What To Do When Things Aren't Going Perfectly at MIT by imperfect@mit
Imperfect@MIT is a student campaign to debunk the myth of effortless perfection and prevent student burnout. We seek to raise awareness of the prevalence of the issue on campus. As we identify the negative fallout of this intense pressure, we hope to spark social action across all gender, racial, ethnic, and social groups, dispelling the idea that these issues are isolated to any one particular group. Imperfect@mit includes representatives from across the student community, as well as Active Minds, MedLinks, and the Student Health Advisory Committee.
The myth of "effortless perfection" is strongly promoted on high-achieving campuses. The term comes from a study at Duke University that found students feel pressured to be smart, accomplished, fit, attractive, and popular, all without visible effort. When unable to attain this ideal, a sense of failure sets in. Coping strategies for dealing with this pressure include self-criticism, chronic dissatisfaction (the feeling of being "never good enough"), and even self-harm.
The Firehose and Your Freshman Advisees
Many freshmen may hope or expect to stand out at MIT the same way they did in high school: succeeding on intelligence alone, putting minimal work into classes, concentrating on a smorgasbord of activities, and somehow achieving enviable results.
There are hundreds of extracurricular activities, and it is tempting to be involved in all of them. There are hundreds of classes, and it is tempting to take the "toughest" ones. There are hundreds of ways to schedule your time, and it is tempting to take the last-minute approach and still expect the best. But combining these opportunities and desiring a social life is like lighting a Molotov cocktail.
Imperfect@MIT recognizes that there are times when our ambitions may overwhelm us. We're here to tell you that your best efforts, and those of your advisees, are good enough. In fact, they're perfect. Have you and/or your freshman advisees made these comments and observations?
Common Campus Quandaries:
- "I worked harder than someone else did and they still did better than I did."
- "I feel like I never do enough – other people always seem to be doing more/more interesting activities."
- "I got what I thought I wanted but it still turned out to be kind of unsatisfying."
- The "I am sorry for taking a spot at MIT that belongs to someone else" phenomenon
- How to manage unhelpful or unrealistic comments from parents, former teachers, high school friends and advisors.
- How to get out from under the shadow of the myth, and live our best, truly original lives.
On October 6, 2008, Susanna Barry, Program Manager of MIT Medical, and students from imperfect@mit, Semmie Kim and Kelly Drinkwater, led an interactive workshop with 35 associate advisors.
Students reflected on their freshman experiences, and spoke openly about dealing with thier own issues with imperfection.
Associate advisors agreed that reassuring freshmen and building their confidence is important for their success at MIT.
How Can You Advise When Things Aren't Going Perfectly?
- Offer good advice about how to deal with parental pressure about grades, career, and life in general, see goaskalice.com, especially the question about "Can't please Dad" http://www.goaskalice.columbia.edu/1368.html.
- Encourage students not to use hit-and-run phone or email messages ("Hey, Mom. How's everything at home? Hope the cat is feeling better. I got put on academic probation today. Okay, bye.")
- Normalize a longer timeline (there is less immediate gratification here than in high school in terms of grades and praise). Suggest doing something that has an immediate and tangible reward. Help freshmen recognize where they are on the planet.
Make a kissy-kissy sandwich. Key ingredients:
- Build self confidence Normalize (this place takes some time to get used to).
- Talk about resources
- Build self-confidence again
How to Help an Advisee Headed for Burnout Who Won't Take Advice
Imperfect@mit offers several resources for how to work with advisees. Remember that many freshmen are operating under the "effortless perfection" myth. They may be freaking out, but don't want to let you see them sweat. Be patient but persistent as you continue to give them permission to join the human race and acknowledge that things might not be going perfectly. You are their mentors, so the more you participate in the imperfect@mit attitude, the more you give them permission to do the same.
For a complete view of the brochure, What To Do When Things Aren't Going Perfectly: http://web.mit.edu/imperfect/materials/brochure.pdf
For more information about stress management advice for your advisees, or to join imperfect@mit, contact Zan Barry, Community Wellness at MIT Medical, firstname.lastname@example.org.