When the psychologist Jessica Pryor lived near an internationally renowned university, she once saw a student walking into a library holding a sleeping bag and a coffee maker.
She’s heard of grad students spending 12 to 18 hours at a time in the lab. Their schedules are meant to be literally punishing: If they’re scientists-in-training, they won’t allow themselves to watch Netflix until their experiments start generating results. “Relationships become estranged—people stop inviting them to things, which leads them to spend even more time in the lab,” Pryor told me.
Along with other therapists, Pryor, who is now with the Family Institute at Northwestern University, is trying to sound the alarm about a tendency among young adults and college students to strive for perfection in their work—sometimes at any cost. Though it is often portrayed as a positive trait—a clever response to the “greatest weaknesses” question during job interviews, for instance—Pryor and others say extreme perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation.