Flow vs. perfection: Embracing a new academic paradigm

Jan. 16, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

For most of my academic career, perfectionism was my holy grail.

I would stay up until 4 a.m. in the mornings to finish that last bit of reading. I would meticulously comb Quizlets until I had more or less committed each and every term to memory. I would consider no task finished unless I had completely and thoroughly conquered it. As long as I put enough effort into what I did, it was all supposed to come easily to me.

Fast-forward to me in Week 6 last quarter, neck-deep in midterm season. Stanford had properly and enthusiastically put me through the wringer; I had more than my fair share of unintentional all-nighters, scrambles to frantically piece together a paper and long days sucked into the black hole known as the (slightly creepy) third-floor carrels of Green Library.

And yet despite all that effort, nothing felt easy to me. It took me hours to decipher code for my CS assignments. I stubbornly worked through hundreds of pages of my econ textbook until my head swam with endless supply and demand models, vocabulary words and excessively labeled graphs and charts; still, I felt shaky on my midterms.  Complete mastery of my classes seemed impossible; something had to be wrong with me.

I first heard of the term flow sometime in the middle of my first quarter, while I was casually discussing my first quarter with a friend who was a psych major. Intrigued by the word, I found that it was coined by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who theorized that the most gratifying moments in one’s life happen “if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Flow, it turned out, was a different concept than perfection. Flow was the state in between boredom and anxiety, between mastery and utter deficiency. In a state of flow, success wasn’t necessary and work didn’t have to painlessly easy; the effort itself was the objective.

This paradigm shift completely changed up my trajectory for the rest of the quarter. All along, I’d been looking for unattainable perfectionism. But the truth was, I would never be able to perfect college — there were always going to be another fifty pages of reading, yet another difficult p-set and study hours given up in favor of gloriously spontaneous runs to Late Night with friends. Looking back, easily memorizing an 800-page econ textbook cover-to-cover did seem a little unreasonable. Instead, I now lean towards adopting the state of flow; I’ve learned to cherish those intense, arduous moments when I’m slowly making my way through my Econ reading or just on the cusp of brainstorming the perfect solution to my CS code. I’ve learned that that there is fulfillment in the act of trying itself; that struggle is not failure; that the messy, demanding work toward gaining something just beyond my reach will, in the end, be gratifying.


Contact Christina Li at cli24 ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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