I'm a perfectionist. What that really means is I'm immensely critical of myself and others, but I have a hard time getting things done. It took me 5 minutes to write those two sentences. (I bet a lot of "perfectionists" have this problem!) Why? I tend to get caught up in the planning phase of, well, everything. I never did rough drafts in school, because the time it took me to plan essays in my head was virtually the same as it would have been to actually write something down. Hell, it was probably more--my train of thought doesn't stay in one place like ink on paper. I used to plan the perfect essay in my head for weeks, then scramble to get something-- anything --on paper the night before a deadline. My thoughts were organized; I spent a few minutes on every sentence! But I was always acutely aware that the final product was nowhere near my potential.
It showed. My junior year I did a literature review with a professor that had exacting standards. I planned and planned (in my head), and I dissected more journal articles in 1 semester than I had previously read in my lifetime. I tried to write the paper in one swell foop of an all-nighter, and I didn't finish. My brilliant ideas, high standards, and meticulously crafted notes in the margins of my sources weren't enough to get shit done. The paper was many pages short of the minimum length. My professor was nice enough to give me a decent grade for the content I had, but he noted that it was obvious I wasn't doing my best. Duh. I knew that. I just didn't know how to do my best. I thought my best always required more time and I was just slow.
I'm not slow. Really, I just needed to change my outlook--something I've started to realize a full 2 years after graduating college. The rest of this post will address how working in a neuroscience lab has helped me realize this, and how it has forced me to deal with it.
Writing an essay isn't so bad: it's relatively easy (in theory) to formulate what you want to say, then say it. But in the real world nothing is like that. Formulating what you want to say or what needs to be done opens you up to criticism from all kinds of h8ers. Risk management is important for deciding what course of action to take (what if you fail?). This is especially true in academic neuroscience, where timelines for feedback are so protracted (experiments usually take a lot of time). Even though your PI has probably already thought of some important questions to answer (no easy task!), actually answering them can be...irksome. We're talking months or even years of troubleshooting equipment, protocols, etc. As an example, I recently started working with some equipment I thought was ironed out by a previous lab member (not sure why I thought this--no one ever explicitly said everything was good to go--but I had a protocol to start with). Nothing was working, no matter how much I tried. "Maybe I'm just doing it wrong." I didn't communicate the problem effectively; I thought the protocol was fine, and I was the problem. At some level I knew I needed to change the protocol completely, but I was too invested to change course! Besides, I thought, what if I'm wrong and end up wasting more time? That would be embarrassing. Finally, I just did it! I changed the protocol. Within a couple weeks, I could tell things were smooth sailing. If I had tried this sooner like my gut told me to, I would have saved a month of my time!
I said before that my brand of perfectionism makes it hard to do things. And why? I realized it's a couple things. One is insecurity: I was too embarrassed that things weren't working in lab to say something or change course and see what happened. The other barrier preventing me from achieving my goals for productivity is unrelenting self-criticism. I don't mean self-loathing or anything. I mean I let reasonable risks inherent to all scientific endeavors convince me not to move forward. It's as if I'm waiting for the Perfect Experiment to spring forth from my brain, and nothing else will do. I thought of a million reasons my new protocol wouldn't work or wasn't good enough; it worked anyway. The important thing to keep in mind is this: in a basic research setting, people don't usually fault you for not doing the Perfect Experiment, especially if you're just getting a new project off the ground. They only want to see progress and a drive to find answers. So... try things! It doesn't have to be perfect. Don't worry so much about what people will say before you even get started, and don't convince yourself that what you're doing isn't good enough. Over time, what you learn from trying is what will become good enough.