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letting go of perfecion

April 19, 2010

(I apologize for how excessively navel gazing this post is. I do not mean it as a statement for how anyone else is, a judgment on anyone else’s life, or a statement of how other people ought to be. This is simply a shift in my own thoughts that I find therapeutic to share, and I can believe I’m not the only one here so I share it for anyone else in a similar place.)

I’m taking Burke’s DFT class right now, the last class I need for my masters. For those of you who are fortunate enough not to know what that means, I’m taking a class on a high level theory taught by one of the biggest hard asses in the department (I say that fondly, BTW – I happen to be one of those freaks who aren’t in a theory group and really like Burke, but he and my advisor definitely are in the competition for biggest hard ass in the department. Why do I do this to myself?). Anyway this post is only about his class incidentally. As a result of Burke being, you know, crazy intense, there’s a lot of homework that no one outside of his group can do more than half of. So I’ve found some study partners. BTW, I’m a terrible influence: today I told the undergrad I’d buy him beer if he did the whole assignment for me, and I tell the first years to ignore their advisors all the time. Anyway.

So I’m studying with these first years and this undergrad, and I’m the old experienced one. And I’m a terrible influence. I’m a gigantic slacker, and unwilling to hide that. I was talking with Ruben today about how unwilling I am to work 50 hours a week. And I’m surprisingly unashamed.

See, I was always the perfect one. In high school I keep straight As, lettered in two sports, and was the top violinist in the orchestra for two years, all while holding down a job and reading something like fifty books a year (three of which were always Lord of the Rings, which I really need to re-read). I was THAT student. And I was so proud of myself. I did everything, and I worked my ass off at all of it. I got it in my head that to be proud of myself I had to work hard at everything, and be great at nearly everything (being a shitty athlete was the only thing stopping me from being totally neurotic). I got very attached to the idea that it was necessary to work very hard all the time and be very good at a lot of things to feel like I was a good person.

College changed that in interesting ways. I was no longer the smartest at everything, but I still worked my ass off. And I had a hard time letting go of that, a hard time not tying my self worth to how few hours of sleep I had. I spent a lot of time trying to disconnect those two ideas, but was only partially successful. I was an academic type, and we don’t sleep. If you don’t do well but you were up all night, then it’s okay to feel good about yourself, but if you don’t do well AND you got a good night’s sleep then you’re a bad person.

Ironically, grad school has helped me move significantly beyond that. Despite being in an environment where a 50 hour work week is considered light, I’ve managed to let go of my obsessive need to be a work-aholic. It started first year where I organized my homework priorities something like this 1. quantum hw, 2. sleep, 3. other homework. So the stuff filed under #3 often didn’t get completed, mostly because I wasn’t interested in it enough to bother staying up ALL night. Then I spent my entire second year trying to figure out why the hell I thought I should go to grad school, and had to take stock of a lot of things. And I’ve been trying to come to gripes with this: my priorities don’t line up well with the priorities of a lot of academics. I want to have free time to watch mindless TV. I want to have a good night’s sleep every night, unless I’ve been up drinking. I want to be up drinking. I want to have hobbies, and go camping, and play with my pigs, and bake bread, and swear when my bread refuses to rise, and do nothing. In the future, I want to work part time and center my life around my children. I want to have life/work balance, where life comes first and work comes second.

These are hard things to contemplate, let alone admit, because there is such a strong culture of work in grad school (and the immigrant work ethic I got from my father doesn’t help). It’s expected that we don’t have family commitments, and that we’re here because we love it, and that we’ll bend our lives around our work. Beyond that, a lot of people judge people who go home at decent hours, and don’t work weekends. Which I understand – those of us who don’t want to work 80 hour weeks will have a lot harder time making tenure. But I don’t WANT tenure for research. So I’m trying to let go of that obsessive need for perfection. I want a job where I get to go home at the end of the day and make dinner and watch TV. I really do. *laughs* It’s a surprisingly radical shift for me, but I’m working on it. I respect and admire people who have that focus, I’m just learning to accept the fact that I don’t. I’m learning to not judge myself too badly for this. Apparently I’m getting somewhere: when I tell my study partners that I’m a gigantic slacker, I only have a minor urge to prove to them that I’m still somehow worthy as an academic. Only a small part of my brain is screaming to tell them my grades first year, or about the paper I published, or how orals went. Most of me is okay with them thinking what they will, and meanwhile when can I get home and watch some TV?

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