What My 1 Year-Old Son Taught Me About Procrastination
My son recently turned 1 year old, and like many who reach that age, he has learned to walk. I vaguely remember watching my daughter (who is now 4) do the same thing a few years ago, but this time around I made it a point to pay particular attention to the process — because it fascinates me.
What fascinates me is that it’s crazy that a child can learn to walk at that young of an age. I mean, think about it: a 1 year-old can’t really communicate — so talking them through the process is mostly out of the question. And even if we could communicate with them — try to tell the child how to walk — what would we even say? By the time we’re parents, we’ve been walking for so long, we do it mostly without thinking. So there’s not much we could give in the way of guidance. Basically, the child is on their own to figure it out, with adults standing by to help the child up when he or she falls. And yet, they try, fail, and eventually, succeed.
When the child first learns to walk, they do it poorly at first, like my son did. They take a few steps (at best) and then fall clumsily. But they get up and keep doing it. They aren’t daunted by immediate, consistent, and sometimes painful failure. And because of that — eventually — they succeed. They walk, and then after a while, walking becomes second nature.
Frustration and Falling
That process of watching my son learn to walk — watching him literally fall on his ass again and again gave me pause. I watched as he tried to get up on two feet for the first time, and fell. I watched that happen over and over, until he gave up and decided to simply crawl to where he was trying to go.
But as he continued to try walking, there came a time when it seems like he crossed a line. Whereas he had been thus far preferring to crawl — but would walk at times when he felt ambitious — over time he began to walk by default, and crawling only after he got frustrated with falling. All it took was repetition — repeating the unsteady novice walking mechanics he was just now trying out. It looked terrible, he fell constantly, and would get visibly frustrated. But he kept repeating the process regardless. Each time, he would get slightly better. The repetition gave him confidence, and the confidence made him simply do this new thing more and more.
And within the space of a month, the little guy is walking nearly all the time. He gets noticeably better every day. And he’s clearly pleased with himself. It’s the very picture of steady and gradual success through hard work.
I’ve watched my young son learn to walk, and his approach to doing it has given me insight into the mistaken way that I’ve come to view success — and how it has made me procrastinate even more than I used to.
Procrastination Is Fear, All the Way Down
My son’s progress was so gradual and so slight, that each time he tried to walk, I would think of how far he had to go — how many more consecutive steps he would have to take before he was doing what I do on a daily basis. But that is not the view that he took. His view was simple: get up, try walking, fall, get up and try again — repeat until exhausted.
I noticed during this process that adulthood and the modern celebration of overnight startup success has badly disfigured my concept of achievement into one that barely corresponds with reality. Some successes are quick and exhilarating, sure. But most success is neither of those things. Most success is slow, difficult, and punctuated with frustration and determination. The elation — by comparison — is short-lived, a blip on the radar.
That view of success as quick and exhilarating has a continued effect on how much I procrastinate. I expect quick success, and so I don’t even factor in the expectation of messy failures in the beginning. Instead, I envision that for whatever task I take on, I’ll be some sort of immediate savant — managing to do things near-perfectly as I stumble my way into a perfect dance of genius and creativity. How utterly delusional. But can you blame me? It is literally all I see around me on social media.
It’s become clear to me that much of the procrastination I do is because of two things: 1) I expect quick and elegant success at whatever I attempt, and 2) I simply don’t know how to approach the task at hand. It’s daunting because I don’t really know the terrain, and thus I don’t know how to navigate it. Because of that, I lack confidence. My lack of confidence translates into a lack of action. And I put all the hard and messy work off.
As I watched my son progress from crawling, to standing up, to stumbling about, something became incredibly clear to me about my own inadequate approach to doing things: I am not willing to stumble, and so I procrastinate. I acted out of fear. Actually, to be more accurate, I failed to act because of fear. And that’s part of what makes procrastination so insidious: procrastination makes you fail to act out of fear, until there is no time left, and then you must act out of fear — fear of the penalties for not doing the thing. It’s fear all the way down.
But my son wasn’t afraid. He fell down, again and again. He banged his head, his arm, his leg, and every other body part, but that didn’t faze him. He kept going, and eventually he got much better. Now, he’s walking — still unsteadily — but the progress is clear. In a few more months, walking will be close to a second nature to him. He will have succeeded.
His job will be to keep walking, and leverage that momentum to learn other things that will help him grow. My job will be to remember that even the simplest thing we as humans learn — walking — took a long time and a lot of pain and frustration to master. It involved starting with little knowledge and confidence, and building both of them slowly. If I can take that same approach into everything else I do, it should make for a much better road toward being productive.