Geetanjali Mukherjee

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Why We Need To Teach

I read this comment somewhere recently, without realizing that quite soon I would be writing it myself: "We teach what we most need to learn".

The truth of this hit home to me today while working on my current book. I am writing a book about study skills and how to approach studying, aimed at those who are struggling at school or just don't like to study. Since my current life doesn't resemble that in any way, one would think I wouldn't have anything to learn on this topic. That turns out not to be the case however.

A few days ago when I was working on the chapter on procrastination, I realized that ironically I was procrastinating on working on it, and on a few other things I was supposed to be doing, and that the advice I was writing about could benefit me. I shrugged it off as a funny coincidence. The same thing happened days later when working on the chapter on managing distractions. I again dismissed it, because after all, we all have way too many distractions nowadays, so it was hardly noteworthy.

The particular section that I was editing this morning was different. I had already been distracted today, because my work isn't going well, I'm frustrated about how slow it feels that I am moving while everyone else around me is hurtling forward and achieving obvious success. Then a few lines that I had written a while ago popped out at me - words about not worrying what others were doing, and to simply focus on your own work, and trust that you would get where you needed to. They were meant for students struggling at schoolwork, but they seemed to be advice that was tailor-made for how I was feeling today.

And that's where I realized - nothing in life is really a coincidence. I kept asking myself why I was compelled to write a book about study skills when I was no longer a student, hadn't been a student for a long time, and when I had a whole queue of books that would 'make more sense' for me to write. Now I am beginning to understand. While writing this book I have learnt a lot - about tackling projects, about the mistakes I made in my youth (feels so long ago), about facing up to something you're struggling to get a handle on. I truly did need to teach myself a lot in order to find something to teach others about as well. Now I'm looking forward to what my next book will teach me, and the lessons I can in turn pass on.

My current book Anyone Can Get As: How To Beat Procrastination, Reduce Stress and Improve Your Grades is available on Amazon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Beating Ourselves With The Stick of Social Media

I recently read this New York Times article on suicide clusters in Ivy League schools, and felt frustrated, angry and helpless all at the same time. The article illustrates how smart, talented, high-achieving young people are feeling too much pressure to live up to the expectations they and others set for them, and failing to cope, they choose to take their own lives. It’s unbelievably tragic, and yet, I wonder, to what extent is it unavoidable?
I remember feeling amazed in law school how some of my classmates came to class not only perfectly attired and made-up, but with a completely different hairstyle every day. I felt woefully inadequate in comparison, barely having made it to my 9 am class, wearing whatever least resembled sweats and wasn’t overly wrinkled. I wondered at the perfect binders with color-coordinated notes, and their poised discussion of the best Magic Circle firm to intern at. Before the ubiquity of Facebook and smartphones, I could choose to tune off, and thus, not confront, my own inadequate grasp of both the topic of the seminar and my future career prospects.
Unsurprisingly, it’s harder to avoid my inadequacies now. I can’t turn on Facebook without being constantly reminded that I’m not yet engaged, don’t have a magazine-cover-ready headshot, and that my culinary capabilities aren’t up to scratch. I don’t have exciting enough adventures, or win incredible honors or set up successful businesses. Compared to everyone I went to school or college, I am apparently distinctly average. And I’m ashamed to admit, this fact keeps me up at night.
I wonder how it is possible to accomplish so little and yet feel so stressed out. How do those other people do it? I wonder whether I wasted my years at school and college, which at the time seemed like a battlefield, but in hindsight resembles an extended spa vacation. Could I have created a successful business while juggling classes? Or learnt a language? Or written half a dozen novels? Why didn’t I do more dammit!
I don’t intend to trivialize the mental pressures and agonies that these students go through — those who are struggling under the weight of keeping up appearances whilst silently questioning themselves why they aren’t able to do more, and do it effortlessly. While Stanford may call it “Duck Syndrome”, I call it “Adam’s curse”, after the W.B. Yeats’ poem of the same name. Yeats put it succinctly when he said:
A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
The need to make something look effortless apparently affects us all, even the greatest among us, and yet it is precisely what can cause our undoing.
One of my new favorite books is Kevin Ashton’s How To Fly A Horse, and in it he debunks the myth that the greatest acts of creativity are born of genius, a persistent myth in today’s culture that hallows the appearance of dashing off with ease that which was born of much labor. As Yeats said, if it doesn’t seem easy, then what’s the point? The point is that we are doing ourselves and society a great disservice. By hiding the real effort and sacrifices behind our achievements, we may temporarily make ourselves look good, but we are permanently crafting a message that says, “Everything is easy for me”, which means that it must continue to be so. And we are putting that pressure on those around us as well.
How do we turn off the relentless mental comparisons? Perhaps by acknowledging as a society that there aren’t a finite number of paths to success just as there isn’t one universal definition of what ‘success’ means. Maybe we can reduce this relentless pressure if more of us were willing to show the prototypes and the mis-steps and the almost-theres. Artist Austin Kleon exhorts us to “show your work”. Let’s take it a step further — show your bad work. If those who look perfect from outside were more willing to show their vulnerability, and if we as a society praised progress instead of perfectionism, maybe our teenagers and young adults would face less of a pressure to put their “Penn face” on, and be more comfortable revealing their more interesting and human faces instead.
This post first appeared on Medium.

Friday, July 24, 2015

My Summer Reading

I tried to write a draft of this post a few days, writing about what I would be reading in the coming few weeks. However, my reading list has been changing so rapidly, I ended up abandoning that post. Suddenly I find myself jumping from book to book wildly, dipping in for a little and then moving on. So instead I thought I would write about the books I have already read recently, and the ones I’m currently working my way through.

I few weeks ago I completed the excellent book How To Fly A Horse by Kevin Ashton. I loved it, because it debunked the myth that some people are just more talented than others, or somehow more lucky. Innovation and creation is within the grasp of all of us, but in order to really be innovative and creative, one of the foremost prerequisites is simply good old-fashioned hard work. Unglamorous, but true.
I also recently re-read TheTalent Code­ by Daniel Coyle. I read this book a couple of years ago, and this time around I absorbed a lot more. In fact, for a while, almost all of my conversations have been peppered with – well, The Talent Code says…, ending with exhorting the person to read the book right away. My favorite bit – once you start looking at things from the point of view of acquiring skill, it’s a lens through which you can look at many more situations than the ones we would obviously think of, such as sports or artistic ability. For instance, I am looking at improving my time-management and productivity as a skill that I can practice deeply and get better at.
A fascinating book that I’m currently reading is Pulitzer Prize winner James B. Stewart’s Follow The Story, on writing non-fiction. It is slow going because I’m trying to absorb all his insights on writing (from a perspective of journalism, but invaluable nonetheless). It is excellent though, and I can’t wait to get my hands on his other books.

A completely enjoyable, just for pleasure book that I read a few days ago, bought months earlier at the airport bookshop and hoarded for just the right moment, was the newest Agatha Christie, written superbly by Sophie Hannah – The Monogram Murders. I highly recommend it to die-hard Christie fans – there were moments where I had to remind myself that it wasn’t actually written by the great Queen of Crime herself.

I’m actually reading a lot more than just the ones mentioned above – due to my restlessness, research for my current book, and just love of devouring books as fast as possible. My beloved Scribd app actually makes it so much easier to read dozens of books at once – keeping perfect track of what I was reading, till what page and on what device – allowing me to switch seamlessly and always have something to read. I have started to use the few minutes I have on my short bus ride to the gym and back to dip in and read a few pages of whatever suits my mood at that point.

What books are you reading this summer?

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Shadow of Perfectionism

Things have been a little too quiet here on the blog front, because I have been busy frantically trying to complete a book that is releasing early in September (more details here). I really thought I would be done by now - especially as the first draft of this book only took me 3 weeks, which is quite a record for me.

Somehow however, the subsequent drafts is taking more than twice as long, which is very frustrating. And I have been racking my brains trying to figure out why. I'm putting in more hours than I did before (in fact, I meticulously track my time with my trusty app everyday, so I know how much my time commitment has increased by). I am working everyday, sacrificing things like outings and socializing so that I can make faster progress.

The other thing I have done much better with this book than previous ones is to track my progress, and plan what I will get done, how and when. I have steps laid out that describe what I will do in what order, and then I also write daily goals. The problem is that I never seem to be able to complete what I plan to each day, and even when I do, it feels like I'm going at a very slow pace.

The only thing I can think of to explain the slow progress - perfectionism. I have been laboring over every footnote, every reference, every sentence. Even though my planning process provides for a whole line editing stage, later, once the content has been finalized. After all, there is no point perfecting a sentence that ultimately gets thrown out. And yet, I somehow can't seem to stop myself from trying to do that anyway.

I have been trying to apply the advice from Hillary Rettig's book on becoming a prolific writer, and while her book has helped my process, I still can see that I'm not truly giving in. She suggests not trying to perfect anything - just making obvious changes and edits and moving on to the next section, and by doing things just in little bits, you actually make faster progress, with less stress. Somehow that isn't working - because I can't seem to leave a section till the thorny problems are worked out. And that tendency makes me avoid sections - because I know it has thorny problems that I will then be forced to fix, right then and there.

This is where the title of this post comes in: the shadow cast by perfectionism. By insisting my work looks perfect as I go along, or that I do research again on sections that I have already written, I am going much slower than I need to, feeling frustrated and hating the process of writing a book that initially I was really looking forward to. Not only that, since I have been thinking about perfectionism, I have been seeing how its rearing its ugly head almost everywhere in my life lately.

I have been putting off writing blog posts because I don't feel I have the perfect topic to write about. Or start working on my novel - which till just a little while ago I was quite excited about. Or a long list of other things. There are so many projects that I won't even begin because I am worried that I won't do them perfectly.

I know many readers (perhaps coming from the same place I usually am) think perfectionism is a good thing, another name for it could be "having standards". Sure its not a bad thing to have standards. But what if they hold you back from achieving what you really want to in life? I have recently been really thinking about what I want to accomplish, and thinking about time and years as an incredibly finite resource that is slowly ticking away no matter how much in denial I am about it.

Recently reading about some incredibly success women, mostly my own age, who have accomplished a lot, many things they knew nothing about when they started, I looked at myself and wondered - what would I be able to accomplish if I were to stop demanding to do it perfectly? This question has been bringing up some uncomfortable answers. It appears there is a lot I could do if I weren't hung up on doing everything perfectly. Putting aside the fact that I haven't done anything perfectly ever (because how could you really, when everything is improvable), I think its an impossibly high standard and one that would only allow you to try things you are already good at. And in my opinion that's no way to live. Afraid to step out of my "good" zone. I would never grow or learn new things in that way. Or would learn very very slowly.

And really, that's the shadow of perfectionism. It stops you from being all you could be, and how incredibly sad is that? I vow from today that even though I may not always win, I will battle with this monster daily, not letting it rob me of all that delicious possibility.

And now I turn to you dear reader; ask yourself this question - what would I be able to accomplish if I were to stop demanding to do it perfectly?
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