Confessions of a Perfectionist Ph.D. Student: Love and Scholarship

Confession: Forgive me reader, for I have sinned. I thought scholarship was only about my whit and intelligence–not my love for others.

At the heart of perfectionism lay both fear and pride. On the one hand, there is fear that you will make a mistake, lead people astray, or look bad. It is the last one that reveals the pride in perfectionism. In hoping not to look bad you want others to look well upon you and your work. In fact, at least for me, I wanted people to see a great body of work that settled many issues. You want to write the perfect paper, express the right ideas, in a way where everyone will be persuaded by your whit or logic–maybe even think that you have put to rest all other arguments.

Displaying our whit should not be a goal of our scholarship. Avoiding this is one of the goals I have for my “2nd Chance Ph.D.” In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine says this:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

The goal of any work done by the scholar is to express love for God and love for man. If the work of a Christian scholar does not center around this love then they have missed the whole point of why they do what they do. In fact, if the Christian scholar who desires for people to marvel at their intellectual musings actually proves that they are ignorant of the true purpose of the scriptures; if Augustine is correct in his statement.

Even if we don’t agree with Augustine that we must have this love to interpret scripture (for what do we do with non-Christian interpretation…is there any merit to it?) we can at least say for the Christian scholar that this love of God and man should be present in his/her work.

That, was something I did not do well before. I hope to be better about it this time around. Bear with me as it will be a process.

Confessions of a Perfectionist Ph.D. Student: Desiring the Comfortable

As I stated in my blog post about my return to the Ph.D. program, the perfectionist in me must die. But I think that is a bit of an oversimplification of what overwhelmed me the first time around. To be completely candid, there are many other emotions, misconceptions, and thoughts that go into perfectionism. This series will go on as long as I need it to. I do have a plan for more than one.

Confession: Forgive me readers, for I thought research and writing should be free from anxiety.

Let’s face it, we all think that experienced authors are in a class of their own. The muses love them more than us.They wake up in the morning and beautifully constructed prose just flow from their pens. It’s almost effortless. All they need is pen an paper.They know what they are going to say and they say it perfectly. Our writing feels more like Odysseus trying to get home–full of difficulties.

But, talk to an experienced author about some new project they are writing and you’ll find out the real difference between you and them (that is, if you struggle with this….or even care about writing). They feel anxiety every time they begin a new writing project. Maybe not crippling anxiety like I did. But, anxiety in some form. They learned to manage it and work through it.

The anxiety for some, like myself, can be overwhelming.  We have a desire to write, but we don’t write anything because we are anxious. Even if it concerns subjects that we have studied for years. We are ultimately afraid of being wrong, not expressing things well, being disagreed with, or being called a bad writer.

Now, how do we manage that anxiety?

Use your anxiety to improve…not perfect: Go ahead and set aside the unreachable goal of being perfect in writing. However, our anxiety may not be completely without warrant. If we are worried about our grammatical correctness, or flow of prose, we may have a good reason for being anxious. So use that anxiety to improve! Pick up a book, or read a blog post about writing well. Pick one or two achievable goals and work on it during the next writing project. Work to become better, not perfect. Becoming a good writer is about becoming. It is a process.

Write in Community: I’m telling you this now, if you want to be successful in anything, bring the right people along with you. Most people who are labelled as successful usually aren’t alone. They have a good team. Your friends, family, or professors/colleagues, can give you good constructive feedback. If you are writing a book for a publisher, the editor will give you good feedback (please understand the editor wants the book to be a success so it will sell…therefore he is on your side). For example, I am a blunt man. But when writing a review of a book my bluntness may not be received well, especially for those authors I am critiquing. I will always bounce my writing off of someone else to help me express what I want to say in a way that won’t be off-putting. Bluntness between friends is a gift. But between strangers….its usually considered rude.

Write all the time: If we want to manage the anxiety of writing, we’ve got to work it in often. I keep a reading journal now, reviewing everything I’ve read and organizing my reactions to the reading.  It puts me in the habit of writing. It also gives me the chance to write in an atmosphere free from anyone’s evaluation except my own. Placing my thoughts about what I am reading helps my ideas mature and weakens some of the anxiety. When I go to officially write, my ideas have already had some written expression before the first draft. This removes some of the anxiety and speeds up the process of writing (which helps with the pressure of a deadline).

Until next time…