The end of the semester is upon students. Term papers, projects, and portfolios are due. Time has run out. This is a tough time for many students. It is especially difficult for those who have accepted procrastination as a part of their student identity. It is more treacherous still for those students who procrastinate fearing that they cannot measure up–those who believe that they are frauds waiting to be found out. Those who have not awakened to a settled definition of competent and confident intellectual identity.
Students are not the only ones facing this struggle. You may be facing down this challenge as well. You may be feeling that your challenges have become ever more difficult. You have put off the more difficult tasks each day. They stare at you now with an insistence that is undeniable.
The phenomenon that keeps you from your success is a threat to optimal intelligences. It is characterized by a frustration and impatience any time you have to think through something that you do not readily understand. It can be a math problem, a term paper, a poem, or a process. You begin the task with vigor and a purpose to finish strong, but the task requires you to focus, to research, to revise, and ultimately to risk.
I had a student come to my office for help with a paper. I worked with her to outline the paper ensuring a solid structure. We then talked about the articles that made up the literature review.
“I don’t understand what they are saying, Dr. Wright.”
“What is it that you don’t understand?” She looked through three articles for a moment blankly. “I see you highlighted these phrases.”
“Yes. I knew they would be important to the paper, but I don’t understand them,” she lamented.
“What’s the challenge?”
“This article talks about concept 1. The other article talks about concept 2. I don’t even know the difference between the two.”
“That’s where your paper begins. Now, write just what you explained to me.”
She took a moment to look from the paper to the computer screen. “I’m getting frustrated.”
“That’s lazy brain. You have to overcome that if you are ever going to access the brilliance within you.”
The challenge is actually more complex than most realize. It is not just a laziness that wants the product handed to you. It is an insecurity about your ability to perform. The risk of
attempting something that requires new skills and new learning may result in failure. That failure, because it is public, could be mocked by others. The potential shame suggests to your brain that it is emotionally easier to shut down and forego the risk than to endure the potential ridicule.
Overcoming begins with an analysis of the process I just described. Insecurity and uncertainty are a natural part of the learning process. They are the motivators of action. The desire for knowledge is the motivation for diligence and consistent effort. You must WANT to know. That is where your risk meets your need. Both require you to learn new information and engage in new skills. Your task, then, is not to “get it done.” Your task is to “learn.” The key is not your ability to “Do.” The key is your capacity to “Seek” and articulate your process.
Being smart is not about being right. It is about being scientific. It is about having an approach to scholarly inquiry that others can review and replicate. The results may be different. That is the beginning of the discussion. Even if the results are the same, the experiment will be conducted over and over again looking for flaws. Being smart is being a part of that discussion. Right and wrong are debatable. Let’s review our methodology and determine what choices impacted the outcomes. Again, the discussion of this analysis is the evidence of intelligence. It is called metacognition if you need a word to impress your friends.
Perhaps the first of every new learning challenge is to find the structure of the product. Most students, and most of us in our daily lives, want a version of structure that means that we are told what to do. But, that is more specifically termed “evaluation criteria” such as you would find in a rubric. The structure you actually need in pursuit of optimal intelligences incorporates the evaluation criteria with your natural giftedness. You may be a deep thinker, a critic, a philosopher, an emotional, an analyzer, or a myriad of other characteristic approaches to questions. Each has its own typical structure of analysis and articulation of argument. Learn yours.
It is not enough to say, “Don’t procrastinate.” You must recognize the process. AND, you must trust the process. Trust that something about the sequence provides opportunity for deeper thought, spontaneous insight, and systematic support. Drafting, revising, submission to editor, final revisions, completion, and repeat for the 2nd edition.
You don’t have to do it alone. In fact, your product will be improved when you don’t assume you are doing it alone. When you are working by yourself, you can wait until the night before (or the morning of for some!). You don’t have to coordinate, compromise, negotiate, reflect, or communicate when you set out to complete the project all by yourself. In that, you miss collaboration, listening, presenting, contemplating, and the give and take that makes your project better. Support is not just help. It can be improvement for this project, and skill-building for the next endeavor.
Have the courage to believe you can put in the work. Not “be smart,” but put in the work to “build competence.” A saying is making its rounds in education these days. Don’t worry about whether a child is smart or not. That is the wrong question. Be concerned about how that child thinks. Informed by a redefinition of smart, take a risk to attempt something new. Commit yourself to the challenge. Know that whatever the short-term outcome, the long-term benefit for you is immense and potentially perpetual.
And keep at it! The singular reality of lazy brain is the temptation to give up. What you give up is more than the quest for smarts. It is more than the project at hand. To quit is to actually train your brain to seek the easiest out. You train your simple mind, your base instincts, your need to simple survive and exist. Opposite the capacity-building optimization of your intelligences and articulation of competence, you train yourself to be an automaton–a machine that does only what the imprinted instructions tell it to do. You lose autonomy. We lose your unique voice. The world loses an opportunity for creativity.
Your pursuit of “smarts,” optimizing your intelligences, does not end. Your production reveals your progress. If you have not been producing at the level that satisfies you, reflect on lazy brain and determine if you have been secretly, subconsciously sabotaging yourself. You will know lazy brain by its frustrations. You will know the sense of overcoming by its consistency. Each day, you commit to learn more. You commit to identify structure. You trust the process. You utilize support. You build competence even through the risk of being wrong. And, you keep doing it. You move from lazy brain to amazing brain.