Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

04 Jul 2008, 18:39 p.m.

One Peace At A Time

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2008 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

In school the teachers said, the real world isn't so forgiving, you won't be able to get extensions on your papers, you'll get worse consequences than bad grades if you do a poor job. And indeed, in my working world, the challenges don't end, I have to seek out feedback from my superiors, and I don't get summers off. Yet I find that I experience greater motivation and less procrastination and anxiety at my current job than I did in college. Why?

I remembered those bad old habits when I read some old blog entries about procrastination and avoidance in Ph.D. dissertation work. I found it reassuring to read those, and to see that I wasn't alone in my master's thesis experiences. My biggest problem was shame-related avoidance as a turbo maximizer on procrastination. And the gimmick that worked best for me: injecting a trusted third party. When I could talk to a friend about my problems, I often found out that I wasn't doing terribly, or at least that in the light of day my situation looked more manageable. When I made a first-draft pact with a friend, I had new motivation to start the project and gain momentum. Otherwise it was just me versus or with The System, possibly embodied in a teacher.

Talking and working with peers helps me set expectations (how original does this solution have to be? what's a reasonable amount of time to spend on this?) and break down big goals into sequences of little tasks. Socially I was a late bloomer, and it seemed to take me the vast majority of my academic life to grok that I work better this way.

I like working with people -- and for people. Aaron Swartz touches on this motivation in the Fog Creek Copilot documentary when he suggests that work is more interesting than institutional education -- why spend your time doing something fake when you could be doing something real? One inherent problem with academic make-work was that nothing except my own grades depended on it. I thought I was unmotivated, I had no idea how much responsibility I could handle, and I refused to consider a career in medicine because I didn't think I could handle being responsible for human lives. In retrospect, that was stupid, because basically all adults have to handle huge responsibilities with babies, money, driving cars, etc. and risk ruining and ending people's lives.

Then I moved up in the working world. Every time I gained real responsibilities, and saw my work serving others, I started working harder, valuing myself more, using my time more wisely, and attacking problems with greater energy. The experience of responsibility, not merely of earning money, nurtured my ambition.

A few weeks ago, Leonard and I ate at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, and we happened to talk to a trio of recent high school grads who were behind me in line. I think they were on a road trip, then off to freshman year at college. They asked us for advice, and Leonard said: start a business. Just find some random need that you can fill, part-time from your dorm room. There's a bunch of reasons why that's a good idea. You get pocket money. You get entrepreneurial experience while risk is cheap and your brain's more malleable. But the reason that strikes me hottest right now: you'll get people depending on you. If you find that tremendously motivating, that's a sign.

And if part of independence is disobedience, another, less frequently articulated part is the capacity for responsibility, not just for yourself but for your dependents. (From stuffed animals to computers to pets to clients to children? How will my staircase go?)

In school the teachers sounded like Morpheus from The Matrix: "Welcome to the desert of the real." But what grows in a sandbox?

Happy Independence Day, and Happy Interdependence Day.


05 Jul 2008, 23:18 p.m.

I actually pondered something very similar to this five hours and twenty-one minutes after you. Although really I've been pondering it a lot since I started working. I was so bad at life for so long - and really, I still am pretty bad at most of it - but when I'm working for someone other than myself I'm phenomenal. I guess that's better than the inverse.

06 Jul 2008, 20:31 p.m.

Hear, hear.