Malcolm Gladwell Answers My Question

A while back, in one of my musings about the nature of work, I wondered why, if work is so clearly in our best interest and so often fulfilling, we still hesitate to engage in it. Now I read this interview with Malcolm Gladwell in which he asks and answers this very question:

This is actually a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? …

The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection…. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.

This is so incisive, so instantly obvious that I was stunned. I stopped, re-read it, and then started composing this post. The odd thing is, I already knew this about myself. I’m well aware of my risk aversion and failure aversion, even specifically as it relates to motivation. But for some reason I was never able (or willing) to condense it down to this concise explanation. It’s disturbing how many problems in my life can be explained by misdirected psychological self protection.

It’s interesting to note that this interview appears on ESPN.com, which you may remember was Hunter Thompson’s last place of employment. I’ve often wondered about the connection between writing and sports–why so many great writers have either been sportsmen or sportswriters or sports fans. The (short) answer (as Malcolm would put it) is that most of the recognized great writers have been men (this is not a judgement, merely an observation, along the lines of saying that most historically-recognized people have been men) and most men have historically been sportsmen or sports fans. It’s statistics.

The longer answer might be that writing and sports require similar qualities of intellect and character–dedication, attention to minutia, perfection of form, competitiveness, hubris. And the dislike of sports and writing might also share similar causes–fear of failure, avoidance of pain. Which puts as right back in Gladwell land. Read the interview, there’s other good stuff in there, if you can get through all the sports crap.

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