Biographer Robert Caro on How It’s All About Perspective

Most books (and many theses and other projects) take years to produce, and that's a simple fact. And yet, the "When will you be done?" question can bedevil new writers in particular. (Even worse when it's phrased disrespectfully, as in: "What? Are you still working on that thing?") That's why this anecdote from Caro's autobiography Working is so satisfying: "I was bothered, too, by the length not only of the manuscript [The Power Broker, about New York City "master builder" Robert Moses], but also of the time I had been working on it."That was the thing that made me doubt the most. When I had started, I had firmly believed that I would be done in a year, a naive but perhaps not unnatural belief for someone whose longest previous deadline had been measured in weeks. As year followed year, and I was still not nearly done, I became convinced that I had gone terribly astray."This feeling was fed by the people Ina and I did know. I was still in the first year of research when friends and acquaintances … [Read more...]

Perfectionism is All Lies and Oversimplifications, Part One Million

This tweet has it all, from a perfectionist standpoint: It: Sets an impossibly high standard for success. (You should be as successful as Apple's Steve Jobs, etc.) Is shaming. ("What's your excuse?") Makes specious comparisons. (Between you and these ultra-successful outliers, most of whom also achieved their success decades ago, in a very different society and economy.) Offers zero guidance on how to actually achieve the level of super success it's promoting. AND IT'S WRONG. Perfectionist narratives, including the "rags to riches" and "bootstrap" ones so beloved by the business press and conservatives in general, are inevitably oversimplified and dramatic. As you can read in Historic.ly's brilliant takedown of the tweet, the founders of the companies mentioned were overwhelmingly rich and well-connected. And, with one exception, Mattel's Ruth Handler, they were/are all white men, so the tweet's implied claim that, "anyone can do this" is, on its face, bogus. The perfectionist tweet … [Read more...]

Roll Over Beethoven!

At a recent performance of Johannes Brahms’s First Symphony, the conductor told how, when Brahms was just starting out, the elder composer Robert Schumann praised him to the high heavens. Here’s the story: Brahms was only twenty years old and as yet little known….Robert expressed his admiration first in a letter to Joachim, and then in an article for the Neue Zeitschrift, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (“New Paths”). He praised Brahms in extravagant language, proclaiming the arrival of a young musician “called to give expression to his times in ideal fashion: a musician who would reveal his mastery not in gradual stages but like Minerva would spring fully armed from Kronos’s head. And he has come; a young man over whose cradle Graces and Heroes have stood watch. His name is Johannes Brahms…” Partly as a result of Schumann’s extravagant praise, many considered Brahms the natural successor to Beethoven, and predicted that his first symphony would be “Beethoven’s Tenth.” It took Brahms 21 years to finish that … [Read more...]

The Conversation You Have With Your Work

Creative / scholarly work is actually a conversation between yourself (your ideas, emotions, perceptions) and your materials and influences. Or, as glass artist Davide Penso recently put it in an interview in Glass Art Magazine: "I didn't and don't presume to work in glass, but to support it and assign it the task of molding me. Glass enhanced my best characteristics and emphasized its own. In silent agreement, with respect, we use each other." It's probably the best encapsulation of the creative mindset I've read. Perfectionism can get in the way, however. If you start... trying to control the outcome ("I'd better do fabulous work!") rushing ("It's going too slowly!"), or instrumentalizing (seeing the work as a means to an end, as in, "This should get me an A," or "I really want this to be the Great American Novel.") ...then you derail the whole process. Now it's true that we often do want to do great work, meet our deadlines, and impress our audience (teacher, editor, gallery owner, … [Read more...]

Dogs Like LoFi Hip Hop Too!

Recently I wrote about Lofi Hip Hop YouTube radio channels, which many people like to listen to while studying, writing, etc. Turns out dogs like Lofi, too! Enjoy these remaining dog days of summer, and don't forget to draw lessons from them that you can use to live a happier life all year long. Also, beware post-summer situational perfectionism. Any late summer perspectives or advice you'd like to share? Please tell us in the comments. See you in fall! … [Read more...]

You’ve Got Time…

Our society tend to fetishize early success, but lest we forget... Toni Morrison: 40 Mark Twain: 41 Marcel Proust: 43 Henry Miller: 44 JRR Tolkien: 45 Raymond Chandler: 51 Richard Adams: 52 Annie Proulx: 57 Laura Ingalls Wilder: 65 Frank McCourt: 66 Harriett Doerr: 74 Harry Bernstein: 96 No, you’re not too old to publish your first book. — Allison K Williams (@GuerillaMemoir) August 19, 2018 Perfectionism is impatient, but it's never too late to start a project that's important to you. My number, by the way, is 48. (And thanks to D. for sending me the tweet!) … [Read more...]

Why an Anime Girl (or Raccoon!) Might Be Your Next Productivity Buddy

Back in Cambridge, MA, where I used to live, a group of writers used to meet regularly to get some work done. After a quick hello - no chit chat, latte ordering, or other delays - they all sat down and started working. It was so quiet you could hear the proverbial pin drop, and everyone got tons done during those sessions. That's all it takes to do your work, in many cases: someone sitting next to you doing theirs. They don't even have to be doing what you're doing. Someone could be sketching or doing their travel receipts while you're writing or studying and it's all good. While it's okay to check in with your buddy once in a while, or gently offer advice and encouragement if they're stuck, mostly what you, and they, are providing is presence. My theory about why this works is that we're such intensely social creatures that, for many of us, the solitude needed to do our work is itself an obstacle to productivity, raising feelings of isolation and even abandonment. Add to that a bit of resentment--as … [Read more...]

Productivity Secrets of a “Supergenius”

A friend was discussing her fears around her writing, and, in particular, of taking on bigger projects than she could handle, when she came up with a great comparison: "I feel like Wile E. Coyote when he goes off the edge of a cliff. Then he looks down and realizes he's gone too far, but it’s too late, and down he goes." She was conveying a real sense of fear. (Falling off a cliff, even in a cartoon, is scary!) And yet...something about the comparison felt off. I thought for a moment, and then pointed out: "But he always survives the fall, doesn't he?" She paused. "Uh, yes. I guess he does." "And then he goes on with the chase?" “Yes!” I think it's fair to say my friend's attitude shifted at that moment. In fact, her comparison was more apt than she realized. As a creator, it's actually your job to “run off the cliff”—i.e., take risks. And that, by definition, means you’ll fall (a.k.a., fail) a lot. It's essential you not overreact to those failures when they happen. Even better, stop … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk About “Situational Perfectionism”

“Situational perfectionism” is when something causes your perfectionism to spike above its usual levels. (Which usually, in turn, causes your procrastination to spike!) It’s a common phenomenon, with many causes. Here are a few: A prior failure. Often, when we perceived we’ve failed, we get more afraid of future failures. (The solution is to not make such a fuss over failure.) But, paradoxically... A prior success can also do it! That’s because you feel (often rightly) more scrutinized. Second Novel Syndrome is a classic example of this type of situational perfectionism, and even J.K. Rowling experienced it after the success of the first Harry Potter book: “For the first time ever in my life, I got writer’s block...The stakes seemed to have gone up a lot, and I attracted a lot of publicity in Britain for which I was utterly unprepared.’” Fortunately, she got over it, but many writers and others, alas, never do. Labels can be a problem! Labeling your project “urgent,” “important,” or “difficult” … [Read more...]

Some Thoughts on “Genius” – a Not-Very-Useful Concept

There's been a spate of writing about "genius" lately. Here, in Tweet form, are some of my thoughts on that concept. Hope you like them, and I welcome your comments, on Twitter, Facebook, or below. - Hillary For millennia #genius has been gendered male, and used to justify everything from boorishness to rape and murder. Women were relegated to the role of muse and we were all expected to celebrate and exalt the female suffering that enabled some guy to do his thing. — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) May 10, 2018 So in bios of #DavidFosterWallace, his ongoing abuse (including assault, death threats, and stalking) of #MaryCarr were relegated to interesting, "illuminating" anecdotes. https://t.co/x4msfpSUMk — Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) May 10, 2018 So what is "genius?" What a boring-ass question - albeit one that obsessed me when I was younger. Now I know that you just do your work with as much integrity and spirit as you can, and hope for the best.— Hillary Rettig (@hillaryrettig) May 10, … [Read more...]

Dogs Don’t Like Perfectionism Either!

This piece by Nancy Tanner on how impatience ruins dog training is brilliant: When I am asked what is the biggest problem I see in dog training today, it is the same problem I saw fourteen years ago, and thirty years ago, it is the misunderstanding of time. It takes time to learn how to be a teacher to another species. It takes time to learn how to learn from another species. It takes time to build understanding. It takes time to learn how to observe and how to apply what you observe. It takes time to build a relationship with trust. It's not just dog training! Ask teachers of any craft or skill what their #1 challenge is with students, and the answer will inevitably be, "getting them to slow down." While (speaking generally) you want to do your work at a steady clip and not get bogged down on any one detail, you also don't want to rush through the important details--and they can take way longer to get right than many of us think (or want). Even now, after decades of serious writing, I'm … [Read more...]

Thank you Fast Company!

I'm kvelling! A few weeks ago a wonderful Fast Company writer, Stephanie Vozza, approached me for input into an article on how to be as productive as possible during the summer. I told her that I actually thought the opposite: that summer should be for relaxing, and, moreover, that in summer people often relax into their authentic selves. So the goal should really be to carry one's summer productivity habits and attitudes into the rest of the year, so one can live more joyfully and authentically all year long. It was a pretty contrarian view and, to be honest, I didn't expect Stephanie to rework her entire article around it. But that's exactly what she did! Huge props to her and also to her editor for approving the switch! The result is this article and I couldn't be prouder or more honored. I hope it inspires many people (including all of you, my FB friends) to live their summer life all year long. Many thanks to Stephanie and Fast Company! Also, here's a blog post in which I also explored this idea. … [Read more...]

Parenting Is Not a Zero Sum Game!

From Evelyn Tsitas, an exceptionally useful blog post about what it took for her to write her thesis: Admit it, if you are a mother, there is always that nagging voice somewhere – yours or some critic – that says ‘intense focus and study at the expense of much of everything else in your life will be bad for your young children.’ Rubbish. Low expectations, complacency and laziness* are limiting. Constantly pushing your boundaries and challenging your comfort zone, on the other hand, teach children not to be limited in their aspirations while at the same time reinforcing that anything worth achieving takes hard work, and sacrifice.If you are completing your doctorate and fretting about your children taking a back seat, don’t worry. The mum up late studying, turning down social invitations, spending holidays at the computer or university library may be absent from her children’s lives in some ways, but she is abundantly present in ways which matter in the long term. I can tell you first hand that far … [Read more...]

Select 2016 Blog Posts

Below is a list of select blog posts from 2016. Not surprisingly, many were on the topic of how to stay productive and otherwise cope during challenging times. Also, I want to remind you that coaching is a fun and empowering way to start the new year, and nothing catalyzes progress faster. I take on a few new coaching clients every season, and work especially well with people who like a compassionate, yet direct and efficient, approach. If you think you'd like to work with me please check out my coaching page. Thanks to everyone who supported me, professionally, personally, and politically, during 2016. We're in for some challenging times, but we'll get through them the way we always do: together. Many people in the U.S. and elsewhere have indicated a desire to be more politically active in 2017 and I will be providing tips for doing that in the next newsletter. What to do When Your Gingerbread House Collapses What's the Right Number of Drafts? How to Bingo Your Way to Fun … [Read more...]

Do You Have a “Room of ReQUIETment?”

Continuing on last week’s Harry Potter theme, I want to ask you: Do you have a “Room of ReQUIETment?” Of course that’s a play on Room of Requirement, the fantastic room at Hogwarts that could be anything, supply anything, a student needed. Back in 1929, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, which discussed, among other things, a creative woman’s need for space and privacy. (Of course, men need these things, too—it’s just that fewer women had them in Woolf’s day.) But physical space isn’t enough. You also need a quiet, capacious mental space that’s free of judgment, worry, and external concern; and in which you can invent and play and create freely. I call that your Room of ReQUIETment. Create it using the nonperfectionism techniques I’ve written about in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific and elsewhere. See also: Harry Potter and The Boggart Perfectionism Joyful Productivity and The Woodland Trail Metaphor … [Read more...]