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Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

Butterflies in the Mind: Taking the Long View

    This is not a post about teaching, but teaching is what I do and what I know best, and this post is about thinking about what we do.

    People often wonder if I find it frustrating to be a university instructor. I teach topics that students resist a lot – in Women’s Studies, I teach with an explicitly political edge, challenging students to face up to the realities of social and economic injustices; in anthropology, I have to bring students to see the value of practices that they find disgusting or blasphemous (or both). While I have my share, maybe even more than my share, of students who really “get it”, I also have a good number of students who resist me at every turn, who are personally affronted by nearly every thing I say.

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    “Don’t you sometimes feel like you’re wasting your time?” people ask me. “Doesn’t it feel futile when they don’t change at all?”

    The answer is that no, I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time. Not in the least. Granted, it can be frustrating in the heat of the moment. Students often look to their professors for truths that we simply can’t give – what we can give are outlines of various theories and arguments and help lead our students to understand their ramifications. And in the absence of hard, fast truths, some students just shut down, and it’s a real bear to re-engage them.

    But for the most part, even the most resistant student doesn’t discourage me. A couple years ago I had a student who expressed his resentment of every single thing I taught by reading a paper in class. It was, of course, intended as an insult, but I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. I consider that one of my highest successes.

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    Wait, what? How can a student ignoring me be a success? Simple: I take a longer view than 16 weeks (the length of a semester).

    Everyone knows about the Butterfly Effect, right? The idea is that in a interconnected chaotic system, like the global environment, small events can turn into big consequences. A butterfly flapping its wings in China might whip up the tiniest of atmospheric disturbances which, as it interacts with the forces in the environment, is magnified and intensified until it sets off a massive hurricane in the Caribbean.

    Teaching is like that. We set off butterflies in the mind, whose wing-flaps have little effect today and tomorrow but which, somewhere down the line, might blossom into a full-blown mental hurricane – a brainstorm, if you will.

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    (A professor I knew in grad school preferred a somewhat more military metaphor: mind-bombs. We plant landmines, in the hopes that someday our students will stumble across them and *BOOM!* I find the image of explosions in my students heads a little overly graphic for my own taste; butterflies are, I think, a little less objectionable.)

    In the long view, I don’t have to be convincing. I don’t even have to be right (though I like to think I am more often than I’m not). Being convincing, being right – these are beside the point. The real outcome of the work I do day in and day out will come months, years, even decades down the road, and I won’t be around to see it. My job, as I see it, is simply to cultivate butterflies – to lay out a set of facts, theories, and ideas and make sure my students know what they are. The ones that resist, the ones that are so deeply offended, they’ll have their whole lives to think about this stuff, to argue with it, to reason out why it doesn’t apply to them or to the people around them.

    In case you’re thinking that I can take this fuzzy-headed view towards my work because I teach in the fuzzy-headed liberal arts, think again. I was an engineering major lo these many years ago, and while my professors may not have realized it, they too took the long view. The professor of fluid dynamics doesn’t stop to ask whether her student will be building missiles or wheelchairs, machine guns or microsurgical instruments, she just teaches the physics. She, too, is cultivating butterflies.

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    Here comes the point: we are all cultivating butterflies. To some extent, everything we do has the potential to set off a chain reaction that results in something HUGE months, years, decades in the future. And most of the time, we don’t have any idea, can’t have any idea, what that butterfly moment is or what it will result in.

    What we can know is that we’re doing it. That the work we do today isn’t just about today, that it doesn’t have to be finished, closed-off, polished and perfected and done. That it’s ok to leave things open-ended, to let them unfold like a butterfly’s wings as she emerges from her cocoon, to let them surprise us with their iridescent beauty – or disappoint us with their moth’s-wing drabness.

    Far from frustrating me, the part that’s out of my control is what makes it possible for me to do the job in front of me. If I had to “convert” all my students, I couldn’t do it. It’s the uncertainty of what they’ll do with what I can teach them, even the ones that hate me and hate the material and hate the class – it’s that uncertainty that makes it possible to teach at all. What about you? How do you cultivate butterflies – or plant mines – in your job? Or in your life?

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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