28 October 2017


This post is going to be a mashup of several different threads running through my mind lately. I don’t have a very good introduction, nor do I want to spend time on one. Let’s just jump in and see if anything useful coalesces by the end.

The first topic is academia. That’s the employment sector where I work currently and where I’ve spent most of my adult life – my many years of post-secondary schooling bleeding into the indentured servitude of a post-doc, and continuing from there. As many of my colleagues would attest, academics are mainly overachievers, a lot that is seldom satisfied on any measure of performance. We are walking careers, ambly taking research from the field into the office and from there into the bathroom. In only ten minutes, we can come up with research questions that would only take ten years to address, meanwhile scribbling out lists of critically important things to do that frankly (most of the time) may only ever turn out to slightly affect about three other people on the planet.

Many academics are perfectionists. A perfectionist is seldom satisfied; s(he) is always looking ahead to what item next requires perfection. There can be a momentary flash of happiness at the crest of a long-sought accomplishment, but the joy is often short lived, because the vanquished imperfection falls into obscurity as the next goal looms disproportionately large on the horizon. Friend: “Congrats, you just published your first research paper!” Brain: “But my lab mate has already published two!”

This has all been re-circulating in my mind lately as I was promoted to a new academic position this summer. That should be great, right? While there is some level of satisfaction, I’ve noticed an increase in my anxiety over the last few months. I seem to be easily reminded of Dr. Everybody Else has clearly published more than me and in much better journals. I think about the graduate students who finished after me and yet have already leap-frogged my place on the long academic totem pole to more prestigious positions. I realize that I am not that great at grant writing, that I haven’t come up with any groundbreaking discoveries in my field, and that I’m nowhere near the top of any of the myriad metrics academics invent to vault themselves to great positions of scholarly honor.

About seven to eight years ago I came face to face with this perfectionist in me. It was interestingly about the time I came out as gay and finally decided that I had had enough of hiding and ignoring who I am. We didn’t have any sort of major battle, but rather a tousle, and though there was no vanquishment of this foe, I at least took the first significant steps of acknowledging the existence of this formidable character and determining that he wouldn’t be the only voice allowed to cast judgment on my life’s circumstances.

The lifeblood of perfectionism is competition - with onesself and with others. It is both a sustaining fuel and poisonous liquid at the same time. In the complete absence of competition, the drive to accomplish, to push, and to improve is diminished. Achievement usually requires motivation. So it serves a purpose in that regard. Yet, under hypercompetitiveness, the fuel becomes poisonous, because no accomplishment is ultimately satisfactory. In a world of 7 billion people, it is almost impossible to become number one at one thing; it is truly impossible to be number one at everything.

Competition is everywhere is American society. It is manifest in couch potatoes jumping up from the sofa when their team scores a touchdown, it is present in the pressure the high school student feels to get accepted to the best colleges, it is in first class airline seats or platinum credit cards, it is embedded in stock market indices, and mad rushes to buy the cheapest gifts on Black Fridays that have now crept into Thanksgiving Thursdays. Capitalism is competition, and America really worships not God, but capitalism.

The second thread is social media and the on-line persona. For all the good that this decade-old revolution in communication has brought to modern society, there have been generous servings of ill too. In the compression of thought requisite in a Tweet, complex ideas are reduced to imprecise strings of words bereft of context. In tailored social media profiles, digital masks are worn that give incomplete or false impressions of the personality behind the mask. Poor behavior somehow seems more justifiable on-line, as if digital distance was somehow a license to eschew social responsibility. Friendships can be easily and instantly made, but even more rapidly terminated when one party decides to “block” another. Political divisions deepen as people collect around the more flambuoyant digital voices that have mastered the posture of contrived self-importance. Misinformation is given extra buoyancy and inertia as it circles the globe via electrons, freed from the old-fashioned constraints of evidence.

For most of us, our on-line personas are self-crafted caricatures. My profile doesn’t convey all of my personality, let alone those less-than-flattering photos that get quickly deleted from my cell phone. If you carefully read through a digital feed of my life, you are less likely find mention of the many failed job applications than the job that I finally landed.

These caricatures can have a corrosive effect on a number of really important things. For instance, they can erode self esteem, as when I fail to forget that my college friends do also have unflattering photos and failed job applications that I know nothing about in addition to their advertised successes. The digital distance also has the tendency to erode intimacy, a wonderful invention of social species that most of us want in some measure in our lives. Through social media I may gain a window into what a high school aquaintance who lives across the country likes to eat for Sunday brunch, but know nothing about real thoughts, feelings, concerns, and goals that motivate and guide this individual.

Next, anxiety. Lots of us suffer from it. In fact, this recent New York Times article discusses its prevalence as a mental health concern, especially the dramatic increase in anxiety among young people. We live in a time where there is a tremendous amount to be anxious about – health, safety, job, debt, career, terrorism, family members, climate change, rejection, politics, natural disasters, poverty, rapid technological innovation. Sadly, there is even motivation for people in politics or commerce to promote our feelings of anxiety – why not if it will garner votes or lead to more sales?

Looking back it is not difficult to see periods of my life when my anxiety has been more problematic than the annoying background hum that accompanies most of us. Graduate school was a definite one. Coming out was another. These were periods when I grappled with perfectionism. I still have anxiety about such internal matters. But as a token certificate for growing up a little more, there is also now anxiety about my children and family, about where society is headed, about really daunting environmental problems like climate change.

Is it a paradox that we live more comfortable lives than any generation before us, but are so racked with anxiety?

The final thread: self-esteem in the LGBT community. Most of us would describe the process of self-awakening and coming out at cathartic. Having been imprisoned to fear or shame for years or even decades, the act of casting that aside is liberating, an intimately personal act performed on a more public stage. It is a moment of self-determination and self-affirmation. But does the luster wear off?

As a collection of sexual and romantic “misfits”, many of us in the LGBT community have endured difficult and challenging experiences growing up. These could have included harassment, physical or emotional abuse, misunderstanding, violence. We have probably all been scarred, at least a little in the process. Coming into self-awareness notwithstanding, I think many of us carry forward an additional psychological or emotional burden that developed because of those formative experiences.

After coming out, do we carry those burdens into the LGBT community in unhealthy ways? Are we quick to judge or reject others in an unfortunate reversal of the mistreatment we ourselves have received? Can we form friendships and date in healthy ways? Do we avoid the social maladies that hurt others like ghosting (an inexplicable practice of suddenly pretending a date or friend no longer exists) or expecting perfection in a partner (knowing full well of one’s own imperfections)? Will gay men see the harm in endlessly competing with each other for more perfect physical bodies, greater “masculinity” (as if somehow the goal of being a perfect gay man is to nearly emulate a straight man in everything except the gender of your sexual partner), or a meticulously manicured social life designed to induce envy in others and mask an undercurrent of loneliness?

We continue to fight for equality in employment, housing, marriage, and just general treatment by society, especially given the unfortunate political setbacks we currently face in the US. In the midst of those external challenges, are we striving to improve interactions within the LGBT community itself?


Where does all of this lead? Well, I think I’ve painted a picture of competition and comparison that is largely unhealthy. The excessive focus on competition and outcomes certainly can be debilitating for me. One key to any successful recipe is to keep the ingredients in balance. I wouldn’t want to trade in my ambition or motivation for laziness or ambivalence, but to paraphrase Darth Vader’s warning to the technical mastermind behind the Death Star: “Beware you don’t choke on your ambition”.

It takes a conscious effort to keep the tendency to compete to healthy levels. It takes significant mental labor to keep the unhealthy comparison to others at bay, especially when we are surrounded by messages of inadequacy from a hypercompetitive society. But it is necessary for sanity to remember that self worth isn’t measured externally (either by gay or straight people, or by friends, bosses, or peers for that matter).

On the career front, it is prudent to remember why I’m an academic. I love discovery. I love asking questions. I love thinking about how science can lead to answering such questions. I love being outside and in nature. I love seeing something in nature that perhaps no other person has ever observed. Maybe this is why my hobbies also tend towards being outdoors in my hours off work. I can be a student of biology again – hiking, exploring, photographing, and learning – with less pressure to turn academic study into some sort of business.

On the personal front, I need to remember that I am unique and (usually) likeable. I’m headed forward, and upward (whatever that means), having fun and adventures along the way. That’s enough for me.

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