This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.
I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.
But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.
Which leads me to a bit of a digression, but it’s another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot: it’s okay if some things go wrong, including when I teach. Or, to phrase it the way it has been running through my head over and over and over this semester: the bar is not perfection. I have had huge amounts of anxiety sometimes in the past around teaching because I feel like I need everything to be perfect. It’s one of the reasons I find the quizzes so stressful – there are so many of them and so many questions in the question pools that at some point something will not be perfect, and I was always on edge waiting for that to happen. And this semester, I was teaching mitosis and meiosis for the first time in 7 years, and super worried that I would mess something up. So, your reaction to the two anecdotes at the start of the post might be “of course a manuscript rejection is a bigger deal and would feel worse!” But, for me, perfectionism around teaching has been a big problem in the past, so it surprised me (in a good way!) that I was able to have that perspective. I think a lot of it is that I’ve been reflecting on how, over the years, I’ve observed a lot of people teach, including people who are widely viewed as excellent teachers. One of the things I’ve been struck by is that they’re not perfect. They misspeak when explaining something in class. They write exams that were harder than they intended. No one is perfect. A lot of what matters is how they respond afterwards (which has the potential to be an entire post on its own!)
Coming back to the idea of having perspective vs. being kicked while down: I’ve been trying to figure out why I sometimes respond in a way where I have perspective—recognizing that a setback or mistake is minor in the grand scheme of things—while other times I just feel like I’ve been kicked while I’m down. I’m not sure why I take the perspective path sometimes and the kicked-while-down path other times. It doesn’t seem to necessarily relate to the magnitude of the other stuff I’m dealing with. I’ve talked about this with some friends, who said they’ve found the same, and are also unsure why they sometimes take one path but other times the other. The main thing I’ve found that helps me sometimes is to ask if anyone will even remember the thing I’m considering in a year. Often, with reflection, the answer is “no”, which can help provide perspective.
So, I’m curious: do you also find that sometimes you’re able to take other work or life events and have them help you have perspective, while other times it just feels like things are being piled on? And, more importantly, have you found a way to shift towards the perspective path more often?