Over the years, I’ve gone after Megan McArdle for her shockingly bad reporting on business and economics.
It’s nothing personal, but I find McArdle’s nonsensical ramblings for respectable outlets to be an insult to the thousands of other talented writers who can write and do understand economics but who don’t get paid a fraction of what she does. Megan tries hard to make sense when going on long diatribes about why raising the minimum wage is awfully complex and not worth doing, but she can’t, and it’s beyond painful trying to understand what she’s saying.
So it was a pleasant surprise when a friend posted a link to an article she had written that wasn’t business related and actually looked quite interesting. The piece, an adapted excerpt from her latest book ‘The Upside of Down’, is based on the very truthful premise that writers are some of the worst procrastinators on the planet. Megan takes us through her theory that writers can’t get things done because they were too good in English class.
The piece starts out well with Megan drawing her readers in with some self deprecating remarks about her own procrastinating:
Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read.
So far so good.
Megan then goes into a lengthy argument, backed by experts she consulted, that states that professional writers were so good at English in school that they got used to being very successful without putting much effort in, and that means kids learn success largely dependent on natural talent:
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.
Okay, I can relate to this. While I wasn’t a great student all around, I excelled in English, tend to procrastinate, and wing things because I learned to rely on talent. My God, Megan and I agree on something! Could this article, unlike the vast quantities of nonsensical gibberish she has published on the wonders of libertarianism actually make sense???
Sadly, things then start to go awry.
Megan takes her interesting thesis, flushes it down the toilet, and ends up adding thousands of extra words that contribute absolutely nothing to her previous thesis. There’s some interesting nuggets of information, but none of it has to do with procrastination. McArdle delves into the psychology of underperforming (talented people fear trying hard because they might fail, and that would damage their self image), and ties it to the failure of America’s education system that apparently reinforces the idea that successful people are right all the time:
Our educational system is almost designed to foster a fixed mind-set. Think about how a typical English class works: You read a “great work” by a famous author, discussing what the messages are, and how the author uses language, structure, and imagery to convey them. You memorize particularly pithy quotes to be regurgitated on the exam, and perhaps later on second dates. Students are rarely encouraged to peek at early drafts of those works. All they see is the final product, lovingly polished by both writer and editor to a very high shine.
Very interesting and all that, but what does this have to do with procrastinating? Perhaps Megan will get back to this as the article moves on. But then she decides to bring Millennials into the fold, arguing that while their work ethic is great, they aren’t the best adapted to the current work place. She writes:
Today’s new graduates may be better credentialed than previous generations, and are often very hardworking, but only when given very explicit direction. And they seem to demand constant praise. Is it any wonder, with so many adults hovering so closely over every aspect of their lives? Frantic parents of a certain socioeconomic level now give their kids the kind of intensive early grooming that used to be reserved for princelings or little Dalai Lamas.
So are writers procrastinators or not, or are we now talking about Millennials? And are they procrastinators or do they work hard but just need some direction? Or are all Millennials writers and therefore procrastinators who sometimes work hard but suffer from fear of success?
McArdle closes out her article by circling back on the non-competitive education system that she feels reinforces the wrong lessons, and helpfully adds parenting into the mix for those who were confused on what the article was about:
So we get Whiffle Parenting: constant supervision to ensure that a kid can’t knock themselves off the ladder that is thought to lead, almost automatically, through a selective college and into the good life. It’s an entirely rational reaction to an educational system in which the stakes are always rising, and any small misstep can knock you out of the race. But is this really good parenting? A golden credential is no guarantee of success, and in the process of trying to secure one for their kids, parents are depriving them of what they really need: the ability to learn from their mistakes, to be knocked down and to pick themselves up—the ability, in other words, to fail gracefully. That is probably the most important lesson our kids will learn at school, and instead many are being taught the opposite.
Does anyone understand this? Is she talking about parents being responsible for procrastinators? Or is it the education system? What happened to the writers? Anyone?
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.