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Interesting article on perfectionism in NYT

March 13, 2011

I saw a link to this article on the @brainology (Dweck’s Brainology curriculum) twitter feed: To err is Human and Maybe also Psychologically Helpful.

The article presents an excerpt of a new book, Better by Mistake, the Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, by Alina Tugend.

In the article, the author tries to set up a continuum of perfectionism, from maladaptive perfectionists to adaptive and even nonperfectionists. Here’s how Tugend describes maladaptive perfectionists (emphasis mine):

On the other hand, what psychiatrists call “maladaptive” perfectionists need to be the best at everything, and if they make a mistake, it’s a crisis. It is also not just about how they perceive themselves, but how others perceive them: they believe they will lose the respect of friends and colleagues if they fail. They have to hit all their marks all the time.

Their need for perfection can also sabotage their own success. They do not turn in projects on time because they’re not yet perfect. They can’t prioritize what needs to be done quickly and what needs more time to complete. They want to rigidly follow rules to get things “right,” and this often means they’re terribly uncreative, because creativity involves making mistakes, Dr. Szymanski says.

Even worse, they don’t learn from their mistakes, because if, God forbid, one occurs, it should be concealed like a nasty secret. So they cannot get crucial feedback — feedback that would both stop them from making similar mistakes in the future and make them realize that it is not a disaster — because they won’t risk punishment or alienation for a blunder. And such a drive for perfection takes a heavy psychological toll, because every flaw, no matter how small, is cause for agony.

I see this is many of my students’ approach to school and occasionally even myself. But at the same time, the author’s description of positive (adaptive) perfectionists match many of the behaviors I see in my students’ approach to their extracurricular involvements, like ballet.

The author describes adaptive perfectionists as:

Those who have perfectionist tendencies, but those tendencies do not rule — or ruin — their lives, are what psychiatrists call “adaptive” perfectionists. They find it important to do certain things in the right way, but this need does not hinder their lives and can actually help them achieve great success. For instance, Dr. Szymanski … strives to be the best executive director and psychiatrist that he can be. But he knows he is not a great tennis player, and that’s O.K. with him — it doesn’t mean he will give it up because he is not world class, or line up a pro to work with him seven days a week. He is O.K. being O.K. at some things.

Finally, the article describes a very interesting study, with seeming important consequences for the education world (emphasis mine):

One of his studies shows how fearing criticism prevents maladaptive perfectionists from improving. He asked 51 female undergraduates — some considered high in the perfectionist trait (more maladaptive) based on a scale developed by Professor Frost and his colleagues and some considered low (adaptive and nonperfectionists) — to reword a passage from an introductory writing composition text as succinctly as possible without changing its meaning or deleting any important themes or ideas.

The assignment was then graded by two college professors who were blind to the differences in the participants.

The findings? Those high in perfectionism wrote passages that “were judged significantly poorer in quality than subjects low in perfectionism.”

Perhaps, Professor Frost theorized, that is because maladaptive perfectionists avoid writing tasks, procrastinate about them, and avoid having others review and comment on their work to a greater extent than nonperfectionists.

“The result may be that those perfectionists don’t practice writing in any consistent way and don’t benefit from feedback on their work,” he wrote. “Consequently, they may not develop the same quality of writing skills as nonperfectionists.

Perfectionists seem to be motivated by a fear of failure, and new tasks are viewed as opportunities for failure rather than accomplishments.”

So this gets me very interested in reading the complete book, but it also makes me wonder if the difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism has more to do with the environment than the individual. That is, is there something about how we set up school that encourages students develop a maladaptive perfectionist approach, while at the same time, sports and other extracurricular tend to encourage adaptive perfectionistic behaviors? It would seem to me that in an era of high stakes testing, stress inducing college admissions, and all sorts of other ills spelled out in films like Race to Nowhere, the maladaptive perfectionist might be a natural, even logical, response to this anxiety and stress.

I think teaching metacogntion, specifically Dweck’s Mindset, and perhaps this book, along with reforming how we assess (standards based grading, which offers multiple opportunities to achieve mastery) might be part of the answer to help students develop healthier, more creative, adaptive perfectionist traits.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2011 10:03 pm

    I find it interesting that perfectionism correlates negatively with creativity and innovation, but in most of our schools, especially the so-called elite ones, mistakes are punished through bad grades. We’ve designed our school assessments so that kids are more likely to play it safe to make sure that they get “the right answer,” versus truly exploring an idea. After all Edison famously said, “I never failed, I just found 10,000 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

    • March 14, 2011 10:24 pm

      I have two thoughts. 1. In my own classes, I am strongly trying to create an environment where students can learn from mistakes and risk-taking is encouraged, without an undue fear of bad grades; Standards based grading is a huge part of this.
      2. Since I don’t think we’re going to be able to change most schools overnight, and since my daughter is growing day by day, I’m wondering what we can do as parents to insulate our students from seeing grades as the primary indicator of their academic/intellectual selves? What I’d love to do is raise a daughter who thinks about her grades in the same way I think about my pulse rate when exercising. Sure, it’s one indicator of good exercise, but I don’t exercise to get my pulse rate up. I exercise because I love it.

      I find many of the students I teach are there—they see grades as a sort of “academic pulse check” and not much more. They are on their own intellectual journeys, take huge risks, learn from mistakes and seek our mentors for real feedback. I really wish I had the time/authority to do some sort of longitudinal study to see how these students develop their mindsets, particularly in a prevailing culture that runs contrary to this spirit much of the time.

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