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Monday, November 19, 2012


Almost all unpleasantness in research* is due to the interference of the ego voice in your head. Worrying about whether you are smart / talented / erudite enough. Whether you deserve (on some existential level) to be doing what you are doing. Any shortcoming in a sentence you just wrote, any frustration with a sentence that took you too long to write, becomes evidence of unworthiness. No wonder people suffer writing block and chronic procrastination. Who wants to be subjected to that inner voice every day!

If I see a flaw in something I wrote yesterday, I think to myself: "oh, I used the same word twice in the same sentence, let me change that." Not: what a bad writer I am, I should just give this up.

For some, the answer is to have a lot of positive ego, but the kind of positive ego that cannot withstand criticism is really just a weak ego. Suppose I sat down and said: "I am a great writer. Everything I do is gold." Then noticing something wrong, or, worse, having someone else point it out, would be devastating. It is easy to oscillate between exaggerated positive ego and humbling negative ego. Suppose I thought every article I sent out was flawless, and editors thought differently. Then I would have to deal with crushing blows to my self-esteem every time.

Of course, sometimes I do have pleasant thoughts while writing, like: that sentence sounds good, or, I am really smart, or, so-and-so is going to like this article, or, I am getting a lot done today, or, "not many people in my field could have done this." I don't really know how to repress those thoughts. I just acknowledge them and move on in quiet confidence.

*The rest of the unpleasantness is having other obligations that prevent you from doing it, or poor working conditions that impose too high a cost.


Anonymous said...

"Whether you deserve (on some existential level) to be doing what you are doing."

I have this, although I of course do not believe it rationally. It is the problem to trump any other problem, the One Ring, whatever.

Anonymous said...

Oh -- I forgot to mention the remedy, which is in your title already. It is to recognize that those existential doubts are in fact ego. That kind of ego blocks access to self and to your work. You have to recognize this and set it aside out of respect for yourself and of course also the work.

Jonathan said...

I was thinking of some posts by you while I was writing this, actually.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I can tell. I get this from various sources but there are also the Brazilians, some of who think only Brazilians can understand Brazil. I have wonderful ripostes for this, like, only fish understand icthiology, and a more wicked one, you mean you do not have a field, if it cannot be studied but only felt.

Thomas said...

I think much of this has to with the very real difficulty of being an "author". The "author function" is not an easy job, precisely because we internalize the social pressures that give us our "authority" as writers. As Foucault argued, that was precisely the authority of the text that allowed society to punish writers for what they said. I guess that feeling remains as a kind of unpleasantness.