Procrastination is both fear and foundation of failure
Feeling like a fraud despite your achievements, otherwise known as the ‘impostor syndrome,’ was first introduced over 30 years ago but has seen a recent resurgence thanks to celebrities like Tina Fey and Sheryl Sandberg who address it openly in interviews and publications. Though this fear of being found out is common among successful females, it’s more often displayed among non-celebrities of both genders in the form of procrastination.
Author and blogger David Cain points out in his thoughtful article, Procrastination is Not Laziness, that children who grew up with unusually high expectations based on their natural talents associate imperfection with outright failure and then learn to avoid that failure later in life by procrastinating. They live in perpetual fear of being found out because if abilities are innate rather than learned, not having them means never having them, so they can never meet the expectations others have for them. To avoid disappointing others by revealing their imperfections, they put off tasks for another day.
According to studies conducted by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, Cain’s basis for procrastination is akin to an ‘entity theory’ of intelligence where intellect is considered a fixed entity rather than a malleable one. Her studies reveal that school grades for students with this fixed view on intelligence declined over time, whereas students who believed that intelligence could change increased their grades over time. In other words, believing in the ability to gain intelligence allowed students to do just that.
Though positive thinking about improving a person's abilities and self-perception can seem hokey, even Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, agrees with Dweck’s outlook on fixed thinking. In his book, Burkeman supports the idea that thinking of abilities as a product of tackling challenges and not a fixed measurement of self-worth is more likely to lead to success and happiness. More importantly, it’s possible to switch one’s view on abilities as fixed capabilities to learned skills, and the only way to gain those skills is to take action.
Procrastination, or lack of action, is the everyman’s ‘impostor syndrome’ derived from the avoidance and fear of failure. But in the same way that calling Tina Fey or Sheryl Sandberg a fraud for their success would be preposterous, so would calling anyone a failure for their efforts.