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On Procrastination

February 24, 2014

I have been thinking a great deal this week about Megan McArdle’s recent piece for The Atlantic, “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators,” which was posted on February 12th.

In the article, McArdle poses a theory as to why writers procrastinate—essentially, many writers had it too easy in school and never learned how to effectively handle challenge (and, presumably, failure). So, when talented writers reach professional status (or, say, graduate school), it is no longer possible to get by on talent alone. Suddenly they’re surrounded by peers just as talented as they are, making the ability to write no longer a way to define or validate their innate worth.

McArdle finds that writers often paralyze themselves because they are afraid of “the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.” And the key to understanding this lies in how individuals define talent: the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, for example, found that individuals who believe that talent could be acquired through practice or challenges fare much better than those who feel that talent is innate or fixed—immutable. Those who feel talent is fixed tend to suffer from “impostor syndrome,” and either engage in self-destructive behavior or limit themselves to things that are easy.

McArdle then discusses research, some of it anecdotal, suggesting that many individuals in their early twenties or younger have been raised within a safe environment where there are no winners or losers—making their first encounters with the realities of the workplace problematic, to put it mildly. I admit to some skepticism regarding the presence of a generation gap here…I don’t think this is endemic to the young. Is it class? Is it race? Is it environment? Is it none of this or all of this? (I have to agree with a lot of the comments on The Atlantic‘s site that said that the second half of this article doesn’t seem to fit with the first.)

Despite my skepticism, I did find part of me resonating with the first part of the article. Yes, until graduate school, the academic life was easy. I have often frozen myself in place because I don’t want to fail. I can procrastinate like no one’s business. (Hell, it’s often the act of avoiding my dissertation that creates these blog posts…)

Why, I wonder, do we tell ourselves these stories—that we can’t don’t have the strength to get past our fear, that no one else in the world struggles with these things—that others have magical lives filled with self-confidence and effortless success? I can see the fantasy when my seven-year-old tells me that “everyone else” has huge birthday parties and ten American Girl dolls…and yet, I find myself doing the same thing, telling the same tales. Only mine are about careers and writing and motherhood.

We tend to live in our own heads. We tend to operate from places of fear, even though we call it other things, like “stress,” and “being too busy,” or “this is not feasible right now.”

The point is that the only way to confront fear is to face it. Sit in it, and feel all of it until you get used to swimming in this particular temperature of water. Until you realize that you can be afraid and write at the same time. It is absolutely okay to fall on our asses. It is okay to leave the confines of our worldviews behind.

And, it’s okay if you suck at this at first. We all do. And then we don’t.

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