Many years ago, around about Labor Day, and before she became a successful magazine writer, I had a friend who announced that she had been offered her first big commission, to write the introduction to a large format wall calendar of famous gardens, the kind with big color photographs that are sold every year by non profit organizations as fundraisers. The money really was substantial and she said she was eager to start.
A few weeks later I asked how it was going and she said she and her husband were driving down to Philadelphia to look at the Longwood Gardens for a little inspiration. I saw her again OysterFest in October and assumed the piece was finished. No, he said, she was about to fly down to Miami to see The Kampong Botanical Garden in Coconut Grove. By Thanksgiving, when she was talking about a trip to the Chinese gardens in Fullerton, California, I understood the problem. She was procrastinating, doing research instead of writing. Why? Because she was terrified; better not to start than to finish an imperfect job.
Writers, of course, are the world’s best procrastinators and I was recalling all this the other day as I putting off shoveling the snow from my very long driveway. It’s not that I didn’t have five good reasons for putting it off. For one thing, the snow didn’t actually seem deep enough to shovel. Secondly, the sun was shining and I thought it would eventually melt. The third reason is that it was always my job to do the shoveling and I resented that. And the fourth reason I was procrastinating is that I was finishing a good book.
Procrastination is a big problem, big enough to have spawned a small industry of books, therapists, life coaches, and the like. The book I was reading instead of shovelling was called Soon: And Overdue History of Procrastination, by Andrew Santella. He tells us that twenty percent of the population is plagued by chronic procrastinaton; that one hundred minutes of every single work day are dithered away by the average worker. Doing what? Getting coffee, surfing the internet, watching porn, checking email; you fill in the blank.
But Santella reports that some of history’s most famous geniuses have been procrastinators. After visiting the Galapagos Islands Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of the Species, the very foundation of evolutionary biology. We all know that, right? What we didn’t know is that it took him twenty years to publish the book. What else was he doing? Studying barnacles, earth worms, orchids…a zillion little projects besides the big one he was known for.
Then there’s Leonardo DaVinci, considered one of the most diversely talented individuals ever to have lived. Leonardo was famous for making big plans then never getting around to realize them. He once agreed to finish a painting in seven months, but it took twenty five years before it was installed. Why? Because his mind was consumed with sculpting, architecture, mathematics, engineering, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, cartography. He loved taking on new assignments. His problem was finishing them.
Closer to home there was Frank Lloyd Wright, America’s most famous architect. Hired to design a summer retreat for a Pittsburgh businessman Wright blew off the assignment for nine months before the businessman grew frustrated and announced that he was dropping by Wright’s office to see the plans. Suddenly worried about losing the commission, Wright ran to the drafting table and, in two hours, completed the design of Fallingwater, one of the most iconic houses in America.
Why do we procrastinate? Maybe, like Darwin, we need to hone our abilities on small projects before we’re capable of tackling the large ones. Maybe like Leonardo we become distracted by all there is to learn in the world. Or maybe like Frank Lloyd Wright we’re actually designing something in our heads long before we take pencil to paper.
So why didn’t I jump up, get dressed, and just start shoveling? For that I credit my old friend Dale. When I asked him once why he didn’t shovel the snow off his driveway, he said, “Why should I? I didn’t put it there.”
I’m Ira Wood…that’s reason number five…and that’s my opinion.