A few weeks ago, I read an article by James Fallows in the Atlantic Monthly, quite positively (if begrudgingly) reviewing the book Getting Things Done, a self-help book on how to organize your tasks and worries and goals. I read the book, and think it's fantastic, and have already started reorganizing my working life around its key concepts.
But what has me thinking today is a section I read toward the end of the book, in which Allen explains why smart people so often tend to procrastinate. He writes:
If your body responds to the pictures you give it, how are you likely to feel physically when you think about, say, doing your taxes? Are you sending yourself "easy," "let's go," completion, success and "I'm a winner!" pictures? Probably not. For just that reason, what kinds of people would logically be the most resistant to being reminded about a project like that -- that is, who would procrastinate the most? Of course, it would be the most creative, sensitive and intelligent people! Because their sensitivity gives them the capability of producing in their minds lurid nightmare scenarios about what might be involved in doing the project, and all the negative consequences that might occur if it weren't done perfectly! They just freak out in an instant and quit!
Who doesn't procrastinate? Often it's the insensitive oafs who just take something and start plodding forward, unaware of all the things that could go wrong. Everyone else tends to get hung up about all kinds of things.
My first thought was that Allen was pandering to his readers, all likely procrastinators, by telling them how bright they are. But on further reflection, I decided he may have a point.
The key memory for me on this is from 1997. I was news editor at the Daily Cal, and we were chasing a big story: who would be the next chancellor. The prior chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien, had resigned the previous summer, and the UC Regents were in the process of selecting a new one.
Of course, the whole process was conducted in secret. My team of reporters and assistants, excellent and talented folks who went on to win awards and work in big-city newsrooms, got nowhere. Months went by.
Who ended up delivering the story? A brilliant, big, insensitive oaf.
Seriously, though. Matt was a smart guy, and I'm sure he's a sensitive guy overall. But like an good frat guy, he knew how to shut the sensitivity completely down. On the Tien story, Matt -- an opinion columnist, mind you, not a regular reporter -- got his source on the phone and never let up. Badgering, pleading, coaxing, cajoling. This was someone in a powerful position on the other end of the phone from Matt. Someone with strong ties to the governor. But you'd never know it the way he talked to the guy. "What do you mean you can't say? Of course you can! You can tell us whatever you want! You know we're going to find out anyway. Don't we deserve to know? Didn't you say you loved our paper?"
And so on. For what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes, maybe half an hour, he kept it up, until the source cracked, and we had our story. As news editor I was happy to write the headline and take credit for the awards we eventually won, but the story and the success belonged to Matt. It was the single most brilliant act of newspaper reporting I have witnessed, including during my internship at the Wall Street Journal.
Matt continued to be an insensitive oaf, chatting up the new chancellor's secretary, wife, daughters, and the big man himself. He produced an impressive series of scoops, including one where he phoned the new chancellor at his vacation home in Oregon.
Matt got the story because he refused to be intimidated, he refused to care what others thought of him while doing his job and refused to play by all of the rules (such as -- do not bully people on the phone, do not call people on vacation, do not keep people tied up for much longer than they have time to be tied up). Too many reporters, myself included, get tied up in caring what powerful sources may think of us. It is important to preserve trust and honesty, but it is not always important to be liked. Sometimes, it is counterproductive.
Insensitive oafdom is also a key reason immigrants so often succeed in business and other endeavors. Now, I'm not saying immigrants are dumb or even, at their core, insensitive oafs. But when you enter an alien culture, as immigrants do, it is almost impossible not to be a temporary, inadvertent insensitive oaf. You don't know all the little social rules, you don't know what is and is not possible.
In other words, immigrants do not make self-defeating assumptions about what they can and cannot accomplish. Also, they accept the fact that people won't always like them or correctly perceive their intentions, since that sort of thing is a given when one isn't fluent in the language or customs. This is why it can feel so liberating to visit or temporarily live in foreign countries. You learn to get over the fact that you are big and ugly and dumb and insensitive ("big ugly American"). All of a sudden, anything is possible again.