People that find themselves in burnout are often in burnout because their standards are too high. One of the tasks I work with my clients on when they are in burnout is to help them lower their standards.
Details in the following story have been changed to protect privacy.
A colleague of mine named Sansom told me a valuable story one day. He said a professor he had had in first year graduate school had told him to get his grades down. You might want to re-read that sentence.
Samson’s professor told him that the paper he had submitted for his course deserved an “A.” He also told Samson that a much weaker paper would have deserved an “A.” The professor told Samson that he would enjoy graduate school more if he spent less time on his course work and more time having fun.
Samson told me he didn’t take the message to heart. He said it took him another three years to absorb what his professor had been trying to tell him.
Samson said he learned the lesson while completing his comprehensive exam, which is the exam everyone is required to take before they enter a Ph.D. program.
For Samson’s comprehensive exam, he was required to write a 50-page paper. Several professors reviewed his final paper. One told Samson that his paper was “the best paper she had ever read.”
As you read that last paragraph, my hope is that you were able to spot Samson’s error. The paper he wrote was too good. The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to prove that the student is a strong enough candidate to complete a PhD program. They are given either a pass or a fail. Just a pass or a fail.
If the point of the paper is just to get a pass, then why do a fabulous job on the paper? If only 10 percent of candidates fail, doesn’t it make sense to try to be in the 11th percentile and to squeak through with a pass? Doesn’t that approach make more sense than being ranked in the top percentile? The 75th percentile? The 40th?
Samson way over-wrote his paper. He told me he didn’t get a summer break that year because he had worked so hard on the paper. He said he was exhausted when the fall school semester began. Can you see Samson’s error now?
Because Samson wrote such a good paper, he ended up in burnout and had an awful fall semester.
Samson told me that this experience was the beginning of his learning that the expression, “Cs get degrees” has merit. He said he currently makes sure he understands the standards he has to meet before he begins working on any new project. He said his goal is to meet those standards and to not exceed them. You might want to re-read that sentence.
I personally like Samson’s story. I share his story with my clients that are in burnout to help them lower their own standards. How can they do this? To begin, maybe by vacuuming the house less often. By not meeting their own standards while they’re at it. I tell them that the dog hair is just going to accumulate again, so why expend extra energy to remove it all from the couch?
Same goes for sweeping the floor. Do they have to weed-whack the lawn every time they mow? Do they have to fold the laundry as soon as the dryer is finished? So what if their bedsheets are wrinkled?
I work with my clients in burnout to lower their standards. We focus on finding places where they can slack off. The benefit is that they start to create pockets of free time that they can use to sleep or do something fun with.
So yes. Leave the bedsheets in the dryer and go to the farmer’s market. Ride your bike with your kids. Lay on a lawn chair with a good book. Play your guitar. Swim. Watch that game on TV with friends.
Samson couldn’t hear what his professor was trying to tell him when he entered graduate school, but he can hear his professor now.
I think I’ll go for a walk instead of proof-reading this blog post. Think the world will end if there’s a typo?
Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta
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