Event reviews by our Sci Curious members
A discussion exploring how perfectionism exists both positively and negatively across a range of different industries, from the need for precision in making the next big scientific discovery to performance anxiety in the performing arts.
Review #1 by Branislava
This event was, first and foremost, a discussion of perfection, and the many ways that it rules our lives. Through the in-depth discussion which included perspectives from leaders across a number of different fields, ranging from various performing arts, sports, and sciences, the common theme was striving towards perfection in and whatever form it may take. From mathematical theorems and the way the planets align to our experience of human behaviour and winning sporting matches, striving towards any given ideal was apparent in its prominence across all aspects of our human experience. Conversely, the consequences of not reaching a given level of ‘perfection’ were also discussed, and included mentions of the behaviours that this perceived ‘failure’ can induce, including avoidance, cheating, and anxiety. However, it was also suggested therein that striving towards perfection is simply part of the human experience as not only part of the human drive to excel in any given field, but the way that we choose to search for answers and control the world around us.
During the event, one of the speakers brought up the idea that we are all perfectionists in our own way, as we are all trying to make sense of the randomness trying to control the chaos through our own versions of perfection. In this sense, and many others, I found the event to be extremely relevant to me personally. Hence, the relatable nature of the discussion was relevant to me, however, it was from these discussions particularly that the idea of ‘living with’ and ‘overcoming’ the pressure and the anxiety that perfection can bring about resonated most. Specifically, this is analogous to the experience of wanting to put one’s hand up in class, but not doing so due to the fear of failure. In response to this common experience, the panel discussed the importance of not setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, but rather placing trust in oneself and being brave enough to aim for a given goal without hesitation and doubt.
Review #2 by Catriona
“The need for perfectionism leads to anxiety and dysfunction” – Professor Shitij Kapur, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne.
I gave up on trying to be perfect a long time ago, but that hasn’t stopped the pressure I constantly put on myself to perform well, or the feelings of disappointment when I don’t live up to my own expectations. Shitij opened Perfectionisms, speaking about “that moment” we all have at some point in our lives when we realise we can’t always be the best. He gave the example of the 352 first year medical students at The University of Melbourne, who face the transition of being high-scoring students to being in a cohort of “top students” of which there can only be one top. I faced that transition myself even earlier when I started at the Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School in year 9; students at the top of their class at schools across Victoria were congregated in one cohort where, again, only one could be dux.
It’s not just academically that I strive for perfection – I’m constantly trying to attain a scholarship, or write the perfect article (such as this), or sing the right notes in my choir solos – and it can be quite stressful at times. The discussion between hosts Dr David Irving, musicologist and cultural historian at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM), Dr Margaret Osborne, a lecturer in music (Performance Science) in the MCM and teaching specialist in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, and guest panellists resonated with myself and other audience members.
As musicians, both Margaret and David understand the psychology of perfectionism in performances, and how it can lead to anxiety and even avoidance - sometimes the need for perfectionism drives us to do well, but at other times, it can hold us back. As much as we can prepare for a performance, a game, an exam, etc. and hope that things go right, when emotion and adrenaline are added to the mix, as Margaret pointed out, it will unfold “the way it does”, which can mean that all preparation is “obliterated”. AFLW player Emma King confessed that the better prepared she feels, the less she feels as though a game she plays goes according to plan. As much as she and her team can train, prepare, and draw up game plans, there are always so many variables during the game. Emma and her team work tirelessly to build a scaffolding so that the game works as perfectly as it can: kicking and passing the football back and forth so as to drill the movements into their muscle memory. Try as we might, it’s difficult to account for all possibilities, and sometimes the more expectations we place on ourselves, the more disappointed we can be with our performance.
Opera singer Jeremy Kleeman spoke about the influence of perfectionism when he performs in concerts. Audiences often expect a beautiful, unwavering tone from classically trained musicians, creating a great amount of pressure on him to sing well in front of a crowd – a result of both the audience’s expectations as well his own. I personally relate to this pressure as a singer – singing for fun is fine, but when I’m being judged by others (whether in reality or in my head), my voice audibly trembles because I’m worried about sounding my best, inevitably making it worse. In auditions in particular, my throat often closes up because I’m so nervous, which is an example of trying to be perfect physically holding me back. For many singers, singing at the top of their range can be a challenge, especially if they become tense. Jeremy’s way to overcome this is to “put the accelerator down” instead of the breaks, as we often do when nervous about getting something wrong. While we may tense when we’re anxious that we won’t succeed, relinquishing control gives Jeremey the freedom he needs to relax and hit the high notes.
Ironically, Jeremy and other musicians can often find performing in a recording studio even more “crippling” than performing live, despite being able to record an infinite number of times. Most of the music we hear now is pre-recorded, which, unbeknown to us, creates a significant amount of anxiety for performers. With their voices permanently on a digital record, artists feel more constrained and take fewer risks, knowing that what they produce, including any blemishes, will forever be there. For a classically trained musician like Jeremy, there are often many versions of any given song he sings in existence, adding extra pressure and expectations given that those who listen to it are more likely to compare the artist’s version to other recordings. Margaret is concerned that “perfectionism drives avoidance” as we are too concerned about getting things wrong that we’re less willing to give things a go.
Perhaps, in one way or another, every one of us is a perfectionist. Actor Sophie Ross, is constantly examining human behaviour as she adopts every character she plays, trying to make sense of what they’re trying to control in their lives, how they’re doing it, and why. She believes that all humans seek perfection to “gain control over the random”. Every night she acts on stage, Sophie relinquishes her own perfectionisms and adopts her character’s…and when this happens eight times a week during a standard theatre production run, she can begin to take on them on outside the theatre (such as trying to get her hair looking neat and tidy – a feat quite difficult for her frizzy hair, but something her character would routinely do). We all have different things we want to control for a little bit of perfection in our lives – we just don’t necessarily see ourselves as perfectionists.
As we seek control and order in our lives as perfectionists, scientists are searching for all-encompassing theories and answers to explain the human body and the Universe. Astronomer and science communicator, Professor Alan Duffy, described the quest of scientists through time who saught “a theory to describe everything” – from the Ancient Greeks to Kepler, and from Newton with his three laws of motion to Einstein, who derived a single equation (e=mc2) – but there have always been exceptions to the rules because the Universe isn’t simple and ordered. We look for patterns and explanations, but so far they’ve not entirely fit with all of the imperfections of the Universe. Alan speculates that scientists will never find the “right, perfect answer” to propose a “Grand Universal Theory”– at least meaning that scientists will never be out a job.
On the other side of the coin, perfection can be an occupational hazard in academia, and environment with a high level of pressure as it is. With current ‘publish or perish’ mentality among academics (publish papers or lose your funding), there is a paranoia of “being scooped” if someone announces the right answers before you, driving researchers to get the best data they can as fast as they can. Alan admitted that this mentality can lead to an “insidious” conformation bias when it comes to dealing with data because the pressure can “really get to people”; When the points of a graph don’t align perfectly and there are outliers, the conformation bias can act as a voice in a researcher’s head that may provide excuses to exclude the outliers until the data aligns perfectly with a given hypothesis. I have read papers published in prestigious journals that have data images that are obviously edited, and it adds to my concern for research integrity, and the unhealthy, stressful environment that I currently find myself in as a PhD student. I’ve given up on writing the ‘perfect’ thesis and countless experiments haven’t gone to plan – but in my experience, that’s the way science works because we’re “swimming in ambiguity” and the Universe can’t always provide us with the answers we want.
What is the perfect performance? For Emma, it’s a win, and ideally a premiership with no injuries among her team players throughout the season. For artists such as Jeremy and Sophie, the answer is less simple as it lies in how they feel they’ve done in combination with feedback from their audiences, unlike a sports win or a “right or wrong like in maths”. David commented that “we’re worried about what everyone else thinks is perfect” but perhaps we should be content with our own performance. I’m an insecure person, often feeling judged and putting blame on myself easily, but following this panel discussion I feel a little more confident in finding perfection in myself without worrying about what others think. The pressure to be perfect is simply not worth the anxiety it generates – to actually achieve perfection, perhaps we need to let go of our perfectionisms so that they don’t hold us back.