You put the load right on me
procrastination, love, and personal worth

What is procrastination for? Lord knows we spent enough time arguing this out (usually in the middle of the night, while practicing it) during college. Until just recently I had concluded that it derived from perfectionism and its corollary, fear-of-failure. As an unrepentant perfectionist whose friends are too—there you go, community of junkies trying to support each others’ ‘recovery’—this explanation is simple and useful. Let go of one’s internalized demands for superiority, and the work will seem less daunting and thus do-able. If it doesn’t have to be perfect, it isn’t such a big deal.

One of the most difficult hours of my life (in the last, say, five years… let’s not go as far back as middle school) was a private breakfast meeting I had with the head of my high school during the early winter of my senior year. A formidable and brilliant woman, she inspired in me (and many other students) a curious blend of scorn and awe. She had a knack for scaring the shit out of students over small things—talking loud outside her office, playing a misogynistic song at a school party—which came down to a basic intolerance for inconsiderate people. The pettiness of some of these issues (and her obvious oldfashionedness about haircuts) contrasted strongly with her vast personal, professional, and intellectual depth. I can’t really do it justice here—suffice it to say she’s an enigma. She’s read everything and been everywhere. She sees all the sides of an issue and still knows exactly what is right and can argue you into the ground for her side. She will listen to anyone with half a brain, and make them smarter. I’m a little afraid she’s reading this.

Anyway, the breakfast meeting invitation was, although levied in a kindly fashion, terrifying. She asked me to come to her house before school one day to talk about my work—we would eat, and talk, and walk to school together. Of course I would go; there was no refusing. Standing in her hall early that morning, I was shaking, sweating despite the icy Boston November outside. She made tea and toast, fruit and yogurt. I struggled to not spill things and not gawp at her house. My back hurt from all the good posture. What were we talking about, did it turn out? Procrastination.

She told me that she was concerned about my pattern of handing in everything late—all my teachers were. She wanted to talk through it and, in a respectful way, give me a warning: learn not to cripple yourself through this perfectionism thing, or you will seriously fuck up your work life. I made it through the breakfast still talking, acting reasonable—at the edge of tears for the dual reason of her being so right and her being so respectful about it. It hurt to have someone see my faults clearly and despite that want to help me fix them.

I had a similar conversation with a college professor last summer—after I graduated. This is someone for whom I have little love (though I respect her) and from whom I learned little important. She put it a little more starkly: having conferred with other professors of mine, she noticed a pattern of stubborn refusal to do what was important, regardless of the incentives and motivations that might be present. She wanted me to promise that I wouldn’t do this in the future; otherwise she could never write me a rec letter or get me an interview. Harsh. I promised, but how can you promise something like that?

I wanted to promise it to myself, and believe it, but I don’t believe it. While doing a self-driven research project I have observed myself over the last eight months doing not-what-I-planned; yes I am working, no it’s not always the most important stuff that pulls my focus. Also, I am always late, and I am terrible about planning things; to wit, the six-hour trishaw ride necessitated by not getting to the Kandy bus stand early enough, etc. Perfectionism isn’t a satisfying explanation for this.

Here’s an alternate one: I am constantly and in general over-ascribing positive and negative value to acts in the world. That is, everything is good or bad: there is nothing that I do (or don’t do) that doesn’t get noted as gold stars or X marks in my mental accounts books. I procrastinate, or under-plan, because it strains the achievability of the gold star and thus makes it more valuable; no matter how many Xs I get along the way (made tea instead of doing work, read a novel instead of calling for a reservation, etc.) the ultimate triumph of overcoming more, bigger obstacles is enough to make me feel good about a last-minute save.

It’s a risk behavior—the further out on the limb one can go, i.e., the more time without doing the right planful/diligent stuff, the more desperately difficult it is to survive, to pull off the event or project anyway. It’s dumb, too, because for me the ultimate payoff isn’t so much thrilling as a relief. Then the regrets and frustrations of having been irresponsible (up to the last minute) mount and crest, and I’m left feeling guilty, admixed with that same reaction I had in grade school when the report cards always said “Rebecca is not working up to her potential.” Yeah, sure, says my eight-year-old self, but who are you to say? Maybe this is the best I can do. I refuse to prove that I am better than this.

The greater emotional strategy at play here comes, I think, from the desire to have all my blackest thoughts about myself definitively proved. It’s the solo version of having a nasty fight with your lover or your mom: you fling all your worst traits at them, daring them to love you in spite of all, daring them to find you unlovable by rejecting you amid the torrent of your failures. Either you get to be redeemed of your flaws through love, or you get to be right about being generally worthless and despicable. There’s a certain satisfaction and stability both ways.

The hardest thing to admit, and the only solution to this cycle, is the bland fact that really most of us are okay and we all have our faults. Some would say that it’s inimical to passion to recognize that we’re mostly all love-worthy mediocrities. I’m just a regular person, so when someone’s really enchanted with me I’m both ecstatically gratified and subtly suspicious. Idealization and a dose of blindness are required for passion. And yet, I’m good at that—seeing beautiful wonderful things in other people, loving them, forgiving them. That’s the other end of the spectrum from my parsimonious grade-school model of self-esteem, with the Xs and the gold stars. It would be good to take more interesting risks, and lay off with the miserly accountancy of feeling proud that I got out of bed when my alarm rang.

This all plays into the sense of being responsible for everything that I mentioned in the last entry about the failed Jaffna trip. As Jill noted today, most people who are as un-planful as I am are also not so upset when things don’t go well. It’s neither logical nor remotely wise in a country with lots of wackiness—and where isn’t?—to expect the same slapdash knack-of-time shit to work out. And yet I see myself wedded to the emotional highs of almost-failing all the time. Some of my work-related ennui is no doubt related to there being no one requiring anything of me. Nothing required, at no specific time, means no chances to almost-screw-up, means no rush of stress and satisfaction in not-screwing-up. Authority figures just up the ante: if I can sufficiently threaten to crash’n’burn to attract someone’s attention, I get more props when I save myself. This act, however, wears thin once you’re out of college.

Wouldja look at the time! Back to real work. Maybe some dinner first though. Cooking: the first best greatest form of not-quite-wasting time. Except I’m not properly hungry, due to (as Jill wisely diagnoses) some nebulous combination of stresses professional, personal, and physical. There is one more caramel fudge brownie left…

On the reality side. I had this chill game of darts (501, involving having to hit doubles or triples, a problem for lucky-to-hit-the-board me) the other night at IOTG and lo, after trailing for most of the game and not caring at all, I won! I knew I would when my score was 22 and then 8, both lucky numbers for me. I doubled out on the 4 and got mild congrats from my vanquished rivals. Then I wandered around Galle Face from midnight to 2am with, we estimated, 3000 people. Kites aflutter, drums abeat, waves rolling in, children played soccer with beachballs. It was stunningly beautiful.


Sophist said...

Mate that post was something that hit me between the eyes. Seeing someone else in your same predicament is one step from salvation. I'm the world's laziest prick and have gotten by on being brilliant. Sadly I think that's about to end and perhaps your revelations will be the requisite kick up the backside I need. Need to finish an essay.

Joy said...

Ah, the senior talk. I had a similar one myself, over brunch at Stephanie's - no threats regarding rec letters, but certainly chastisement amidst lavish praise (of course, I thought I was going to be thrown out of school when I was invited to a private meeting with the headmistress, so I thought it went quite well!).
I just wish I'd realised the seriousness of procrastination and tardy assignments before I entered college...
Ah well, at least the scones were good!