Monday, December 1, 2008


The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Perfectionism's Necessary Counter-Balance

Some years ago, I was complaining to a friend at how upset I was that I didn't achieve something or another -- genuinely, I cannot remember about what I was grousing per se. I do recall her response, though:

"Sarah, you are not perfect...very nearly, but not."

I laughed, but I'm reminded of the exchange tonight.

This afternoon, I visited one of my favorite professors. I met with her, so that she could critique a paper of mine from last year. From a year ago.

"I haven't seen you since the Holiday Party," she began.

"Right. I'm sorry that I disappeared. It was babyish, but you handed me my paper at the party and I was so ashamed that you didn't love it [when I peeked at it while walking out of the building and while stopped at traffic lights on my way home] that I couldn't contact you afterward. I was too embarrassed."

"Well, I felt rejected when I didn't hear from you, and am glad to see you now."

"No, no, no. It was all my problem. I was just chagrined. Sorry to have been such a baby."

"I'm fond of you, so I'm glad you're back now."

I had brought the paper with me, so that we could go through it together and I had a giant lump in my throat the whole time, which transformed into tears as we talked.

"Look, you were so driven when you were in my class your first semester that I thought you were interested in the doctoral program here, and so I read it with an eye toward that. It didn't have an academic writing style."

"It's so ironic. I just came here from the information session on Kappa Delta Pi. I always want to do well, and be recognized for it, but...I don't really enjoy writing academically."

"I don't either. It's not creative."

"But you do it."

"Not very much. Mostly, I work with doctoral students on their writing."

"Well, I had such hopes for this paper when I wrote it. I wanted to be a big-shot and get it published."

"You still could. It wouldn't be such a stretch for you to do academic writing...if you wanted to do it."

"That's the thing. Half-way through this program now, I feel a bit lost. I keep thinking there's gotta be *some* scheme I can use to become published and I guess my latest idea was to get published via my work in grad school."

"Now that Obama has been elected, it's probably is fresh again. You could publish it if you wanted to. I mean, if you want to teach anyone, it's probably a good idea to publish."

"See, that's it. I enrolled in Teachers College because my sister had breast cancer, and I was afraid she wouldn't survive, and I thought, someone's gotta carry on where she left off."

"Is your sister an academic?"

"She was the principal of Brooklyn International High School, and has degrees from here and Bank Street College."


"Well, she survived, and then my mother had breast cancer and she survived, and meanwhile, I'm only half-way through this program and it's taking forever, since I'm taking only three credits a semester while working full-time."

"So it sounds like the doctoral program's not something you're still entertaining."

"No, I guess not."

"May I get that? It's my daughter." My professor's cell phone was ringing.

"Of course."

"Honey, I'm at school. May I call you back?"

I watched my professor and thought: I can't even create a child *or* an article, and she has done both!

"Sorry about that. My kids never call unless it's something bad, but she just said that she'd call my husband."

It was 28 minutes into the 30 I had scheduled with her and my sails were airless. "Well, I really appreciate your time and help, and again, I'm sorry that I was such a baby. [And then through tears:] I'm sorry to need this, too, but do you even still think I'm smart?"

"I don't think it. I *know* it."

"Thank you. On my way out, I want to tell you: Sometimes I feel like a visionary, but like people don't always want to hear my vision. Sometimes, I feel like I can scare people." (This had nothing to do with the paper. I don't know why my ego kicked in then, but probably it was meant to be a way to buoy myself.)

"Think about Obama. Nobody is that restrained. Nobody. And yet he is able to not scare people, and he got elected. People can hear his message."

"That's a bonus point. You're right. He's a good role model." I wanted to die more than ever, hearing that, regardless that it was meant to be constructive.

"So your mother and sister are well now?" she asked as my hand reached for her office-door-knob.

"Yes, thank God."

"And your kids, and you?"

She looked away. Someone she loved was "...having inconclusive tests."

I felt even worse. Here I was, whining about my crummy, little paper, which when put in a life and death perspective, didn't feel so big. And yet it did, and still does.

"I will pray for [the person's] restored health because often, like my mother and sister, people turn out fine."

"Yes, they do," she said.

I smiled wanly and thanked her again as I shut the door.


leonisgod said...

Excellent and honest post, found your site through beehive, keep up the real blogging.

Sarah Siegel said...

Thanks for your kind feedback. If you're a blogger, too, I'd love to visit your blog if you'd share it here or at work via beehive.