At The Atlantic, Megan McArdle has a piece entitled “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators.” It’s begins by plunging immediately into the eerily familiar.
Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.
Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.
I once asked a talented and fairly famous colleague how he managed to regularly produce such highly regarded 8,000 word features. “Well,” he said, “first, I put it off for two or three weeks. Then I sit down to write. That’s when I get up and go clean the garage. After that, I go upstairs, and then I come back downstairs and complain to my wife for a couple of hours. Finally, but only after a couple more days have passed and I’m really freaking out about missing my deadline, I ultimately sit down and write.”
But where things really get interesting is in McArdle’s analysis of the phenomenon. I feel it necessary to excerpt her at some length:
Over the years, I developed a theory about why writers are such procrastinators: We were too good in English class. This sounds crazy, but hear me out.
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not—indeed, probably won’t—be the best anymore.
If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
“Exactly!” said Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, when I floated this theory by her. One of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation, Dweck has spent her career studying failure, and how people react to it. As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an activity. And yet, as she discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives. While many of the people she studied hated tasks that they didn’t do well, some people thrived under the challenge. They positively relished things they weren’t very good at—for precisely the reason that they should have: when they were failing, they were learning.
Dweck puzzled over what it was that made these people so different from their peers. It hit her one day as she was sitting in her office (then at Columbia), chewing over the results of the latest experiment with one of her graduate students: the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.
“There was this eureka moment,” says Dweck. She now identifies the former group as people with a “fixed mind-set,” while the latter group has a “growth mind-set.” Whether you are more fixed or more of a grower helps determine how you react to anything that tests your intellectual abilities. For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.
This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome. A shocking number of successful people (particularly women), believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and are at risk of being unmasked as frauds at any moment. Many people deliberately seek out easy tests where they can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable.
“Work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” For people with an extremely fixed mind-set, that tipping point quite often never happens. They fear nothing so much as finding out that they never had what it takes.
“The kids who race ahead in the readers without much supervision get praised for being smart,” says Dweck. “What are they learning? They’re learning that being smart is not about overcoming tough challenges. It’s about finding work easy. When they get to college or graduate school and it starts being hard, they don’t necessarily know how to deal with that.”
Reading this, I feel as though she cut the top of my head and started poking around inside.
I remember sitting outside after half-day kindergarten, waiting for the older kids to walk past my house on their way home from school so I could impress them by reading a story out loud. While the kids in my class were doing phonics, I was tearing through books from the library.
I plowed through the entire SRA reading box in 2nd grade, going all the way to the end of the 7th grade reading level until I finally ran out of color coded glossy cards to be proud of finishing while everyone else was in my dust.
In high school, I had a history teacher who once showed off my test essay to his classes and said, “This is an example of college-level work.” (I hadn’t done that much with it…I more or less reworded the essay question and handed it back in.)
I studied for my SATs for maybe an hour, and wound up getting a perfect score on the verbal section, and a decent enough score on math. Even though I forgot my calculator.
I graduated college with honors, even though I double-majored and rarely studied and almost never bought the books for class.
This isn’t a pat-on-the-back fest. It was just how things worked. It wasn’t that I never struggled in school. I did. Math began defeating me by the end of 7th grade. Certain scientific subjects didn’t work well for me either. In college, I had to take a class on biblical exegesis twice, from two different professors. I dropped it the first time, but the second professor was easier and more congenial. In both cases, though, I found it incredibly boring (read: challenging) and barely made it through.
It wasn’t until I got to work that I realized I couldn’t just coast on my natural aptitude to understand things and sound smart. Suddenly, I was being judged on output, not aptitude. As I faced more and more tasks I didn’t want or know how to do, the procrastination factor ramped up considerably. Social media entered the scene and I was done for.
I’ve been out of college for 13 years this summer, and I still struggle with it. Right now, I have a project I should be working on that will actually help me build a new and important source of revenue, but I can’t get myself to tackle it. It isn’t just unfolding itself in my brain. I don’t know how to proceed, and the effort is proving just enough that I’m avoiding it. I’m about to force myself to go back to it right now.
McArdle’s article goes on to tie in the problem with Millennials, but I really think that’s a different subject. What I’d love to see more about are best practices in how to overcome this “fixed-mindset” problem. I’m tired of allowing myself to be defeated by it.
I’ve gotten much better about my writing. I can produce even when I don’t feel like it, or even when I’m worried about the outcome. I can’t say I’ve become completely prolific yet, but I haven’t been stopped by writer’s block in a while. Even when I’m writing about something I couldn’t care less about. (More challenging is writing about something I do care about, but I’m afraid the end result is going to be badly done.) But I have the “fixed-mindset” problem in every area of my life.
If I’m not already good at something, I often avoid it entirely. I hate making mistakes. I know that failing is learning, but I don’t feel like that’s true, so I instinctively stay as far away from it as I can. I absolutely will forgo trying something I think I’ll be bad at. (My wife calls this “shooting myself in the foot.”) And when I do take on something new and challenging, I expect extreme proficiency within an unreasonably short amount of time. I’ve often been told that I pick up on how to do a job faster than anyone in the position before me, but I never take that with me the next time. I always feel that pressure that I’m not getting up to speed fast enough. Some have accused me of laziness, of not wanting to put in the work to get there. But it’s not laziness at all – it’s terror about not being perceived as being good enough. Of looking like a fool. Of having people say, “You’re obviously smart, so why can’t you do this?” Or worse yet, “Maybe you’re not so bright after all…”
And imposter syndrome? Oh yeah. That’s so me. I hesitate to tell people I’m a writer, because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. And the realization I had several years ago that “everyone is faking it” to a certain degree helped with my self-consciousness, but I find myself falling back into the mindset that I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I’m doing, and everyone else around me is a pro, so they’re going to find me out. I can’t tell you what that does to you on a job interview.
There’s much to consider in this piece. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting these concepts — and looking for answers on them — for some time to come.