The pitfalls of perfectionism

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Publishing work is an odyssey, and sometimes, getting a story out means chaining people to the mast.

Perfectionism is generally a good thing. It’s good to take pride in your work, and in science there are obvious benefits from trying to get something as accurate as possible – but perfectionism also has its downsides.

With any story, there comes a point when you just need to put the figures together, write it up, and send it out. More work is not going to materially affect the main conclusions or the overall quality of the piece, and the cost of seeking to do so will outweigh the eventual benefits.

The perfectionist though will go into agonies at this stage. They will obsess over every panel in every figure. Maybe, they will think, things could be done one more time for extra statistical rigour? Maybe it’s possible to get an even prettier micrograph of that colocalisation? Maybe the same conclusion could be shown yet again using a third or a fourth different technique?

And on and on and on.

While the intentions are pure, the outcome can be counterproductive. It slows things down, because the one thing perfectionism definitely isn’t, is fast. The perfectionist will go on flaying themself, obsessing over minutiae while the clock ticks on. The perfectionist is someone who will be late for a first date because they can’t decide which pair of lucky socks to put on. 

At its very worst, perfectionism and tinkering and fiddling can lead to things taking so long that the original data become obsolete or go stale, and the whole story ends up being recapitulated with newer techniques. This behaviour can have disastrous consequences for the young scientists who are first authors of the work in question.

These are the moments when the skills that make someone a good experimentalist actually become a drawback to their career as a professional scientist. A good scientist will know that no story is ever perfect, and there comes a time when the best thing is to send it off for peer review. Get the story out and move on to the next thing.

The perfectionist will be aware of this. They may also, deep down, know that the trait might betray a certain lack of confidence. Not in their abilities, but in themselves. The need to be absolutely sure of something before putting their name to it opens a rabbit hole of possible extra experiments. Make the conclusions more secure, tie them down further.

But it’s not the conclusions that need tying down, it’s the perfectionist. Like Odysseus, they need shackling to the mast – unable to drown out the siren song around them, it’s better for all involved if they are not indulged to the utmost. The team needs to keep the ship moving forward, and that will happen fastest if they mute the entreaties of the poor soul in their midst. Perfectionism can be a mind trap, and when it leads to procrastination, then it’s no time to prevaricate.

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