On getting a sense of perspective…or not

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?

5 thoughts on “On getting a sense of perspective…or not

  1. First of all, thanks for putting this out there! It’s no easy feat to put the challenge of having “perspective” into words.

    For me, the ability to step back and have some perspective vs. running with my immediate reaction depends on how closely the situation is tied to my self-identity. For example, I consider myself a great communicator. I’ve been working in outreach and extension in different capacities for several years. So when I recently stumbled my way through an explanation of a scientific concept in front of a lot of important people, I felt pretty lousy, even though people told me it was just fine. It took me a while to have some “perspective” and recover from it appropriately, which seems to be the case for any situation where I feel a small piece of my core identity failed me in some way.

    Long story short, the time it takes for me to find some perspective is inversely related how closely the situation is tied to my self-identity. I’m learning to reduce the time to finding perspective, but the lag always seems to be there.

    • “the time it takes for me to find some perspective is inversely related how closely the situation is tied to my self-identity” I love this insight! Thank you!

  2. Not sure this holds for others, but, for me, my ability to maintain a healthy sense of perspective directly correlates with how much (good-quality) sleep I’ve been getting. On little sleep, I try to maintain a good facade, but I’m rather fragile.

    • Excellent point!! Sleep is key to so many things, physical & mental. Information theory also provides us many clues concerning perspective. I always try to maintain an awareness that the information content coming from the environment is the same for every entity receiving it. Yet, the experience of each individual relative to that information is unique. If you’ve been a parent, then you know each of your children reacts uniquely to the information provided them. One child might be very pleased with ice cream for dessert, while another is disappointed.

      The manner in which we perceive ourselves is not only unique, but fluctuates considerably from one circumstance to another. There are times when I reflect upon my life and think, “Oh, goodness, what a colossal waste of time its been!” Then, there are other times I take great pride in the adversity I’ve overcome and the accomplishments I’ve achieved. It is this variability of perception that I believe plays into Meghan’s experience with her rejected manuscript.

      I would wager that Meghan’s manuscript was more likely worthy of publication than not. Why it was rejected could be due to any variety of factors. One or more reviewers could have read several other similar manuscripts and felt they had seen enough of that particular topic. Others could have developed negative attitudes about the author or her work before ever seeing this particular manuscript. But whatever the reasons for the rejection, each and every reviewer received the same information and then responded uniquely. By way of analogy, consider job interviews:

      A job candidate presents the very same information in two interviews for the position of forklift driver, except for his manner of dress. In one interview, he dons an exquisitely tailored three piece, pin striped wool suit. In the other, he shows up wearing jeans, old tennis shoes and a tee shirt. Even though he is wearing far better clothing in the first interview, he is not hired. In the second interview he gets the job.

      Why? Simply because he “dressed the part”. Put another way, “The clothes make the man”. And that, more often than not, is how our world operates. It’s not the information content per se, but rather how the information is packaged. I suspect Meghan’s manuscript contained information that was worthy of publication, but for whatever reason was packaged in such a manner that one or more reviewers felt rejection was warranted.

      “Water off a duck’s back,” is usually the best way to respond to these transient incidents. It is important to pat ourselves on the back when no one else rises to the occasion. Having an inherent awareness that we are competent and that our work is worthy goes a lot further in fueling a positive perspective than the opinion of any other person.

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