From Perfectionism to Submission to Success
Hi, I’m Laura and I am a perfectionist, like the majority of scientists.
Perfectionism has been a blessing and a curse in my life. I am used to putting all my efforts in anything I do, to the point that I prefer to say no to a commitment if I cannot give 100% rather than saying yes and performing anything less than the best I can. This has had such a strong impact on my academic life, but also in my personal life, including my relationships with others. For example, I did practice rhythmic gymnastics for 10 years, and I never missed training or was ever late, or made any mistakes during an execution. As soon as I could not commit the same amount of time to my training anymore, I decided to quit for good rather than continue at a lower level. It sounds awful, I know. Thinking back, I feel a bit sorry for how severe and stoic I was towards my young self.
At the end of my PhD, I realised that this ‘personality trait’ was not sustainable, if I wanted to survive and thrive in the academic world, while still being a functional individual with a (somewhat) functional life. At the end of the day, in science, as in life, perfection does not exist.
I have learnt to accept to feel uncomfortable and to submit manuscripts, grants and other proposals that could have been improved a little with some more time, time that I simply could not afford anymore.
I did my PhD in the UK, where scholarships are usually available only for 3 years. One of my friends and a fellow PhD colleague told me that nobody ever looks at their thesis thinking ‘this is the best I could do’ but I should have definitely looked at it thinking ‘this is the best I could do, with the time I had’. And it worked. This was a turning point for everything I did after then.
While I was writing up my PhD thesis, I did impose on myself a deadline by when I would have submitted, no matter what. I booked a weekend away to force myself to submit by that Friday afternoon so I could enjoy the getaway, and some well-deserved sleep.
For someone like me, all this obviously sounds easier than it is. I still get incredibly uncomfortable every time I submit a draft, or a manuscript, or a proposal, or a blog post, as I never think it is good enough. However, I am fully convinced that done is better than perfect.
After moving from the UK to Sweden to start my postdoc, my PI suggested I could apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. Knowing myself, I started thinking and obsessively reading anything related to the fellowship well in advance. I gathered all the information I could find, attended the writing workshop organized by KI Grants Office (highly recommended, by the way) and tried to get as much feedback as possible on my proposal. After months of hard work, I submitted the best proposal I could prepare by the deadline, and of course I still thought it was not strong enough despite all the time and energy I had dedicated to it.
Past rejections have taught me to never hold my breath for anything, as there are so many variables that we cannot control in the evaluation process, including a little bit of luck.
In early February, researchers on Facebook and Twitter started to share good or bad news about the Marie Curie fellowship, but I could not see any feedback about my proposal on the system so I decided to patiently wait for my inbox to flag any new incoming email (not before starting to think that by mistake I did not actually submit any proposal 6 months earlier, of course!). Finally, the European Commission email reached my inbox the day after, with the news that my research project had been successfully funded.
I was one of the recipients of the prestigious Marie Curie Individual Fellowship. I obviously spent the following week awaiting the counter-news that it was a mistake – impostor syndrome at its best.
Okay, it was not a mistake. I got the fellowship. Wait…what?! It took a while for the news to sink in. I have trained myself very well in taking the time to celebrate the submission of a paper, and the submission of proposals rather than celebrating when (and if) the paper gets accepted, or when (and if) I receive a grant or a prize. And I suddenly realised I did not know anymore how to celebrate a big, actual success, which let’s be honest, made me a bit sad.
It does not help that I am also empathic, which means I was feeling sorry for all the people who applied and deserved it as much as me but did not get it, because at least six times in the past four years I was one of them. I took the time to talk to people whose applications were not successful, I gave tips to friends and colleagues who are planning to apply this year. But I did not make any time to celebrate.
I finally decided that I had to celebrate. I planned an evening out, invited people, booked the restaurant. But then, an uninvited and unexpected guest appeared: a pandemic.
My Marie Curie Fellowship has started, and I have not celebrated yet. However, it is on my diary and the celebration is just postponed, not cancelled. We think that there is always time, but now I wish I had done something straight away when I received the news, rather than having planned it for later on.
I feel like there is something to learn from this experience, at least for me: there is no real success without a celebration of it. Have you really achieved something if you did not take the time to acknowledge it? Celebrations should be priority, and I will make sure not to forget it next time success decides to show up at my doorstep and honour me with its presence. Celebrating my achievements is non-negotiable for me anymore, and from now it will take the space it deserves in my diary, google calendar, desk calendar, and Trello. And when the reminder pops up, I will be ready with a drink in my hand and my friends by my side.