Brian Micklethwait's Blog
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Category archive: Career counselling
I think that this piece by Megan McArdle, entitled Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators is good.
Most writers were the kids who easily, almost automatically, got A’s in English class. (There are exceptions, but they often also seem to be exceptions to the general writerly habit of putting off writing as long as possible.) At an early age, when grammar school teachers were struggling to inculcate the lesson that effort was the main key to success in school, these future scribblers gave the obvious lie to this assertion. Where others read haltingly, they were plowing two grades ahead in the reading workbooks. These are the kids who turned in a completed YA novel for their fifth-grade project. It isn’t that they never failed, but at a very early age, they didn’t have to fail much; their natural talents kept them at the head of the class.
This teaches a very bad, very false lesson: that success in work mostly depends on natural talent. Unfortunately, when you are a professional writer, you are competing with all the other kids who were at the top of their English classes. Your stuff may not - indeed, probably won’t - be the best anymore.
If you’ve spent most of your life cruising ahead on natural ability, doing what came easily and quickly, every word you write becomes a test of just how much ability you have, every article a referendum on how good a writer you are. As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
That last pararaph certainly rings bells for me. Which is why I find that the cure for blogger’s block is the opposite of self-esteem. Self-esteem, as McArdle says, gets in the way. Self-abasement can get you going again. I’m a crap writer, so anything I do manage to put now won’t make me any worse. And hey, it may even cheer me up by making me better!
As for that thing about having it too easy in school, I recall Geoff Boycott saying the exact same thing about cricketers. The ones who were effortlessly good as kids, and who therefore didn’t have to scrap, later often came second best to others who did scrap when they were kids.
Of course, sportsmen don’t procrastinate, because they have a set timetable when they have to perform. Instead they just do badly.
And I also recall Malcolm Gladwell throwing older brothers into the mix, in one of his books. Ace basketballer Michael Jordan had an elder brother, who he had to scrap against when young. I think it was Jordan.
I wrote this just before going to bed, even though I have had the whole day to do something better.
I have just discovered this report by James Hamilton of a conference on the subject of the self help movement) and I like it a lot. Or rather, I think I had seen it before, but then something else came up before I had properly read it, and I never got back to it. Until today, when I read it right through.
It is one of the classic “insults of class” – having to win for yourself the right to believe that you are entitled to form and follow your own ambitions. At the summit, Robert Kelsey attributed to self help his recognition that his sense of failure in life was in fact a fear of failure. That’s a hugely important point and he made it well. It’s also a middle class one. It’s easier to have a fear of failure when you know how and where to start, indeed, when you know you are allowed to start at all.
The need to change, to be different succeed is a familiar idea to anyone from a working class background. That, to put it bluntly, is because it’s true. It’s an easy thing for middle class journalists and writers to mock, who already have security, who already own the idea that you can achieve what you set out to do, who started life already halfway into the world most people must hustle and scramble to reach. It’s easy to mock when you’ve grown up knowing lawyers, poets, artists, bankers and academics and so assume that those fine careers are options for you. (I am lower middle class in origin and made it to 18 without having known personally any adults in any of those fields – I saw only computing, and not much of that. What about families where no one works at all?)
I’ve a friend, the child of a famous man, who has never read any self help, but knows it’s all crap. The family are wealthy: the chosen career is in a field with formidable entry costs. But I know this about my friend too: they’ve always had written goals. They’ve always used social “tricks” like mirroring and pacing in order to get on. They have a deliberate strategy to overcome failure when it occurs. They have another strategy for networking. They visualize their ideal outcomes.
So much of what they do is pure Tony Robbins. But they don’t know that, because actually, it’s just what people at their level in society do. Not overtly, or even knowingly: there’s no need. They’ll never be as self-conscious about it as people like me who have had to get it all out of a book (if not that one) because there was nowhere else for it to come from.
And I wonder if my friend, or anyone who has ever pitched an article for the hell of it, or just thought they might just – what the heck! – put in for that (interesting) job, or been called on to consult or whatever – I wonder if they have quite realized how unusual they are in British life. That their luck and fortune might lie – not in the results of their decisions, but in their assumption that they can make their decisions at all.
I came from a quite posh family, but I got rather less of this sort of advice from my parents than you might expect from such people. So I too had to find out about it by reading books. And then I developed a hobby as a career councillor, basically passing on what I had read. And Hamilton is right. There are indeed people who do not have it in their bones that they can decide things. Such people can be greatly cheered up by being told that indeed they can. Sometimes this is the only extra thing they need to learn (by which I mean merely think about for a bit because it’s obviously true once you actually say it) in order to take off like a rocket.
Susan Hill writes, in connection with celebrity authors, or to more exact in connection with the opposite kind, this:
… in the last few years it has become very common for good novels to sell under 100 copies.
If I ever try to write a novel, (a) shoot me, and (b) I’ll just give it away on the www, probably as a series of blog postings, probably here. And if a hundred people read it, I’d probably rate that a success.
If you want thousands to read your novel, then surely getting a few hundred to like it to start with, who are in a position to recommend it to others without those others having to pay anything, to the point where people who like to read their books in book form (assuming there remain any such people after you’ve written your novel) hear about your novel, from quite a lot of people who liked it, would seem like an obvious first step. In short, try to become a mini-celebrity novelist.
If you want to make money as a novel-writer, then here is my career advice: get a job, and write in your spare time, following the above plan (i.e. buying the above quite cheap literary lottery ticket). That way, you will make money as a novelist, although I agree not in the way you may have meant. Make that: make money and be a novelist. (When I career counsel, I often suggest that. It makes a change from “find a job doing what you love”, which is often disastrous, not least because there is no rule that says you will be any good or any use to anyone else doing what you love. Worse, you may just end up hating what you used to love. Often “keep your work and what you love separate” proves to be the catalytic suggestion which sorts everything out a treat.)
Or, instead of writing a “good novel”, you could try writing the kind of story people in their thousands like to read, like a crime story with plausibly virtuous policemen and implausibly villainous villains.
One of the things that complicates blogging is the way you accumulate lots of links and quotes from other pieces, intending one day to comment on each one separately, at quite some length and with extreme wisdom, but which you eventually forget about. A way around this is to just gather up all such bits and bobs into one post. So here goes with some random quotes, in pretty much random order, that I have come across over the last few days and been amused by.
I start with a quote from Theodore Dalrymple, the truth of which I think explains quite a lot:
When one is indignant, one does not wonder what life is for or about, the immensity of the universe does not trouble one, and the profound and unanswerable questions of the metaphysics of morals are held temporarily in abeyance.
We must reap the benefits of our pathologies ...
Indeed. Don’t try and fail to change your personality, unless your personality is downright evil. Find somewhere and something where your personality fits in just fine, and is just what they need. If, say, you are obsessed with doing absolutely everything that you do exactly right, don’t waste you time and your life trying and failing to lighten up. Get a job in, e.g., a nuclear power station.
Now for a couple of sports quotes, the first one being a headline:
And Stuart Broad too, apparently. It’s those two slightly funny-in-themselves words that I like, jammed right next to each other. Buttock. Niggle. Well, I laughed. And oh look, they agree, because they’ve changed it to something more decorous. It definitely did say “buttock niggle”, rather than “buttock strain”.
The second sport-quote is a snatch of monologue from Chris Rock, being interviewed on the telly, in connection with the Polanski ruckus, saying what he thinks of the “but he made some good movies” defence:
CarsonCochran didn’t have the nerve to say: “Well did you see OJ play against New England?”
Speaking of words and the way words sound, here’s Alfred Brendel explaining how, after a working lifetime spent playing classical piano, he has more recently turned to poetry:
How does he account for this sudden spurt of poetic creativity in his mid-sixties? “I cannot tell you,” he says. “But I’ve read a great deal in my life, and especially a huge amount of poetry when I was young. So perhaps this accumulated mass of words started to work by itself inside my head, and somehow sorted itself out. Many writers will tell you that the hypnagogic state [the transition between sleep and consciousness] is an important well of their creativity. That’s true for me. Sometimes between waking and sleeping a poem will form, and sometimes I wake up in the night and it goes on. Then I look at it in the morning and it seems to work. It’s the state between dreaming and waking that’s so interesting. You are both here and there.”
As an atheist, I not only find myself disagreeing with the claims made by religion, but also trying to explain religion. If it’s wrong, how come it’s still out there, in such strength? Perhaps a part of why religion persists is that people fail to get how vast is their own subconscious, confusing their conscious with all their mental processes. So, when an idea pops into their mind, and it must have come from somewhere, they believe it must have come from outside of themselves, like a radio signal. Like, that is, the voice of God. Well, just a thought.
There are still lots more quotes and links hanging about in my computer, but I will end this with just two more, both comments, one on this, about chasing wicked Acorn people, Acorn being a wicked organisation in America ... :
… if you actually do have witches, witch hunts are the right course of action ...
... and the other, about the travails of trying to keep newspapers alive:
Papers began dying when it became illegal to serve Fish & Chips on newsprint.
I think the problem of newspapers is not that they didn’t get that the www was coming to get them; their problem was that the economics of running newspapers was/is so totally different to the economics of getting something going on the web. Even a merely ticking-over newspaper is awash with money, which means that there is a fatal tendency for web-operations started by newspapers to be either on a huge (too huge) scale, from the start, or sensible, but on a scale that strikes them as humiliatingly tiny. As soon as it looks like their new www dot thing is doing okay, they flood it with money, while taking it for granted that they already know what doing okay means and how to spend all the money. Then a year later, they accuse it of losing money, shut it down and try something else. Repeat until all that newspaper money runs out. (Recently I had an interesting conversation with an English journo friend with a slightly different tale to tell. More of which anon. (Maybe. I promise nothing.))
Lots of categories for this posting.
When Gordon Brown is finally removed from Number Ten, either by his despairing underlings or by us despairing voters, attempts will then be made by the regular journos to downplay the role played in this saga by the great Guido Fawkes. In fact, I already sense a process of bigging Guido up, so that he can later be knocked down. But as Guido himself pointed out, last Friday:
Examine the front page media agenda last month: Smeargate, Snouts in the Trough, MPs’ expenses and of course the developing “Gordon is bonkers” meme, all topped off nicely with a round of mea culpas on the inside comment pages from the shamed copy takers in the Lobby.
Exactly so. And let’s add Guido’s taxodus obsession to that list. That’s going to get very big in the weeks and months to come, especially if Brown manages to stay walking while ever more dead. The dead tree dog pack is now in full cry and closing in on its helpless prey, but Guido was always the Master of the Hounds.
To switch metaphors from fox-hunting to king- or Caesar-murdering, all the deadliest daggers in this drama have been being sharpened, week after week, month after month, by Guido. It wasn’t just McBride, Draper, Balls and co. It was everything, including the reason why Guido himself was for months the main story-teller telling all the other stories. Guido is undoubtedly the First Murderer in this drama, no matter what all the other murderers who are now piling in will try to say.
One basic reason for this is that First Murderer was always the ultimate role to which Guido aspired, at any rate in this particular drama. First Murderers never become kings themselves, but Guido has never - unlike all the still-vacillating politicians who are now, Brutus-like, working themselves up into the necessary mood of murderousness, or not as the case may be - wanted any political office beyond the office he has already contrived for himself. For him, Guido Fawkes is title enough.
But, when he gets bored with British politics, what will Guido Fawkes do then, I wonder? Do you think he might cross the Atlantic and take a crack at Obama?
Better yet, how about going global, and taking aim at the UN and related scams? The very Global Elite itself, amongst whom mere heads of state are, well, mere heads of state? That would be a worthy next foe for the great man.
As I mentioned in this earlier posting, Guido used to run something called the Global Development Institute, or some such forgettable thing. It’s now fizzled out, or is dormant. No matter. What this shows is that Guido already has the inclination to think globally. So how’s this for a slogan?: Guido (or whatever else he chooses to call himself for these different and bigger purposes) for part time ruler (see top left of this blog) of The World.
But before having a go at that, he should take a well-earned break.
And after writing all of the above, what do I find at Guido’s? American news.
UPDATE: Welcome to Iain Dale readers, with deep thanks to your Lord and Master.
Further relevant thing noticed: Guido is getting a lot of international media coverage all of a sudden. How do we all know that? Because Guido himself is linking to it.
Even Paul Staines is the wrath of his opinion, through and through corrupt political class driven Britain. But it was probably primarily the fun at the provocation that inspired him, his political blog - slightly - to name Guido Fawkes. Finally, write him friends and opponents of an exuberant lust for mischief and practical joke too.
Plus: The global option might be preferable to the American option, because going global wouldn’t oblige Guido to move from London. Going American would pretty much have to mean a base in America (from which to go out drinking).
I just read this piece about procrastination (linked to yesterday by Instapundit), right through, with no shilly-shallying, and now I am blogging about it, seconds later. Although, only time will tell whether this gets put up on my blog with equal promptitude. I am sure I am not the only blogger now writing facetiously self-referential silliness on this topic.
Procrastination, I surmise, is a big deal for many bloggers, certainly for me. For me, it’s a big deal because blogging is my response to my self-image as a procrastinator. I constantly postpone big or biggish projects. My big constantly postponed thing at the moment, which I keep meaning to just sit down and bloody well do, is writing a review for Samizdata of this excellent but rather complicated book (the complications being because the story itself is so controversial in its factual details) about a man who got on with stuff so energetically and promptly that he became, for a short while, the ruler of England, no less. Or, maybe he didn’t quite do that. Historians don’t seem quite to agree.
Instead of doing such big pieces, I do small ones instead, like this stupid little piece, which never occurred to me to be writing about until about fifteen minutes ago. My ego thus massaged, the big project only gets postponed all the more. Writing something becomes a defence against the guilt caused by failing to write what I really want to write, by which I mean “really want to have written”. And further postpones the big stuff.
Much of my career counselling is passing on tricks for dealing with the vice of procrastination. One of my regular questions to my victims is, for instance: When your time is entirely your own, what do you do? Not: What do you wish you did? What do you actually do? What, in other words, can you do without will power? What activities do you not procrastinate at? Avoid being a procrastinator by “deciding” to do those things you don’t naturally postpone, the things that come naturally to you, so naturally that it requires willpower for you to interrupt them, to do such things as eat, sleep, maintain your marriage, etc. Do the things where you love not only the outcomes, but also the process.
The story of my life, when I think about it, is that when I first saw word processing, in the electronics department of Essex University in the early nineteen seventies, I fell in love with it. Not with what I could do with it. With the simple fact of it. It has been a lifelong romance. I still love the simple fact of being able to type this stuff, and immediately see it up there in front of me straight away, with mistakes being instantly correctable. Wow! Such is my romantic loyalty to word processing that I always word procress blog postings first, and only when they are done do I shovel them into my blogging software. For many, I surmise, blogging is a release from the drudgery of word processing. For me, blogging is merely an add-on, the cherry on the cake. There is further tweaking when it’s in the blog machines (I’m tweaking now), but my basic tool remains word processing. End of diversion. Go back to end of previous paragraph, and then proceed forward to the next paragraph. (A downside of word processing.)
So as I was saying, another trick to battle procrastination, also highly relevant to bloggers, is to accomplish large things by slicing them up into small things, and then doing them a small slice at a time. Thus, a blogger can write a big piece by writing it a bit at a time, and then link back to it when it is all finished. Or maybe copy and past all the bits and polish it up, as the final slice of work. Often it is the size of a task that daunts. Reducing its size makes it startable. I read another book a while ago, where the best tip I got from it was to ask, of any project: What is the first small thing that I need to do to get that started? Never mind finishing it. What would s
I seem to recall posting something here, once upon a time, about the foolishness of trying to look like a goody goody on the internet. Yes. Well Ryan Healy (guesting at the Brazen Careerist) seems to agree:
The more young people enter the workforce the less risk there is that someone will Google them to look for bad behavior. Human resources leaders don’t have the time to sleuth. But also, there just aren’t enough perfect little angels in the world to go around.
Plus, are wise employers actually looking for perfect little angels anyway, even if there was a glut of them? For most purposes, wouldn’t human beings be preferable?
Now that “private” lives are starting to become as public as working lives, the pretence of “private” hundred-per-cent decorum is going to have to be abandoned.
I am an occasional career counsellor. I specialise in helping my punters find out what sort of career they would like to have. If you don’t know what you want out of your career, but need to know (especially if you need to know in rather a hurry), sign up for one of my sessions (it only takes one) and there’s a very decent chance we’ll get it eighty percent sorted within a couple of hours.
Once you know what career you want, good luck finding it, and more good luck doing it. I can’t help you so much with that. I have some ideas, but nothing that special. My main suggestion is: don’t be scared to ask other and better people than me about it. Few will object. Many will relish the chance to show off. The worst that can happen is that they say no.
To find out what sort of career people want, I have a clutch of questions I ask them. What things (work or anything else) have you done that you are most proud of? What - given all the money, time, talent, breaks (i.e. regardless of whether you’d actually be able to get it or do it) – would be your perfect job or perfect life? When your time is your own, what do you do? If you had only one day left to live, what would you do? Things like that.
Well, here’s something that might turn into another question of that kind. During that shit job you had, did you learn anything, and if so what?
I realize now that the reason I picked up so much information about negotiating and marketing from these less-than-challenging jobs is because those are areas that interest me. I’m good at them and I like watching how other people do it. You will notice in your early, random jobs that you gravitate toward certain lessons. What you like learning about is probably what you like to do. Learn from yourself by watching how you learn from others.
That’s from page 9 of The Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk, and is one of the rather few things she says (at any rate in that early chapter) about how to work out what you want. But of course, I picked it out, because of what I am most interested in.
I’ve now reached the bit about the grind of getting that first half decent job, which is now what seems to have replaced the grind of doing that first half decent job, which is what our parents and grandparents did. I am looking forward to doing the job, so to speak. I think I will enjoy that more. Reading about it, that is.
Everyone in the world is not like me
At least I got today’s obligatory posting done before midnight
On letting career decisions make themselves
Getting things read
Blogging is filing for those who can’t
The risk of not taking any risks