A Writer’s Relationship with Time(lines)
Like most writers, self-proclaimed or otherwise, I am an inveterate procrastinator. The Werk launches at midnight, and I have decided that now, 3:36pm, is as good a time as ever to start my submission.
As with every article I write, I had no initial intention of falling behind. And yet, here I am again, invariably late, and full of self-contempt that I have found myself, somehow unfathomably, if expectedly, confronted with another looming deadline.
In the course of formulating this article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 2000 times, savoured a leisurely lunch at Werklab with a friend, shared a story to Instagram of Donald Trump placing Halloween candy on top of a child dressed as a Minion, and researched how the GDP has ballooned from a narrow economic tool to an erroneous and perilous measure of market worth.
Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but, for writers, I think it’s a peculiarly common occupational hazard.
My theory? It starts in high school. Most writers were the kids who easily, if not automatically, earned As in English class. At an early age, when teachers were inculcating the lesson that effort was the primary key to success in school, these future essayists were defying the assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in their reading and writing workbooks. I suppose that it isn’t that they never failed, but that, at a very early age, these early wordsmiths didn’t have to fail too much: their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
But, this teaches a very false lesson: that success mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you’re a professional writer, you’re competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their humanities classes. Your stuff may not – indeed, probably won’t – be the best anymore.
If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on innate ability, doing what comes easily and quickly, then every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, and every article a referendum on your identity and sense of worth. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, or that novel, it might still be good. I mean, over emails and soup and Trump and the GDP, I held in my mind the potential of Proust or Didion or Austen. But, in the time I've started this, I’ve become more or less someone confronted with her own clunky paragraphs, laboured metaphors (or are they analogies?), and an unending story that refuses to come to a point; someone who is stringing paragraphs together with semicolons and clauses because it's too hard to figure out where her sentences end and her ideas begin.
In my years, I’ve seen a number of young researchers, students, and writers, myself included, hijack, or nearly hijack, their careers by simply failing to deliver. These are educated individuals who can write in complete sentences; it’s not that they're incompetent, but, rather, that they often feel paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that just isn’t very good.
One of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation, Carol Dweck, has spent her career studying failure, and, in particular, how people react to it. As you might expect, failure isn’t all that popular an extracurricular. And yet, as she discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to it by breaking out in hives (or, in my case, further procrastination). Some people actually thrive under the challenge. These individuals typically relish in the things that they aren’t great at: for when they are failing, they are learning. By contrast, people who dislike challenges often believe that talent is a fixed entity: you’re either born it with or you’re not. So, finding out that you’re not as good as you thought isn't an opportunity to improve: it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career. For myself, that would be committing to reading and revering others’ work, rather than ever writing my own.
The fear of being unmasked as the incompetent person you “really” are is so common that it has become a wildly observed and felt phenomenon: imposter syndrome. A surprising number of successful people (particularly women) believe that they haven’t really earned their spots, and thus are at risk of being unmasked as frauds in a moment's time.
In turn, we deliberately seek out easy tests or projects where we can shine, rather than tackling harder material that isn’t as comfortable. If we’re forced into a challenge that we don’t feel prepared for, we may even engage in what psychologists refer to as “self-handicapping”: deliberately doing things that will hamper our performance as an excuse for not doing well. As a writer, if I don’t produce – or leave it so long that I can’t possibly produce something that I want to put my name on – I am giving myself the perfect excuse for not succeeding.
Alain de Botton, author and philosopher, writes, “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” For people with a fixed mind-set, that tipping point quite often never happens. I truly fear nothing more than finding out (and being found out) that I never had what it takes.
How many writers, or politicians, or leaders, or change makers – especially women – has the world lost to this deep-seated fear of being found out? I'd bet a lot.
So, in a society and an era that demand greater representation and more meaningful voice, how do we help each other believe, instead, that there’s nothing left to find, but our greater potential for growth?
It might start with stripping down the final products that we put out into the world (which undoubtedly have been laboriously polished to a very high standard) to show each other those early drafts, products, and ideas, and the painstaking iterations of such work: clunky paragraphs, mismatched metaphors, ill placed semicolons, and all.
It might also begin by foregrounding our professional fears and struggles, and spending time with those friends, peers, colleagues, bosses, and mentors who are committed to doing the same.
And it might just be trusting that, every once in a while, when your high school English teacher would ask, “What is the author saying in this sentence?”, the answer was simply, “He didn’t know.”
If we’re doing the work, and we’re willing to fail instead of avoid, we’re entirely on time.