Most writers manage to get by because, as the deadline creeps closer, their fear of turning in nothing eventually surpasses their fear 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.
I hate that Megan McArdle. She’s nailed Your Working Boy’s hide to the floor, mostly. I am a champion procrastinator, but I usually manage to pull out the project at the last minute. Except when I don’t. It has been 25 or 26 years since my logic classes at LSU, but I still have anxiety dreams about getting to the final realizing I didn’t understand much of it at all, because this stuff was hard, and I hated it, and I was scared to death to fail. So I failed the first time, and passed with a C- only through the mercy of the professor, who was probably sick of seeing me. The point is, this was a character default, and remains one. I made As in math in my old high school, but when I went to the advanced high school, the math classes were so fast and far above my head that I gave up without a fight … and failed. Me with my “fixed mind-set.” Me with my chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. It has become so ingrained in me that these days, I almost never try anything new (that’s not food or drink, I mean) because honestly, who needs to be reminded of their own noughtness? This is not fun.
I call this a character defect, but if I’m honest, it seems to be far less something I’ve chosen, and far more something inborn. When I was a small child, the competition between my sister and me was fierce. She was athletically gifted; I was pathetic at physically demanding tasks. When we would have foot races, I would often fake tripping to deny her a victory. Rotten, yes? Yes. Years later, when we were in college together, she stayed angry at me for being able to stay out in the bar late the night before a test or a paper was due, putting off studying or writing, then ace it. What she didn’t see was how that bad habit hurt me in classes that didn’t come easy to me. But then, she was a hard worker, and I was lazy. She was steady-on, but I — well, when I was good I was pretty damn good, but when I was less than good, which was often, I was a mess.
Still am. Somehow, I’ve managed to build a successful career. But one of these days, THEY are going to find me out, and then it will be all over. And then THEY will deliver me to Prof. Sarkar at LSU, and he will put me in his Coates Hall dungeon, and won’t let me out until I do every single exercise in the Logic textbook.
By the way, read the whole McArdle piece, which talks about how hard employers today have it with young employees, who are incredibly insecure, and who need their hands held by their supervisors. It’s apparently not just an urban legend. Megan has a new book out, The Up Side Of Down: Why Failing Well Is The Key To Success. This essay, which is adapted from the book, nailed my own psychological profile as a professional procrastinator so well that I’m going to have to read the book … when I get around to it.
By the way x 2, do you want to know why this blog has so many posts on it day in and day out? Because I’m using it to put off doing something unpleasant. It is far more fun to write long posts noodling on some idea than to sit down and fill out an expense report. If I weren’t married to the energetic and highly organized woman I’m married to, I would basically be sitting in a cold, dark hut, reading and thinking and blogging and allowing myself to be smothered by entropy.