and all his perfectionism took a physical and mental toll. He became gaunt and irritable. Mary realized soon enough that while he had mastered every minute detail, he had no sense of the larger cause they were charged with pursuing. He measured himself in exacting terms and measured everyone around him the same way, but he could not see that his faculty loathed him and loathed their jobs, which they were never able to do well enough for him. Because he was a control freak, John took no risks. He was a belt-and-suspenders kind of guy. He habitually avoided all controversies and made no waves no matter how intolerable the circumstances, particularly when they were intolerable only to faculty or students. He permitted no dissent, not even the slightest criticism, and expected maximum effort from everyone, including himself, at all times. The better faculty members with the means left, and their fresh replacements largely seemed cut from the same cloth as John. They soon too joined in his relentless drive for perfection.
Students began to noticeably suffer along with faculty. The goal for John and most of his faculty became less about educating all students and more about educating the best students. The ones who did not make their unforgiving cut but who decided to stay on at the university usually ended up in one of the majors in Mary's academic unit. Mary began to discern that many of them were much happier now and began to excel, but John and some of his faculty were openly contemptuous of them. They suggested that Mary's academic unit was not as rigorous as theirs because of all their "sub-standard students." His unit had the best students. After all, you cannot achieve perfection as an educator if the students are not all nearly perfect already. In education, we call this process "diamonds in, diamonds out."
Eventually all this perfection took a toll on Mary. Something snapped in her. One day, she was giving a presentation, and, at the end of her part, she apologized for having to leave abruptly with her usual excuse that she had "to put out a fire." The folks in the meeting nodded admiringly as she bolted out the door to her office on the other side of campus She was pleased to note how obviously awed they were by the difficulty of her job and her seriousness of purpose. As she walked across campus, she began to think how cool she was, rushing toward that next fire. It was almost heroic. She knew too that her day would be filled with extinguishing such fires, but she was sure to surmount every mounting crisis and to move that much closer to perfection.
That was when that something inside her snapped. Somewhere between that meeting and her office Mary suddenly broke character and, for whatever reason, questioned herself. "What exactly is this fire I am rushing toward? What is this next crisis in an endless series of crises?"
The answer: Mary had to make a phone call.
That was it. A phone call. And not even a very important one. It was just a blip on her busy calendar, but she had built it up in her own mind so that it would seem as urgent as urgent could be—a fire that, while now small, would soon blaze and threaten to destroy everything she was building and any chance she had at achieving perfection. She must decisively snuff it. With her new realization, that her fire was not even a spark, that the next crisis was not even a minor issue, she burst out laughing. It was mortifying to recognize how much of a spectacle she had been making of herself. Sure, people were amazed by Mary's superhuman focus, and she too was pleased with herself. But it was all a fraud, a show as much for her as for the world. She had spent most of her energy and time spinning an illusion rather than focusing on what was important and the mission of the university.
Mary then started watching her erstwhile role model through a new lens. What John trumpeted as his noble pursuit of perfection, Mary now perceived as mostly meaningless busywork. Those vast, incomprehensible spreadsheets that he produced and all the toil and planning they represented would rarely see any fruition. No one would really bother to read them even if they could. The mammoth, meaningless reports he constantly churned out somehow failed to acknowledge that his academic unit was failing in its most fundamental duty: educating students. In fact, the shedding of "inadequate" students was the tell-tale sign of his own inadequacy, and the fact that those students were finding a home and success in Mary's academic unit as well as success in their future endeavors was even more damning. Mary had discovered that it was John's very pursuit of perfection that augmented his academic unit's failings.
In perfecting trifling minutia, he had lost sight of anything meaningful. He and his favorite faculty kept doing the same things over and over while expecting different results. In short, Mary came to understand through him that relentless perfectionism is a debilitating illness or even a mania. Yes, his faculty touted the ability to secure a few prestigious grants, but those contributed little to the overall budget and did even less to enhance that small institution's mission, which was to focus on student learning. To Mary's mind now, perfectionism was a gilded toilet with plumbing problems.
And that is part of the problem. Perfectionism is deception—deception of the self and others. It stands to reason that if perfection is an impossible goal, then the self-criticism that attends its relentless pursuit and perpetual disappointment must finally take a toll on one's integrity. It becomes the easier choice to look down on others in order to bolster the ever-failing self, and doing so requires self-aggrandizement and judgmentalism. Perfectionism breeds unwarranted arrogance. In short, perfectionism establishes a classic inferiority complex.
After her revelation, Mary formulated an ethos to offset the mad pursuit of perfection. First, she tweaked her vocabulary and urged those around her to do the same. There were no fires to put out, ever. And, while Mary did not totally ban the word "crisis," she treated it cynically. If she or anyone else used it carelessly, they would rigorously critique its appropriateness, starting with simple questions like, "What crisis?" "Isn't this really just a problem, and doesn't every problem have a solution?" Mary and her team found, quickly, that there are few actual actual academic crises. They exist, but they are pretty exotic. They also found that many of the actions they had deemed urgent were utterly unimportant and often not worth even doing. They had confused "urgency," which has to do with time limits, and "importance," which has to do with substance. They practiced applying the Eisenhower Matrix as a matter of course and practiced forgiving themselves when unimportant things just did not get done. No one else much noticed, by the way.
Meanwhile, John, the pure perfectionist, continued to propel himself and his academic unit relentlessly with little thought of what it was they were really achieving. He was so caught up in his daily toil and his time was so limited that from time to time, his faculty members would come to Mary to get advice that should have come from him. He was too busy, they told her. More than once, students from John's academic unit came to Mary for help and support when he was unavailable. John continued to shed faculty, who moved on to healthier environments. In contrast, personnel turnover in Mary's academic unit was near zero, and student retention—the principal measure of year-to-year student success—was quite high.
There was nothing magical about all this. Mary and her team just started eschewing perfectionism and replaced it with a more rational philosophy, one I heartily endorse: the assertion that there is always a better way. Notice that the emphasis is on the way (process) not the goal (perfection). They asked themselves basic questions before they started any project: Why and so what? Fortified with this approach, they were able to focus on what was important while constantly assessing themselves and adjusting as needed. Oh, and if someone forgot to dot an 'i,' there was usually someone else to catch it. And if they did not catch it, which was rare, no student was ever hurt, no effort failed. Sometimes Mary's boss laced into her for minor errors, but that only reflected poorly on him, as he too had started emulating John's obsession with perfectionism and mastery of the trivial. Mary also noticed that she was putting far fewer hours into her job and yet was able to accomplish all that was required. She also was achieving goals that were most important to her faculty and students. She had become, in fact, more productive.
I wish I could say that John saw her and her team as a good model. Instead, he continued to look down on them as he puffed up his own mediocrity. He worked and worked, but had little more to show than she did, and his outcomes were sometimes far worse. To be sure, he has since met with more career success, but the ripples of misery that emanate from him and threaten to drown all around him are only overtopped by the absolute anguish that his carping words and deteriorating physical condition betray. He has achieved everything he has ever wanted and more, but he is disconsolate. Meanwhile, Mary, has fallen short of her original professional ambitions, but she has settled into a contentedness that suits her better than meaningless accomplishments embellished by vainglorious titles.
Perfectionism is the philosophy of unexamined failure. It blinds us to what is most important. I agree with Mary. There is always a better way. And the pursuit of that ethos, rather than blind perfectionism, often leads to success along the path we least suspect.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.