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.”
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.
The Fear of Turning In Nothing
Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fears of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fears of turning in something terrible. But I’ve watched a surprising number of young journalists wreck, or nearly wreck, their careers by simply failing to hand in articles. These are all college graduates who can write in complete sentences, so it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.
“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.
If they’re forced into a challenge they don’t feel prepared for, they may even engage in what psychologists call “self-handicapping”: deliberately doing things that will hamper their performance in order to give themselves an excuse for not doing well. Self-handicapping can be fairly spectacular: in one study, men deliberately chose performance-inhibiting drugs when facing a task they didn’t expect to do well on. “Instead of studying,” writes the psychologist Edward Hirt, “a student goes to a movie the night before an exam. If he performs poorly, he can attribute his failure to a lack of studying rather than to a lack of ability or intelligence. On the other hand, if he does well on the exam, he may conclude that he has exceptional ability, because he was able to perform well without studying.”