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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What Robert Benchley Can Teach Us About Success

I think we can all agree that achieving a goal makes a person feel successful. I think we might all be in agreement that one compelling definition of success is achieving a goal. And I think we can also agree that there are many reasons why achieving goals can be difficult. One of the most prevalent reasons is procrastination. I know we can all agree on that.

Yet just the other day, I came across an opinion piece in the NYTimes by author John Tierney called, “This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day.”  It is a defense of procrastination. Apparently there is research to bolster this defense, research which can be summarized in the following way. If you pull a procrastinator off the couch, you will discover that while she may not have achieved her stated, highly important goal, she needs to relax on that couch, because in an effort to avoid her stated, important goal, she has worn herself out by frantically cleaning out the closets, grocery shopping, clipping coupons, pruning hedges, going to the gym, and any number of other tasks deemed less important (and usually themselves subjects of procrastination,) and certainly not necessary that day. But she is exhausted. She has earned her rest.

Okay, that was less a summary than a long explanation. The point is, while procrastinators may not be doing what they say they should be doing, they are often busily taking care of other tasks that need to be done, but are less urgent, or less distressing and difficult. So, what these researchers suggest is that at the top of your to-do list you put “a couple of daunting, if not impossible, tasks that are vaguely important-sounding (but really aren’t)….then, farther down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter.” Then, as you vigorously avoid what’s at the top of the list, you accomplish much of what’s lower down on it.

Or, as another researcher put it, his strategy is to “play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”

Tierney has the good sense to quote Robert Benchley. (He ought to, he’s had plenty of time to find apt quotations for his piece, which he claims to have been putting off for at least five years.) Mr. Benchley is one of my favorite bedtime reads, especially if I’m feeling particularly jittery about the loads of responsibilities in my life that I’ve shirked. On the subject of procrastination, he wrote, “The psychological principal is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Now, Mr. Benchley wrote this in 1930 or so, and this research on procrastination is just now happening….Readers, draw your own conclusions. Mine is that the folks who have got onto this subject, have some really significant research they ought to have been doing, and I only hope I’m alive to read about it in the NYTimes when they finally get around to it.

This method of using procrastination as a reverse psychology tool runs aground on the question of how you are ever supposed to get around to doing those things that are really important, difficult, and terrifying. Like signing your will, for example. Or. (My mind has gone blank. Just the thought of thinking of those terribly frightening deeds that need doing has scrubbed it clean. You get my point.) If you keep putting off and putting off the thing at the top of the list, you haven’t dealt with the original task, the Prime Mover of Procrastination, if you will. That Prime Mover got the whole to-do list rolling in the first place. 

My point, Readers, is that when your evasion tactics have run out, and your photos are in albums and your teeth are bleached, but you still haven’t faced that will, for example (and this it not at all related to my life,) then you have to have a solution for procrastination.

Now, Mr. Tierney has written a book with Roy Baumeister called Willpower, so of course he has a solution for us. He'd better. It's called the Nothing Alternative, summed up by Raymond Chandler’s rules for writing, which were a) you don’t have to do it, but b) you can’t do anything else.

This is all well and good, especially if you have an excellent editor like Gordon Lish to shape your efforts into paragons of excellence; but if you don’t - and in any case, even Gordon Lish couldn't execute Raymond Chandler's will, or mine - I offer another option. Options are good, especially when you’re on a deadline and you need to make a decision. You can put off your decision for the perfectly justifiable reason that you need to consider your options.

So I offer you mine. Ready?  It's kind of counter-intuitive. Bear with me.


That’s right. Children. Have them. Have your own, or get some who are your responsibility. Because children derail your plans every day. Have you ever tried to complete any task while children are present? Can’t be done, can it? How about a sentence? Complete a sentence? Nope. See, they throw your whole system into chaos, and if you’re not sleep deprived because of some weird phase they’re in, you’re sick because of something nasty they brought home to you. These examples are most applicable to younger children, but older children have their ways of derailing, too. That project they forgot to mention is due in two days for which they must have a presentation board which means you have to drop everything and go to Staples immediately? The meltdown over math that causes you to forget to make dinner? 

Why or how does any of this chaos help you end procrastination? Well, years of saying, “I’m too tired to do blah or blah, I’ll do it tomorrow,” only to spend the night emptying the barf bucket and watching old movies on TV and then being really, really too tired to do blah or blah the next day, taught me the meaning of that phrase, "no time like the present." I would say to myself, I will do this deed now, because you never know what’s going to happen later. So, yes, if I wake up and the weather’s decent and the kids are healthy and I have slept pretty well, then I know today’s the day to take care of that thing I’ve been dreading.  You never know what tomorrow will bring. So do it now.

And by “it” I mean, pick up a copy of Robert Benchley’s stories, if you haven’t got one already. Remind yourself that he may have joked about procrastination, but he got his work into print, which means he finished it. And then go lie down on your couch immediately, and read a few chapters. You’ll feel better, I promise. You can get to that to-do list later.  

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Shop Class as Soulcraft: Or, Why Faucets Are the Key to Success

Right now I’m a little perplexed. See, I read this book, Shop Craft as Soulcraft, at the recommendation of friends who know I’m on this success thing. Well, he’s an unusual thinker, this guy, the author. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, but dropped out of his Ph.D program and went back to what he’d done to support himself through college – being a mechanic. Specializing in motorcycles.

Matthew Crawley, a.k.a. Dan Stevens via Wikimedia Commons
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, is by Matthew B. Crawford, whose name is somewhat like Matthew Crawley, as fans of Downton Abbey will recognize.  Matthew Crawley, would, I think, be right on board with Crawford’s argument, as he likes to see himself as a working fellow and not beholden to the wealth he may (or may not) inherit from Lord and Lady Grantham. But I digress, readers.

Now, I’ve bought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and not read it. Twice. But this book I read. Why? Because my friends recommended it, natch. 

What is it about motorcycle mechanics? Who knew they were so cerebral?

Cerebral mechanics prove one of the author’s points (stay with me, Readers, especially those who tune in for the story portion of my posts)- that people underestimate the intellectual challenge of manual labor, when it’s skilled manual labor. Another of his points is that we’ve done a disservice to ourselves by creating a dichotomy in schools between technical/vocation and academic training. This argument is part of the author’s largest point, which is that we are all f**cked - pardon the French - because we’ve identified being successful in life with academic credentials and high paying white collar work, at the same time that we’ve turned skilled manual work into unskilled manual work and thereby deprived people of the satisfaction of jobs where they have the opportunity to fix something/do something/put effort into something and see the result. So many people are miserable at their white collar jobs because they are essentially working towards abstract goals like customer satisfaction, without any concrete means to produce this satisfaction. They never feel successful, even if they achieve many credentials and earn many dollars. Meanwhile, schools have phased out shop class and other practical elements of high school education in past decades like home economics, because manual labor is now so devalued that white collar folks are not supposed to want or to need to have anything to do with it.

It’s really kind of rough to read a book pointing out that the entire aim of your education, and of your life, is probably going to lead you to existential despair, and that you’re directing your children to the same pit of misery by sending them to school instead of to the local garage for a few pointers. I mean, who wants to hear that? Not I. Thus, my perplexity.

So I have to point out the giant flaw in this book. Okay, maybe it’s a rather small flaw, actually, but it’s the flaw the broke the camel’s argument, at least for this reader.

Crawford says that automatic faucets in public restrooms are the Devil’s work. That is right. Apparently, we’d be better people if we had to work at the little stuff, like turning on and off the faucets, which gives us more autonomy because we have control over our environment.

Okay, Readers, he didn’t actually say anything about the Devil. Here’s what he says of these automatic items:

Why should there not be a handle?....It's true, some people fail to turn off a manual faucet. With its blanket presumption of irresponsibility, the infrared faucet doesn’t merely respond to this fact, it installs it, giving it the status of normalcy. There is a kind of infantilization at work, and it offends the spirited personality. (p. 56)

Offends the spirited personality? No, it does not.

Hello. I consider myself a spirited personality. I, for one, love an automatic faucet. Heck, I’m fond of automatic soap dispensers, too. Automatic flush toilets, when they don’t flush at inopportune moments or refuse to flush at crucial ones are high on my list of likes, too. And bathroom doors that push open, so you don’t have to touch a door handle. You know, if you want to install automatic doors on public restrooms, I am not going to feel my autonomy is threatened in any way. Go ahead.

Clearly, this author has never spent much time in public restrooms. More specifically, he hasn’t spent time in public restrooms with small children. Why should there not be a handle? Let me tell you why: germs. 

Now, I may wax more vocal on the subject of germs and small children than others, but I know I am not alone in my mysophobic tendencies. When I have doubted this and have wondered if I need to embark on a series of cognitive behavior therapy sessions, all I have to do is visit a public restroom. I need spend only a moment or two in said facility, before a mother with a small child enters a stall, and I hear, “Don’t touch anything.” The tone and emphases vary. “Do. Not. Touch. Anything.” “Don’t touch ANYthing.” “Do NOT touch anything.” And the volume varies, too. The words, never. They always bring a smile to my face, as well as a warm sunburst of compassion for the person who is busily papering over the entire stall before allowing her small fry to do his or her business. I vividly recall accompanying my cousin while she took her first child, then potty training, to a public restroom. This was long before I had children. She practically mummified the toilet before putting her child on it and saying (loudly and with equal emphasis on each word, the mommy mantra, “Do Not Touch Anything.)

So I am then reminded that I am not in fact crazy. (Or, I suppose, that crazy runs in my family, but at least I am not alone.) And then I get the bleep out of those tiled germ holes, using only my forearms to push open the door, or grasping the door handle with my shirtsleeve pulled over my hand, and trying not to inhale too deeply.

I think I’ve proved my point.

Or maybe Matthew Crawford’s.

Because, really, it's perfect for this post, too, I'm reusing this picture and its caption:
I encourage my children to use sharp tools.
Okay, listen, I may be guilty of reductio ad absurdum here. That’s my right. It’s my blog. Frankly, it's one of my specialties. 

I will admit that dealing with faucets and knobs while evading germs has given me a certain satisfaction derived from my ingenuity and dexterity with paper towels and shirt sleeves, and if I never had to do that again, I’d be robbed of that sort of direct feedback on my autonomous efforts to avoid gross stuff in bathrooms. Beyond that, I see the satisfaction the 5th grader gets from using the can opener and the sharp knives to make tuna salad for us. I do see Crawford’s point. Even as I cringe upstairs in my bedroom while she chops a carrot, the sharp knock of the blade on the cutting board ringing through the house. Autonomy, the ability to use one’s intellect, and the chance to physically produce a result, when combined lead to a feeling of deep success and satisfaction.  But you’re never going to win me over with that automatic faucet argument. 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Kindness: Annals of Parenting Success

I encourage my daughters to play with sharp tools
I thought I ought to start out the year on a strong positive note. Maybe brag about something great I do, or about a particularly honed parenting skill I have. Something like that. So there’s this.

The other day we were in our friends’ car. Okay, minivan. This is the suburbs, and we did have seven people, so what else you gonna use? (Parenthetically, one wonders if this detail is necessary to the story. Does it matter where we were? It matters that we were two families together. It matters that the space was enclosed. It probably also matters that I was, technically, a guest in this vehicle preferred by suburbanites. Does it also matter that we were two families together, but we weren’t two complete families, since our friends’ older children were not with us? This detail doesn’t matter to you, Readers, but it matters to the picture of my friends’ family, and it might matter to my friends.)

Anyway, we were going somewhere (I’m being intentionally vague here, so as not to bother readers with unnecessary detail, not to appear mysterious.) Oh, hell, we were going to cut our Christmas trees. Yes, we are Jewish. Yes, we celebrate Christmas. Yes. So, we’re tooling along, the kids in the way back, when I hear the 5th grader say something. I don’t remember what. Then the 9th grader says to the 5th grader, “Nobody cares.” Then I hear giggling. Heh-heh, I’m just kidding. Heh-heh, they’re all laughing, maybe. I can’t turn my neck far enough to see everyone back there. I’m not an owl. “Nobody cares.” It’s just a joke, this little sledgehammer phrase pummeling the younger child’s sense of worth. So I say something like, “Hey, I don’t like that kind of comment. It’s unkind and unnecessary.” Maybe I tell the older to apologize to the younger girl. Maybe she does.

This exchange naturally caught the attention of the others in the vehicle (see – enclosed space was the important detail, because otherwise how would readers know I could have heard this comment made by my child and believe that everyone else present could have, too?) and led the adults to comment. My friend, let’s call him Mark – as in, “he’s an easy….” – said something like, “Kids will be kids.” Something genial, to diffuse any tension. Although I’m not saying there was any tension. The whole exchange worked like a reflex. After all the 9th grader is in, well, 9th grade, and the 5th grader has been around almost eleven years, so I’ve had a lot of training in sibling interactions. It was like a call-and-response between me and them. No stress. No tension. Indeed, almost no thought involved in my reaction.

“My brother used to say stuff like that to me all the time,” continued let’s-call-him-Mark. He was driving, and I was a comfortable passenger in his vehicle. “He used to tease me all the time, and I turned out—“

“Bald!” I said. Maybe shouted. “You turned out bald!”

We all laughed heartily, me especially, because, you know, it was kind of funny. And let’s-call-him-Mark isn’t actually bald, not totally; what he has is a receding hairline. So, you know, in the split second before I said what I said, I thought that it would be funny partly because he’s not actually 100% bald. So it would be even more unexpected.

When I say that we all laughed, by the way, I mean that the children didn’t laugh. They were not paying attention to us adults. They were busy playing games on their iPods instead of looking out the window at the lovely scenery. So the four of us laughed. Although, upon closer consideration, I suspect  maybe it was only three of us, because immediately after I caught my breath from having heartily enjoyed my own clever riposte, the husband said, “You know, right after correcting the 9th grader, you say THIS?”

Of course our friends came to my rescue. The joke was totally different. It wasn’t the same thing at all. When the 9th grader said, “Nobody cares” to the 5th grader, it was mean because there’s an inequality in power between them that doesn’t exist between me and let’s-call-him-Mark. Anyway, calling him bald was funny because it was absurd to conflate turning out fine with baldness, when the two have nothing to do with each other, so I wasn’t trying to quash his ego. On the other hand, that was just my train of thought. Maybe let’s-call-him-Mark had private insecurities about his hair that I’d fed through my moment of careless high-spirits.

We continued along our merry way, stopped for a big breakfast, cut down those trees, and generally enjoyed ourselves. Periodically, however, I kept wondering if the husband didn’t have a point. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that periodically, the realization that the husband had a point intruded on my enjoyment. After all, we learn by example, do we not? Which is more effective, the “don’t say that” reflex, or the thing you actually do that requires (a least a moment) of planning and gets a laugh?

So let’s congratulate me for teaching my children how to be kind to one another. I’m saying it aloud, because it’s a new year, and I’m starting on a positive note.  Also, I thought I’d pass along my experience to you, so that you might learn wisdom from me. Because I have a lot of it, apparently. Bursting forth, like uncensored wit, and ready to share. So here it is: you can kill, or you can be kind, but you can’t kill with kindness. In other words, remember to do what I say, and not what I do.

(Parenthetically, I’m hoping I’m right that the kids weren’t listening.)