Conflict.

It’s been put into my head to avoid conflict.  I actively try to stay passive and avoid it as much as possible. Sometimes even arguments with myself.

Maybe I’m getting a little more comfortable with conflict, but am still sensitive. And I think perfectionism does not help me in that regard whatsoever– doesn’t help you get noticed. I explain below.

Conflict avoidance is kind of a problem when you’re a scientist (probably in life too). Conflict is built into science. How does an idea gain traction? Someone proposes it and does some initial tests. Other scientists come along calling BS on those initial results and come up with their own way to test the hypothesis or test implications of the hypothesis or ask if hypothesis A is right, does it also explain currently unexplainable phenomenon B? Hypotheses that survive the continual gauntlet get accepted into the canon of scientific knowledge.

How does that process begin?

The flame of innovation or insight is like striking a match on a surface or striker. You need friction to ignite the flame. And then you’re holding a lit match with a great idea that will burn out soon.

Having the idea, testing the hypothesis, doing the experiments, making a great story and honing it with close colleagues is the next step. You’ve lit a candle with the match. It’ll stay lit a longer than the match at least.  It’s light is still limited, however, doesn’t cast a lot of light.

The next step is writing. Writing is hard for a lot of people. One key thing I would encourage any scientist to do is to engage in a habitual writing practice (preferably scientific writing, but any writing is good!). Going from 0 to excellently written paper doesn’t just happen. And it will be hard to even begin writing that first draft for yourself to edit into something good to show to your colleagues. This fantastic post by Isis the scientist (@drisis on Twitter) talks about a good method of putting together a manuscript.

The only thing I would add to Isis’ post is to understand that the first time through, when you’re writing something on the blank page (results first!) is that the first thing you write down is likely going to be terrible. It’s OK. Write that terrible first draft. You don’t have to show it to anyone. Editing is every writer’s best friend. Edit your own writing first and make it as good as possible and then bring in colleagues/PI to elevate it to greatness (yes, there’s probably dialog about experiments while you’re working on the results section too).

Dr. Isis tweeted this mantra that I think ought to be the goal of any submitted paper:

“Flawless science, perfectly packaged”

I want a sticker with that phrase on it (note to self: could sticker sales help fund science?).

Great writing and science takes input from close colleagues, lots of edits and constructive feedback (learning to write well helps with this process, no question). Once it’s been through the ringer several times, it’s like you took the candle and lit a roaring fire in a fireplace to send up a smoke signal – sending it to a journal for peer review.

If you’re hyper-perfectionist, nearly every step of this process is harder. Not being a perfectionist doesn’t mean you’re suddenly lazy and don’t do a good job. Doing good work is still important. Effort still matters. It just means you’re willing to let your work go, you’re OK with others seeing it. You’re not unhealthily attached to it (definition of suffering– being too attached to things/ideas). As a former perfectionist, I can attest to just how paralyzing it can be. Less perfectionism will actually reduce your stress level and any interactions about your work will be smoother. Perfectionism is a productivity killer. Don’t let it take root. It’ll keep things fixed where they are for too long and you won’t make a ton of headway.

The non-perfectionist mindset lets work grow into something better from where it began. Into something great, even, like flawless science perfectly packaged.

The reviewers may dump some water on that fire– in which case, you relight that fire with the embers that are still burning. And send it right back out.

If a paper gets accepted outright, it’s like the journal has grabbed a torch and lit an even bigger flame like the Olympic torch or a massive bonfire signaling to the scientific world (depending on the journal, that might be a big or small flame).

Once a paper is published, the potential exists to light other signal fires, light more fires in a lab’s fireplace. Hell, it might light the world on fire. Publications matter. And since quality isn’t often counted in academia (that’s no excuse to not do excellent work though), a larger number is always better.

(I wish more labs had working fireplaces…)

Being a perfectionist made me avoid conflict like the plague. Being less of one lets me participate more in the process and be open about my ideas (good or not, I’ll put them out there now at least). This blog has helped me develop writing as a habit and overcome some of my perfectionism. Even though I get nervous sharing my posts, it’s been a good exercise in pushing myself to be more ambitious.

Disclaimer: Don’t take the flame metaphor I used here literally…you’re not burning down the place as tempting as that might be at times.

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Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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