Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Procrastinate to Avoid Fear

Earlier this week one of my old college buddies - Summer - posted this article on her Facebook account: Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators by Megan McArdle.

It was an interesting read, and one that doesn't relate to just writers; it can be said about anyone who showcased natural talent in something. However, I feel like she sort of lost focus somewhere along the way. The end of the article didn't seem to relate at all to the starting thesis of "Writers are too good at English class". Which, by the way, you can therefore come up with the similar theses: "Lead singers were too good in Show Choir" or "Athletes were too good in gym" or "Lawyers were too good on the debate team", and so on. Anyway, while she did seem to get a bit off-track with her article's train of thought, she also came up with some pretty good points along the way. Thing is, these points aren't REALLY about procrastination. They're about fear. Fear of inadequacy - specifically - and how it tends to drive us towards procrastination.

A fear that she believes stems from school, and how English classes being easy for the majority of writers is actually a bad thing.
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.
She then explains how believing in just your natural born talent - which has gotten you through English classes effortlessly - makes you one heck of a procrastinator out in the real world; especially after realizing that you probably aren't the Cream of the Crop any longer.
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.
Does this fear sound familiar? That Schrödinger's cat theory of authorship: you are either excellent or terrible, but you won't know which until you're done writing, and so until you're done you can still be both. Therefore, procrastination allows you to stay in your "I really am a good writer; I'll prove it when I'm actually done writing" bubble. Once you stop procrastinating and you finish your project, however, that bubble just might have to pop. Sure, you could very well be just as awesome as you perceive yourself to be while in that bubble, but then there's that fear that maybe you aren't. As long as you procrastinate and don't finish your project you can avoid showcasing how much of a writing schmuck you truly are.

Megan McArdle discusses this concept with Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, who - according to McArdle - is "one of the best-known experts in the psychology of motivation."
[Dweck] discovered through her research, not everyone reacts to [failure] 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.
All of us who procrastinate out of fear of failing should really pay attention here.
...the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish [challenges] think that [talent is] something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at.
[Dweck] now identifies the former group as people with a “fixed mind-set,” while the latter group has a “growth mind-set.” For "growth" people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, [challenges] are just a dipstick that measures how high [a person's] 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.
Haven't we all more-or-less felt this way at some point? Isn't this why it's so hard for people to both willingly ask for critiques and happily accept them? All us beta-readers and critiquers wish to do is help the writer improve. To show off the failings - maybe teach why they are failings - and help the writer overcome them. Help them grow. Yet, instead of seeing it as a growing opportunity, so many of the people I have beta-read for shrink away at the massive amount of notes I gave them; assuming it's official proof that they truly can't write.

They completely ignore the positive feedback I give them; the encouragement. They don't seem to recognize that I wouldn't bother putting in that much effort in correcting them and helping them improve if I didn't have faith in their writing. If I didn't see the talent they just need to nourish.

Yes, Omnibladestrike, I am looking squarely at you here!

Although, to be fair, it has happened to even the best of us. To this day I have yet to submit anything in to the critiques section of Writers’ Huddle. Mainly because I see these more experienced writers on the board, and instead of thinking the way I should - that they are there to help me, and have the wisdom and experience to do so - I end up fearing that my work - which is still largely fanfiction - won't be deemed "worthy" in comparison. That they'll scoff at my lack of talent and/or ability. That they won't even bother critiquing because they don't see enough potential to put in the effort. That they'll look at my works like "Come on, kid, send us something when you're being serious."

Even though I KNOW none of that will happen, I KNOW that they will be kind and sincere and will genuinely put in the effort to help me improve, I still have that fear. I still get nervous that having more experienced writers than myself critique my work will prove that I just don't have the talent. Ignoring that I can still NURTURE the talent so I can become "good enough".

I won't state who because I wouldn't want to embarrass anyone, but I even had a member of the online writing group I started up - The Struggling Writers Society - inform me that even though he would love to have some of his things critiqued, he was afraid to show off what he had to the group. I reassured him that we're all very kind and nurturing people who just want to watch each other succeed. I don't think it helped though, because he hasn't spoken on the matter since, and there is still nothing in the critiques section of our group forum.

Megan McArdle discussed this idea even further in her article. Turns out it's more than simply a fear of hitting a Talent Plateau in something you thought you were astonishing at. It's a fear said plateau will reveal that you were never truly good to begin with.
This fear of being unmasked as the incompetent you “really” are is so common that it actually has a clinical name: impostor syndrome.

If [Fixed Mind-Set people are] 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.
"No, I'm not an impostor. I really am as skilled as I claim I am. I just didn't give this one my all, and that's why it's crap."

It's a nice shield to hide behind, isn't it? A way to explain why you can't measure up to The Greats in writing; or whatever field you're afraid of hitting a Talent Plateau in. The problem with self-handicapping is that you never show off your best. You're too afraid to show your best to anyone because your best might be crap. You're too afraid that your best won't cut it.

But, what if your best really is as great as you hope it is? No one will ever know, and you'll never become the success you wish to be. If it turns out that you were right in your fear and you CAN'T cut it right now, how do you ever expect to improve so you CAN cut it if you never give it your all, and then try to make your all better next time?

On top of all of that, you also need to remember that none of those Greats that you're measuring yourself against are truly as "great" as you think. The works you love so much you practically memorized them are all the finished, polished product. You never read any of them as a first draft.
Think about how a typical English class works...Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of [the works they are reading]. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine. When the teacher asks “What is the author saying here?” no one ever suggests that the answer might be “He didn’t quite know” or “That sentence was part of a key scene in an earlier draft, and he forgot to take it out in revision.”
I know I always hated that part of English class. Teachers trying to get us to read in between the lines to see what the story is REALLY about. Always made me feel like my stories were too simplistic because they were straight forward. No hidden agendas. No subtle commentary. I wrote what my characters showed me and told me. Simple as that. Heaven forbid the same were true about any of the stories we read in school.

There is another valid point that McArdle makes in regard to not being able to read the earlier drafts of a classic novel.
“You never see the mistakes, or the struggle,” says Dweck. No wonder students get the idea that being a good writer is defined by not writing bad stuff....

Unfortunately, in your own work, you are confronted with every clunky paragraph, every labored metaphor and unending story that refuses to come to a point. “The reason we struggle with insecurity,” says Pastor Steven Furtick, “is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”
Alright, so if we ignore McArdle's random sidetracks about kids being coddled and whatnot, what did we learn?

We learned that perhaps English classes coming easily to writers isn't the best thing for us, since we never really learned the concept of struggling to be good at our craft. Because of this, a lot of us became "Fixed Mind-set" people who believe that there is a Talent Plateau. We think that we can only achieve so much greatness, and that's determined by natural ability. We fear that we've already hit that plateau and can no longer improve. Or worse yet, that the talent we believe we have is actually PAST that plateau, and so we're not nearly as good as we assumed. We fear that showcasing our best efforts will actually reveal us as "frauds", and so we purposely don't give writing our all. That way we have a safety-net excuse as to why our talent doesn't seem to measure up to The Greats.

One of the main ways we Self-Handicap is to procrastinate until the last possible moment. That way if it ends up really good we can say "Huh, imagine how good I can be if I had time to edit that" or "And this was only my first draft!" However, if procrastinating results in a lackluster product, we can justify it as "Well, I only had time for a first draft" or "I was exhausted; I have no clue what I was even writing at the end there."

We also learned that perhaps even with the classes themselves being easy for us future writers, we could have still avoided this Fixed Mind-set by seeing the struggle in others. If only we could have read earlier drafts of classic stories, or seen quotes from our writing mentors explaining that they had to go through seventeen complete revisions before actually coming up with something decent. Perhaps seeing our idols fail and still become amazing in their climb back up would help us aspiring writers realize that being bad now doesn't mean we can't be fantastic later.

Again, that is what this blog is here for. It may be presumptuous of me to think that my struggle in finding myself as a writer will be any sort of example for other writers. I may be expecting too much of my future self to believe that I could become enough of a writing mentor to others that seeing me trip so frequently will help prove to them that they can make it too. The entire concept that this blog is my anthology of failings on my way to "greatness" may be insanely cocky.

Yet, here it is.

On the off chance that I am right in those insane assumptions. Just in case I'm correct in thinking that I've helped someone overcome their fear of inadequacy, by proving that I grew past that Talent Plateau, surpassing my natural talent after failing so frequently with just it.

Hell, this blog post kept me about FIVE HOURS to write! I knew I wanted to talk about Megan McArdle's article, but the whole thing seemed so disjointed. I went through THREE re-writes before becoming satisfied with this version. I even had a list of about four other things I wanted to talk about this week that just didn't quite fit in the final cut. Guess that just means I have blog posts all set up for the next week or so too, huh?

Anyway, I know I didn't talk about any of the progress I made this week - like I originally intended to talk about - so I'm sorry about that. However, I do hope that this break from my normal writing style helped at least ONE person out.

We CAN conquer that fear of inadequacy! It will be a struggle, and we may procrastinate even more, but we just need to retrain ourselves to "Dare to be Bad" and embrace failure as a way to learn and grow. Easier said than done...

Anyway, I want to finish up with a belated joint Happy Birthday to both ChibiSunnie and Ronoxym who shared a birthday last week.

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