Biophysical Society Bulletin | January 2022
How to Deal with Perfectionism The actor Denzel Washington said in an award acceptance speech, “Without commitment, you will never start. But more importantly: without consistency, you will never finish.” I would add “pas- sion” to “commitment” and “persever- ance” to “consistency,” but this note, in the broader sense, is about what it takes to carry out and present or publish sci- entific research: it takes a certain kind of mind with curiosity, imagination, and attention to detail as well as to the bigger picture. However, as a “nuts-and-bolts” motto, it takes the aspiration and with it the perspiration to produce a perfect piece of research work. Perfectionism—when everything seems to go right, often in situations with no room for error—is central to many sports disciplines, but is also in full display in the arts. So it is with presenting scientific results, apart from an almost artistic flair, there is a lot of process-associated skill: are the data of the highest possible quality, did we think of all the controls and caveats, did we have a full grasp of the literature, and is the presentation as clear, comprehensible, and logical as possible? The list is long and exacting. Scientific researchers feel their ability to produce the highest-quality work possible typically goes hand in hand with the success of a laboratory to publish in the most prestigious and high-impact-factor journals and with invitations to give plenary talks at conferences. Objectively, there is no room for sloppiness in the execution of research or its presentation. “Good enough” is simply not good enough! Given that the nature of reality is now universally accepted as statistical, nothing is absolutely 100% certain and those who have cherry-picked their data (fromMendel to Millikan) had their reputation in history dented at least a little. Beyond this, the desire for perfectionism in many situations runs into the reality of limited resources (with time being the most pre- cious—i.e. deadlines) and into the human nature to make at least some mistakes. A wrong note played by a concert pianist or the slip of a champion skater in an ice dancing routine can be catastrophic. For science, one can argue that impactful prog- ress in a field of research is more and more the result of team- work, competition, or collaboration between several laborato- ries, which in the aggregate produces “perfection,” especially in
fields that translate knowledge into technology, engineering, or manufacturing. After all, airplanes very rarely fall out of the sky. Thus, you might be surprised that this author, a senior aca- demic, is about to argue against the need for an extraordinarily strong aspiration to be the perfect scientist or to produce the perfect piece of research work. In fact, a personal psychology of perfectionism creates many problems, in particular for scien- tists: from committing outright fraud or some level of falsifica- tion of data, to imposter syndrome (subject of a previous Molly Cule piece), obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression (which can cause an inability to get passionate about or started with a project), or not being able to finish a piece of research due to being sidetracked into doing unnecessary experiments and controls. I am not suggesting that those who are unable to be careful by paying attention to details or who lack reasonable worries about making mistakes should embark on a career in scientific research. However, this investigator cherishes the unpredictable, creative, and imaginative aspects of the research experience. No experiment works well the first or second time, and optimization is required, but to deliver “perfect” and “beyond-doubt reproducible” data is an expectation we have of computers and robots, not of humans. The second aspect of perfectionism is that even when you might be at peace with accepting the “reasonably good enough,” your advisor might not be. This can cause a lot of friction and unhappiness, but this investigator was given the following piece of advice early on: “Our mentor is never happy anyway. Make sure that you are happy with what you do and how you do it.” Scientific research attracts unusual personalities—from those who micromanage the most important projects and papers (i.e., nothing is done perfectly unless they do it themselves) to those for whom only extreme effort can result in work that is perfect enough. Countering such behavior takes courage: a hard appeal to the rational and the fortunes of reality, mentioned above. Ultimately, every scientist needs their own internal guide about what quality standards to set for their work. Increasingly, com- puters and robots are becoming our colleagues in carrying out research, so let’s leave much of the perfectionism to them. — Molly Cule
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BPS held 12 Networking Events in 2021. These events were organized by members in 5 different countries.
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