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The Fruits of Procrastination

Pivoting from what you have to do to what you want to do can be a savvy move.

Key points

  • Many great books and works of art have been produced by people skiving off on company time.
  • Procrastination is not the scourge it's often thought to be. In fact, when someone is feeling stuck, pivoting elsewhere can be fruitful.
  • Creative work requires a certain amount of disloyalty to other responsibilities—including, at times, a day job. It can work, as long as someone remains loyal to themself.

Norton Juster has died, in Massachusetts, at age 91.

He was an architect by trade. And I’m sure he did some lovely renderings and had fruitful meetings with clients. But they won’t be remembered by history. What will be is a book he wrote on the side called The Phantom Tollbooth.

In it, a young lad named Milo, along with his watchdog, Tock, escapes from his bedroom to the land of Dictionopolis, where people eat synonym buns and drive cars that run on silence (they “go without saying”). In this Narnia-like netherworld of language, Milo runs into such characters as the Triple Demons of Compromise: “One tall and thin, one short and fat, and the third exactly like the other two.” This book ought to be as famous as Alice in Wonderland, and maybe will be. It’s a blast of pure brainy creative joy, unlike the work Juster was supposed to be doing. You see, on top of his architecture job, he’d been commissioned to write a nonfiction book about how children perceive cities, which he had accepted a grant to complete.

How Many Great Books Were Written While the Author Skived Off on Company Time?

Turns out, there are lots.

George Saunders wrote many of the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline while actively avoiding the technical writing he was supposed to be doing for an engineering company. (He doesn’t have to do technical writing anymore. He’s a McArthur genius, and a revered writing prof, with a Man Booker Prize under his belt.)

James Thurber wrote The Thirteen Clocks—an inventive fantasy yarn—while creatively blocked on the novel he owed to his publisher.

Rachel Carson was supposed to be producing a brochure for the US Fisheries department. Poring over the dismal science she was moved to write poetry instead. Those efforts turned into Silent Spring, which launched the environmental movement.

The blogger Tim Urban had written so beguilingly about his procrastination habit that the TED people invited him to Vancouver to give a TED Talk on the subject. He accepted, and then—of course—procrastinated, eking out a draft of the talk at the last minute. (The talk is about procrastinating on writing the talk. It has been viewed 36 million times. Mostly, one guesses, by people who were procrastinating.)

Procrastination Means Changing Gears When You're Stuck

Procrastination gets a bad rap. Many treat it as a scourge, something you hire a therapist or life coach to beat out of you, the better to unleash your dammed potential. But procrastination can be fruitful—and not just because it’s sometimes the only way the house gets cleaned. Whether procrastinating actually makes us more creative (that’s an increasingly heard claim, though this gentleman is skeptical), there’s something to be said for pivoting when you’re stuck. In your face is something you’ve been tasked to do; not doing it can release a kind of rebellious energy you can now plow into the thing you wanted to do all along. The obstacle is the way, as the Stoics almost said.

“The secret, at least in my life,” Juster told an interviewer, “is that if you want to do something, you have to do something else.” That something else reminds you of how much you’d rather do the other thing.

Creative Work Requires a Certain Disloyalty

This is the value of having what the economist David Graeber called a “bullsh*t job.” That is, a low-value and undemanding dodge that pays the bills. Such an arrangement removes the terror of absolute penury (which can be a creative spur but is usually the opposite). Jeffrey Eugenides was employed as a secretary in the late-1980s, and no doubt there were things he should have been doing on that job instead of writing his breakout novel The Virgin Suicides.

Best not to tell your bullsh*t-job boss what you’re scheming, and best not to get too chummy with them: it’ll just make the betrayal harder. Creative work requires a certain disloyalty, a disloyalty to others, sometimes, in order to be loyal to yourself and your own internal marching orders.

I’ve often thought a mail carrier would be the perfect “day” job for a writer. It’s not a bullsh*t job, but it’s not too cognitively demanding and you’re done by 1.

Then I could tell people I was a “man of letters”—no matter how things worked out with the new novel.

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