Saturday, October 20, 2018
A perfectionism epidemic has broken out at most law schools across the country. It is the time in the semester when many students spin their wheels in studying because perfectionism has them in its grip. First-year students suffer acutely; but upper-division students are not immune.
The symptoms may vary, but the underlying perfectionism is there. Here are some of the symptoms I see regularly:
- Spending an exorbitant amount of time preparing for class because "I don't understand every bit of every case yet."
- Copying large chunks of case language into a case brief because "I may not state it as well as the judicial opinion."
- Getting less than 6 (in some cases way less) hours of sleep each night because "I haven't finished everything to the standard I want."
- Feeling paralyzed about starting course outlines because "I have never outlined before and may get it wrong."
- Filling tome-like outlines with total trivia because "I may leave out something important."
- Avoiding practice questions because "I don't know everything yet."
- Abandoning completion of practice questions because "I didn't get them all right."
- Despairing over an average grade on a quiz because "I should have gotten an A."
- Continuing to research after the exact same sources are found because "There may be something out there that I missed."
- Procrastinating because "It won't be perfect and starting late gives me an excuse for it being less than perfect."
Perfectionism makes people miserable. No human will ever be perfect. Our students come with histories of success: high grades; superb recommendations; trophies; accolades for A-Z. Many of them have minimum experience with being less than perfect (or at least appearing perfect). Consequently, it is hard to settle for excellent or very good instead of perfect.
One of my law professors warned me my first semester of law school that I would never feel that I had done everything that could be done. There would always be one more case I could read, one more edit of a draft I could do, one more practice problem I could complete, one more study aid I could check, and so forth. He warned that perfect was not the goal - the best I could do under the circumstances for that day was all I could ask of myself.
He was right - not only about law school, but also about legal practice. We could spend 24/7 and still feel as though there was more we could do.
We need to put aside perfectionism before it gives us sleepless nights, ulcers, migraine headaches, and more physical souvenirs. We need to refuse perfectionism's cocktail of shame, guilt, worry, frustration, and depression.
So, let's embrace accomplishing what we can to our best ability today under today's circumstances:
- Set a realistic number of goals for today.
- Prioritize those goals as very important, important, least important and finish them accordingly.
- Set a realistic time allotment for each goal and stick to it rather than push for perfect.
- Recognize today's circumstances and work realistically within them: deadlines, appointments, personal illness, etc.
- Refuse to equate your human imperfections with failure.
- Make a new "to do" list for tomorrow and realize tomorrow is another day to do your best.
- Get a good night's sleep: you will be more alert, focused, and productive for tomorrow's tasks.