The “Tiger Mom” Revisited

I've written before about Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua and her odious 2011 book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the thesis of which is that you should punish, humiliate, and otherwise coerce your kids into being high achievers. As I wrote at the time it was published: A few weeks ago [Chua] had a firestorm of publicity around her book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she boasts of her authoritarian and coercive parenting methods, which include not only insisting that her daughters follow a narrow course of “success-oriented” classes and activities, but punishing them harshly – via withholding, threats and insults – when they don’t toe the line or achieve top-level success. (For instance, she deprives them of bathroom breaks, threatens to burn their toys, and calls them “garbage.”) She got a major boost when The Wall Street Journal featured her in an admiring article. What Chua considered her branded form of tough-love parenting, however, many considered nothing more than child abuse. There … [Read more...]

Perfectionism is All Lies and Oversimplifications, Part One Million

This tweet has it all, from a perfectionist standpoint: It: Sets an impossibly high standard for success. (You should be as successful as Apple's Steve Jobs, etc.) Is shaming. ("What's your excuse?") Makes specious comparisons. (Between you and these ultra-successful outliers, most of whom also achieved their success decades ago, in a very different society and economy.) Offers zero guidance on how to actually achieve the level of super success it's promoting. AND IT'S WRONG. Perfectionist narratives, including the "rags to riches" and "bootstrap" ones so beloved by the business press and conservatives in general, are inevitably oversimplified and dramatic. As you can read in Historic.ly's brilliant takedown of the tweet, the founders of the companies mentioned were overwhelmingly rich and well-connected. And, with one exception, Mattel's Ruth Handler, they were/are all white men, so the tweet's implied claim that, "anyone can do this" is, on its face, bogus. The perfectionist tweet … [Read more...]

Roll Over Beethoven!

At a recent performance of Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony, the conductor told how, when Brahms was just starting out, the elder composer Robert Schumann praised him to the high heavens. Here’s the story: Brahms was only twenty years old and as yet little known….Robert expressed his admiration first in a letter to Joachim, and then in an article for the Neue Zeitschrift, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”). He praised Brahms in extravagant language, proclaiming the arrival of a young musician “called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion: a musician who would reveal his mastery not in gradual stages but like Minerva would spring fully armed from Kronos’s head. And he has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…” Partly as a result of Schumann’s extravagant praise, many considered Brahms the natural successor to Beethoven, and predicted that his first symphony would be “Beethoven’s Tenth.” It took Brahms 21 years to finish that … [Read more...]

Nope, “Perfectionism in Moderation” Isn’t a Good Thing

Writer Lindsay Ellis recently tweeted about imposter syndrome (where you think you aren't up to the task, have everyone fooled, and are destined to be revealed as a horrible fraud). Unfortunately, she gets it wrong. She writes: "Because the thought patterns that lead to imposter syndrome need not always be a net negative - on some level, it is a form of perfectionism, but perfectionism can be harnessed as energy to create better, more thoughtful work. Perfectionism in moderation need not be destructive." You won't be surprised to hear that I emphatically disagree with that last sentence. My responses below. As someone who specializes in helping writers and others overcome #perfectionism and procrastination, I have to respectfully disagree. I believe perfectionism is always harmful because it disempowers you.... https://t.co/I4mzUPwx4t — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) March 1, 2019 Perfectionism's main tools are harshness and coercion - including imposter syndrome. They are inhumane and thus immoral … [Read more...]

Nonperfectionism in a Single Sentence

Nothing is as humbling, to a writer, anyway, as when you've used a lot of words to say something, and then someone comes along and nails it in a single sentence. But also nothing is more of a gift, so I guess it evens out. :-) It happened to me with my book The Lifelong Activist. Somewhere in the midst of writing a 400+ page tome on how to live a sustainable, balanced life that includes a serious political mission, I found this quote by the French writer Gustave Flaubert that pretty much summed everything up: "Live your life regular and orderly like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work." (Of course, Flaubert doesn't tell you *how* to do that great thing, so I guess my book is still useful!) These days I spend a lot of time helping people overcome perfectionism. And for my work-in-progress, Joyful Productivity for Undergraduates (due out this year!), I'm happy to say I've come up with no fewer than nine great solutions, which I'll share in a future newsletter. But … [Read more...]

The Difference Between High Standards and Perfectionism

Where does "high standards" end and perfectionism begin? When it starts to cost you. A recent New York Times piece by Karen Crouse recounts the trials of figure skater Gracie Gold, an Olympic contender who suffered mental illness, including eating disorders, in large part from the pressures of competing.  Gold's perfectionism, according to the article, started early. "Throughout [her] childhood, she was fixated on being first, and flawless. In the classroom, she would furiously, and tearfully, erase an entire sentence if she misspelled a single word. By second grade, she had found an outlet for her compulsiveness, taking formal skating lessons at a rink near the family home in Springfield, MO." The absolute hardest thing I have to teach people is that perfectionism never helps and always hurts. The lesson can be hard to take in because: Perfectionism--whether in the form of harshness, punishments, and/or deprivation--has a superficial logic. "Just work harder, Sally!" Or, "No breaks till you're … [Read more...]

The Conversation You Have With Your Work

Creative / scholarly work is actually a conversation between yourself (your ideas, emotions, perceptions) and your materials and influences. Or, as glass artist Davide Penso recently put it in an interview in Glass Art Magazine: "I didn't and don't presume to work in glass, but to support it and assign it the task of molding me. Glass enhanced my best characteristics and emphasized its own. In silent agreement, with respect, we use each other." It's probably the best encapsulation of the creative mindset I've read. Perfectionism can get in the way, however. If you start... trying to control the outcome ("I'd better do fabulous work!") rushing ("It's going too slowly!"), or instrumentalizing (seeing the work as a means to an end, as in, "This should get me an A," or "I really want this to be the Great American Novel.") ...then you derail the whole process. Now it's true that we often do want to do great work, meet our deadlines, and impress our audience (teacher, editor, gallery owner, … [Read more...]

An Extreme Exercise in Nonperfectionism!

A fun exercise for overcoming perfectionism is to send emails with intentional errors and silliness in them. You're basically practicing toleratting your errers, and having others see those errers. (It also helps with time management because once you stop trying to perfect every email you save a lot of time. And yes, of course I know that some emails need to be as perfect as possible. I'm obvusly not talking about those.) The more upset someone gets at the prospect of sending out an email with a few intentional typos, the more perfectionist I know they are. (And some people get plenty upset!) Even *I* would be taken aback by this typo, however: Coping with that would be an extreme exercise in nonperfectionism! Happy holidays, and if you want to send me a silly email I would love to get it. Best, Hillary Related: Why email is such a difficult time management challenge. … [Read more...]

Inspiration from Michael Jordan and Garry Kasparov to Start Your Work/School Year

I hope everyone had a fantastic summer! Let's get the work/school year going with a great quote from Michael Jordan:             I quoted chess champ / democracy activist Garry Kasparov saying something similar in my book The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: "Years ago, I was fortunate to hear one of my heroes, former world chess champion and current Russian democracy activist Garry Kasparov, discuss important lessons he had learned from chess. Here’s how he began his talk: “I have won hundreds of chess games, and lost thousands. You have to have the courage to fail." The courage to fail. What an amazing phrase—and coming from a hypercompetitive chess champion it takes on a special meaning. Kasparov probably hates failure more than just about anyone—in fact, as his use of the word “courage” implies, he probably fears it—but he had to develop a tolerance for it to reach his goals. That he chose to begin his talk with this point only underscores its … [Read more...]

Productivity Secrets of a “Supergenius”

A friend was discussing her fears around her writing, and, in particular, of taking on bigger projects than she could handle, when she came up with a great comparison: "I feel like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off the edge of a cliff. Then he looks down and realizes he's gone too far, but it’s too late, and down he goes." She was conveying a real sense of fear. (Falling off a cliff, even in a cartoon, is scary!) And yet...something about the comparison felt off. I thought for a moment, and then pointed out: "But he always survives the fall, doesn't he?" She paused. "Uh, yes. I guess he does." "And then he goes on with the chase?" “Yes!” I think it's fair to say my friend's attitude shifted at that moment. In fact, her comparison was more apt than she realized. As a creator, it's actually your job to “run off the cliff”—i.e., take risks. And that, by definition, means you’ll fall (a.k.a., fail) a lot. It's essential you not overreact to those failures when they happen. Even better, stop … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk About “Situational Perfectionism”

“Situational perfectionism” is when something causes your perfectionism to spike above its usual levels. (Which usually, in turn, causes your procrastination to spike!) It’s a common phenomenon, with many causes. Here are a few: A prior failure. Often, when we perceived we’ve failed, we get more afraid of future failures. (The solution is to not make such a fuss over failure.) But, paradoxically... A prior success can also do it! That’s because you feel (often rightly) more scrutinized. Second Novel Syndrome is a classic example of this type of situational perfectionism, and even J.K. Rowling experienced it after the success of the first Harry Potter book: “For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block...The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.’” Fortunately, she got over it, but many writers and others, alas, never do. Labels can be a problem! Labeling your project “urgent,” “important,” or “difficult” … [Read more...]

Stuck? Lose Your Label!

Here’s a useful piece by Austin Kleon on How to Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Chaotic Times. I like #3 a lot: “Forget the noun, do the verb.” Calling yourself a “writer,” “artist,” "activist," "scholar," “entrepreneur,” or any other label can invite procrastination if you use that label perfectionistically. For example, if you think of a writer as someone who is supposed to: write many hours every single day sacrifice everything else to one’s art happily starve / live in a garret be smarter about all things writing-related than anyone in the room (or anywhere!) write fantastically all the time, and, enjoy writing all the time Then you’re inevitably going to fall short, and feel miserable about it. Here are some other labels that get people into trouble: “good parent" (if you think "good" means you must sacrifice everything for your kids) and “dutiful child" (if you think "dutiful" means you must do everything your parents ask). In these cases, you should forget … [Read more...]

A Self-Critical Paragon of Productivity

Last weekend, a woman with whom I was speaking on a business matter told me she was "really could use help" with her time management, citing as proof the fact that we were working over the weekend. She had forgotten, however, that the reason we were doing so wasn't because of anything she had done, but because I hadn't had a chance to return her call during the week. So here she was, blaming and condemning herself for something that wasn't even her fault! Along with pointing that out, I also pointed out that she did great at her complex and challenging job, a sign that, contrary to her words, she probably was a competent time manager. "This isn't even my main job!" she exclaimed. Turns out that she held a part-time job in addition to a rigorous full-time one AND was a single mother. I was astounded, and pointed out to her what would probably have been fairly obvious had she not been too negative: that, being competent in not just one but THREE enormous areas of responsibility was a strong indicator that … [Read more...]

The Welcome Debunking of “Grit”

I'm happy to report that "grit," that awful, victim-blaming concept, has largely been debunked. An Education Week piece by University of San Francisco psychology professor Christine Yeh reports that Grit author Angela Duckworth has been forced to walk back some of her book's key claims: “Much Ado about Grit: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis of the Grit Literature” by Marcus Crede and colleagues analyzed 88 separate studies on grit and raised three main concerns: The effect sizes in Duckworth’s research were inaccurately presented to appear larger, the influence of grit has been overstated, and the characteristic grit is not much different from the concept of conscientiousness—a concept already well-known and well-researched by psychologists.In a email exchange with NPR in which she responded to these criticisms, Angela Duckworth agreed that, although the statistics in her paper were factually accurate, the language was such that the effect of grit could be misconstrued as greater than it actually was. Secondly, … [Read more...]

When a Success Leaves You *Less* Able to Do Your Work

I use the term "situational perfectionism" to describe circumstances that cause your perfectionism to spike. A failure (or perceived failure) can do that, but so, paradoxically, can a success, especially if it causes you to feel more visible or scrutinized. J.K. Rowling experienced this after the exceptional success of the first Harry Potter book, but fortunately was able to move past it. Other writers aren't so lucky. From this week's obituary of writer Bette Howland: "In 1984 Ms. Howland received a MacArthur Foundation award — the so-called genius grant. But her literary output dried up. Jacob Howland sees the two things as related."“I think the award may have sapped her confidence,” he told the website Literary Hub in 2015. “If people don’t expect great things from you, it’s easier to please them. But people expect great things from a writer who has won the MacArthur.”" It's always best to approach projects with a "clean mental slate," as free as possible from past history and future … [Read more...]