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The Art of Looking Like a Fool

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You’ve probably experienced a phenomenon we could call the “Spiral of Delay”. You put off an obligation repeatedly, until it seems so stupid that you haven’t done it yet that the thought of doing it becomes almost humiliating. So you delay a little longer.

You can’t always know what costs you’ll face in embarrassment and penalties to, say, renew your tenant insurance eleven weeks late, but we all know that those costs can only get larger when you make it into sixteen weeks, or six months. Yet, so often we procrastinate anyway, for a very predictably worse outcome.

I suppose some of you do everything more or less on time, and don’t know what I’m talking about. You can click away now if you like, or you can continue to read, out of curiosity about what’s quietly tormenting many of your fellow humans.

From the emails I get, I know that many of you are horrendous procrastinators like I am, and that for you, having something on your to-do list that’s two months or two years overdue is totally normal, if not exactly comfortable.

Part of what we procrastinators worry about is that everyone will find out we aren’t really adults. We avoid a task for the usual reasons at first—we can’t find a good time this week, we need to look something up before we do it. But once we’ve delayed six weeks or six months or six years on it, we start avoiding it for a different reason: because doing it so absurdly late is revealing to the world (and maybe confirming for ourselves) that we are failed adults, incompetent people all around.

About a year ago I realized it had been about a year since I paid my yearly fee for my PO Box. I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I definitely didn’t go down to the post office.

I remembered it again three months after that. I knew it had almost certainly lapsed by then, and it needed to be sorted out. But already I felt dumb for not having acted when a responsible person would have. By that point, doing the task wasn’t just an annoying prospect, it was embarrassing one.

The usual rationalizations surfaced—they hadn’t phoned yet; maybe I had inadvertently paid for two years? Knowing I’d feel sheepish and stupid no matter when I went, it seemed not entirely unreasonable to do it later. 

Stupidity grows when we hide it

That was nine months ago, and finally I went down there yesterday, having thought about it at least weekly for the last few months. This tiny to-do was so built up by this point, that walking down there felt like I was doing something much more serious, like reporting for the draft, or getting baptized. No matter how small the thing, the act of avoiding it for so long makes it huge in your mind.

And in a way, it is huge, because now the clerk or revenue agent or doctor you’re dealing with can finally call you out on not being an adult. You would have no defense against this charge—they would only have to ask you the perfectly reasonable question, “Why are you only doing this now?” and you would have to say, “Well, you see, I’m a moron.”

Some clever famous person (Oscar Wilde? Jerry Seinfeld?) once said something like “If you’re caught in a vicious circle of your own doing, just turn left someplace where you normally turn right.”

My normal impulse, when I do finally tackle an overdue obligation, is to do my utmost to conceal my stupidity, despite the evidence. I feel like I need explanations prepared that are more satisfying than “Yeah I just took an absurdly long time to get around to this”.

But this time, I did something totally different. I decided to embrace my general incompetence, and make no efforts to obscure it or minimize it. I figured it’s better to come off like Forrest Gump than to make another vain attempt to come off as the 99-percent-organized person I for some reason think I should be.

I walked into the post office fully willing to represent myself as obtuse, incompetent, completely oblivious to what’s expected of a functioning person.

And wow, was it liberating. I felt bulletproof, because there was nothing I felt the need to defend against. It was a strange sensation for me, to have no vital areas I felt I had to protect with excuses or rhetoric, or hope.

The truth is, most people you deal with will do anything to avoid openly implying that you’re an idiot. That’s at least as embarrassing for them as being one is for you.

Admitting and embracing personal incompetence is a lot easier when you first recognize and embrace the incompetence of our species in general. If you’ve ever had to hire someone, you’ve seen at least one convincing sample of human ineptitude, in the flood of completely unhireable people that respond to every job posting, and who won’t hesitate for a second to insist they’re perfect for it.

Nobody’s a grownup at everything

I now believe that all adults are grossly incompetent in at least a few areas, maybe many. Everyone’s failings are just distributed differently across their respective lives. We meet society’s standards, and our own, in a few areas, and fall pitifully short in others.

And that’s normal; what’s not normal is accepting it. We’re all adults when it comes to certain things, but never everything. Sure, I push certain easy things off for weeks or years, but I do floss at least 360 days a year, and I wonder how many Fortune 500 CEOs could say the same.

So what happened when I finally went down to the post office, without my usual determination to avoid looking dumb? As you might have guessed, it was completely painless, took less than five minutes, and went down in a way I never could have predicted anyway.

Apparently they have no record of my having rented the box. At some point they rented it out to someone else, even though I was never notified, and even though I still have a working key. Oddly, or maybe tellingly, the four pieces of mail sitting in the box were addressed to four different people (none of whom were me or the “current” renter).

The young clerk was about as embarrassed at the Post Office’s bumbling as I feared I would be about mine, and I ended up being the one graciously fielding the apologies. “Oh it’s no problem, I’m sure it will get cleared up,” I said, with genuine compassion. The situation itself isn’t resolved (she will call on Monday) but my need to avoid it certainly is.

I am fully aware that at least some of the incompetence that created this mess is mine, and I’m enjoying this new feeling of being completely okay with that.


Photo by Matthew Straubmuller

Thank you June 12, 2016 at 11:50 pm

My oldest nephew (we live on different coasts) have not really spoken for a number of years. His daughter has CF, and I guess because it scared me, or I didn’t know how long she’d be around, I’ve just kinda shied away.

I’ll give them a call this week. Thank you.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 8:59 am

Good for you. These little barriers we put up can last forever, until we make that “left turn”.

Vilx- June 13, 2016 at 2:31 am

This reminds me of a quote from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. It went something like this: If you find yourself at blame, admit it immediately and thoroughly. I’ve lived by these words ever since I read that book (around 20 years ago or so). It’s not always easy, and it does occasionally backfire, but most of the time the outcome is pretty much the best possible.

Although it doesn’t help against the vicious cycle of shame. *checks TODO list and closes it immediately, embarrassed*

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

It is so liberating to accept blame, to admit fault. You can finally relax.

Zoe June 13, 2016 at 3:03 am

Yeah I feel pretty much the same about apologizing when I’m wrong. When someone points out that I made a mistake, I usually try to say “oh yeah, I was wrong, you’re right” and it’s not nearly as painful as I imagine it to be beforehand. In fact, it often also defuses any desire in the other person to ridicule me for being wrong. It’s not exactly a great feeling, but it’s not as bad as trying to cling to my (in this case false) opinions and getting petty and upset about it.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:02 am

It makes me wonder how much conflict is caused directly by the attempt to avoid conflict. Admitting we’re wrong doesn’t just clear up a lot of unnecessary posturing and procrastinating, but it allows us to live with ourselves. If we’re trying to come off as never wrong, we are always failing, because it’s impossible.

trillie June 13, 2016 at 4:16 am

“This tiny to-do was so built up by this point, that walking down there felt like I was doing something much more serious, like reporting for the draft”

Haha. You nailed that one! Every year I become more certain that adults are a myth. I’ve never seen one, in any case.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:03 am

Yeah, I was going to call this post “there are no adults”. As a kid I remember thinking adults and children were strictly different categories of human being. But we’re all just children of different ages.

uncephalized June 13, 2016 at 12:53 pm

I just had this conversation with my wife! I was playing Shogun 2, and I took a province from another faction and got control of their gold mine, and I started cackling and gleefully repeating “the gold is mine, mine!” And my wife looked over and said “We never really grow up, do we?” And I thought about it and agreed that no, we just build more and more complex layers of rationalization over the same basic emotions and impulses we had as kids. It’s a very helpful revelation.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 5:53 pm

I will never grow out of cackling over the spoils

Alexandru Mare June 13, 2016 at 5:24 am

Hahaha! I can totally relate to this. The funny thing is that I knew the ending when you told us that you have accepted the idea of looking like Forest Gump.

It seems to me that a giant knoth unties itself out when we finnally accept and let go of fear. It is like there is no point for another lesson on “why can’t you be a responsible adult?” when you have glanced at yourself like a Samurai before going into battle.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:06 am

I guess it’s a matter of standards — I always thought it was possible to be on the ball in virtually every area of “adulthood” and I’m finally realizing that that’s an impossible standard for me, at least now. Ironically, letting go of that makes it easier to do things on time and make less of a mess of things.

chacha1 June 14, 2016 at 4:36 pm

If you know in advance that you can forgive yourself for any degree of failure (from minor embarrassment to spectacular, legendary folly) it really takes a lot of fear out of situations. :-)

Michelle June 13, 2016 at 7:17 am

Wow, can I ever relate to this! It’s the story of my life. Even when I try to fight it, there’s this little voice in my head saying “Oh, just do it later. There’s lot’s of time. You don’t really feel like it now.” I remind myself that I won’t feel like doing it later, either, so just get it over with.

Not that I’ve got it licked, I think of it like AA, I’m a procrastinator, even if I’m managing it better now. Those synaptic pathways are always in my brain, waiting to get fired up at a moment’s notice.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:09 am

The “Law of Decreasing Enthusiasm” is helpful to remember: anything you don’t feel like doing now, you’ll only feel less like doing it later, and it will be harder.

Pieter June 13, 2016 at 7:20 am

Ironically, I came across this whilst looking through old, unread posts because I’m trying to avoid that one thing that I’m desperately late with. This is the kick I needed to get going.

Thank you David!

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:10 am

Haha! Good luck with it Pieter

gepee June 13, 2016 at 7:51 am

So true, I just had that experience … had to tackle some quite big things which I had procrastinated badly. And I was so astonished about the reactions I got, most people seemed to think “yeah, she really really needs help, so we’ll be friendly”. I got sooo much help, I had never expected this. I’m sure not everyone will react like this, there might be some that react unfriendly, but many people seem to like to help someone who is ready to confess: It’s my fault, my procrastination. Perhaps they think, “how good to see, there are other people like me out there”?

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:12 am

That’s a good point. One side-effect of procrastination is this persecution complex — because I’ve been such a delinquent, I feel like people will be extra judgmental with me, which makes it harder. But admitting your blunder often creates the opposite effect.

Kddomingue June 13, 2016 at 9:01 am

Hello. I’m KD. I’m a procrastinator. I last procrastinated five minutes ago when I sat down and opened my emails instead of sitting down to pay my bills which I should have done a week ago.

Lol! Wouldn’t it be grand if there were AA type meetings for us? For me, the worst thing about my habitual procrastinating isn’t the fear of being caught out at masquerading as an adult. The worst thing is the anxiety spiral that procrastinating sends me into. That thing, or things, that I am putting off doing are always at the back of my mind like an itch that intensifies until it’s unbearable and it’s all I can think about……how bad it itches. And, finally, I give in and do the thing/things I’ve been avoiding and…..oh!…..the relief! I’ve scratched the itch! But there’s always another itch waiting to happen. Why? Because I’m a habitual procrastinator. It’s silly. Some of the things that I put off doing would take no more than five or ten minutes to do, don’t require leaving the house……. don’t even require getting dressed for the love of Pete! So why, why, why don’t I just get off of my duff and do them when I know, for a fact, that not doing them is going to cause me an ungodly amount of anxiety?

Hello. I’m KD . I’m a procrastinator.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:14 am

Procrastinator’s Anonymous would be a good idea. I think one of the things that makes it so bad is that we feel alone in it. We’re not supposed to talk about how bad we are at being grown up and responsible, but if we only knew how many people around us shared the struggle, we’d be better at tackling those monkeys on our backs.

Carley June 13, 2016 at 9:14 am

Oh this rings much too true. I mostly do this when it comes to things that require human interaction via phone or face to face. Case in point: I have had severe jaw pain for a while now and need to make a dentist’s appointment. However, 1) it’s been YEARS since I’ve gone (there’s the embarrassment 2) I’ll need to make a phone call that could potentially reveal my complete ignorance regarding how dental insurance works. I found a dentist’s office with an email address and crafted a well-thought out, safe-behind-the-screen email. But alas — that was last week, and I have yet to get a reply back. So I’m thinking I’ll have to make the phone call after all. Sigh.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:16 am

I’m the same … I always try to resolve those contacts with email if possible, even though a phone call is so much more direct and would resolve the situation 10x faster.

For what it’s worth, I’m sure they get tons of people who don’t know how dental insurance works.

Rob June 13, 2016 at 9:14 am

Hi David,

Great story. Procrastination and image management are a pervasive source of suffering. The antidote: …action; which you demonstrated. Often this action is simply noting and eliminating (grappling with?) excuses, however long that takes. I love the spark you relate when you say “Wow. It was liberating.” I immediately flashed on the Janis Joplin line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Perfect! The pain of change is necessary, suffering optional. How do we wake up to the nature of the “pain” and attend to it? A pregnant opportunity for mindfulness practice, I’d say. The nature of suffering is clinging. To ask that difficult question, “To what am I fiercely clinging?” and take full responsibility for the story being told internally. Perhaps that is the point to “turn left”, sooner, with the nonjudgmental awareness that is the “product” of mindfulness practice. If you want ease of well being, do (confront) those things that are seen as “hard” and bring “ease” to that moment. Just a little. I’ve seen it happen here in your writing as you consistently show up with courage to demonstrate stepping over yet another edge. Your example is a precious gift. Thank you.

Looking for my next edge,


David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:18 am

All good points. Joplin really nailed it there. It is amazingly freeing to stop protecting yourself from certain experiences. Much of mindfulness is exactly that, you’re right.

Donald June 13, 2016 at 5:14 pm

Just to be pedantic, that line is from ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ by Kris Kristopherson.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 5:51 pm


Chris June 13, 2016 at 9:16 am

“I suppose some of you do everything more or less on time”

My wife is one of these sickos. LOL She somehow managed to get a JD and a PhD on time (7 year programming) while having a baby and being pregnant at the end. That includes a thesis, a dissertation, and putting up with me. There were many others in her program that delayed without any of the above ‘excuses’ and graduated late or still haven’t.

And then there’s me, who struggles to have a weekly post about selling crap on eBay that’s under 1000 words. Her awesomeness makes me even more ashamed!

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 9:19 am

Haha… those capable people are ruining everything for bums like us!

Ry June 13, 2016 at 9:28 am

I really needed to see this today. I recently started a second job and let so many things slide while adjusting to juggling two schedules and learning a new paperwork system that I have been walking around feeling like a complete failure at adulthood in general and completely incompetent at EVERYTHING and utterly overwhelmed. So it was an important reminder that other people have the same experience, even with out a major change to some aspect of their life. And that I feel this way to a lesser extent when anything slides even when I’m under less pressure than now. That in fact I waste a lot of energy on feeling incompetent and like I don’t have it together as much as I “should”.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 5:46 pm

Whenever you feel overwhelmed, just think of me, failing at something much easier

Hannah June 29, 2016 at 6:26 pm

I recently moved and started a new job in the same week, and, “I have been walking around feeling like a complete failure at adulthood in general and completely incompetent at EVERYTHING and utterly overwhelmed,” really sums up my experience perfectly. When I have to ask a question or admit a mistake at work I cringe before I even open my mouth, imagining how much my supervisor can’t stand me, when he’s probably trying just as hard to maintain the illusion of complete control.

I don’t know why I imagine everyone else is walking around feeling wildly confident, fielding all of life’s problems with style and grace to spare. Oh and also saying the right thing all the time.

I found this post and your comment so incredibly helpful. I’ll try to embrace my ineptitude next time it comes up at work.

Cait Flanders June 13, 2016 at 9:34 am

Now I have to ask… did you renew your city parking permit? ;)

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 5:45 pm

Haha of course not

Paula June 13, 2016 at 11:02 am

Hilariously true and so affirming! Thank you. I think I’m overdue on my PO Box by at least a year. I’m going to own that … Later!

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 5:47 pm

Well at least that means you aren’t one of the six people assigned to my box

Francis Fish June 13, 2016 at 12:45 pm

Not so much the article itself, but the comments, made me realise that most of us are comparing everybody else’s outside to our inside. They appear have it all totally together and not forget things blah blah – but when you talk to most folks and get past the shell they wear, it’s the same for every one.

David Cain June 13, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Right… there is a foolish comparison at work here. Apples and oranges. And I’m only making that problem worse by trying to keep my ineptitude so private.

Tony June 13, 2016 at 5:55 pm

We should all remember the sobering thought that, at the end of the day, when we finally kick the bucket, our various “Inboxes” (whether concrete or abstract) will never be empty

Marisa June 13, 2016 at 7:15 pm

Nice one David, thank you.

Mark Goodson June 13, 2016 at 7:30 pm

You will definitely be ignorant at times and encounter it at others, but that doesn’t mean you have to perpetuate it. Good stuff sir, thank you.

Burak June 14, 2016 at 2:49 am

I needed this one today. Thank you David.

Mohammed Sinan June 14, 2016 at 4:28 am

Hehhe , I read this post and booked the two tickets I’ve been procrastinating from buying for a month now :D

Edward June 14, 2016 at 12:44 pm

I think one of the greatest helps with this is to keep your personal “to do” list to a bare minimum wherever possible. Sure, you have to clean your place, pay the bills, complete a project for work, but much of the other stuff people heap onto themselves–adding to the impromptu crazy list. Things like, “I have to paint the shed,” “I have to look for new speakers,” “I have to work on that video for my family,” “I have to sell my old video games.” The more “have to’s” you add to your mental garbage pile, the more overwhelmed you’ll become with all of it (including the important stuff). Like Yoda says, “Do or do not–there is no try”. If you don’t want to do it now, don’t have the time, and it’s not really important, discard the idea. It will come to you again at a later date if it matters.

karyl moore June 16, 2016 at 11:47 am

Thank you!! I’ve had more free time than usual this week because work is a little slow (I’m self-employed). I’ve cleaned my house and seen friends and actually relaxed a little. I realized that I’m not always an incompetent adult – just sometimes very busy and tired.

susteach June 17, 2016 at 2:08 pm

I always walk into the library and announce, “I am here to atone for my sins!” My kids insist they must have a ‘wanted’ poster up with my name and picture on it…. Very liberating though. I pay up, and they let me walk away with another book…..

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Parrish June 21, 2016 at 7:38 am

To succeed in the world we must look foolish but be wise.

LJ June 27, 2016 at 11:47 am

THANK YOU for writing this, David. It inspires me to try harder to grow up and take responsibility for my procrastination. It also soothes and validates me to hear my very life in your words.

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Katnan July 3, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Having just completed my 2015 taxes yesterday I am currently wrestling with the idea of jumping in the car and mailing them. (Evidently, doing them online is way too convenient, though I am perfectly capable of it! Note: I just finished and mailed my 2014 taxes within the last two weeks….) So instead, I browse my mini ipad and click on the StumbleUpon app which I recently just started looking at again, and this is the article that came up! I asked HP for help last night and here it is! I’m so grateful to know I am not the only highly intelligent nincompoop out here. Actually, I think I’m rebelling against being an adult. I just want to play, although it’s hard to enjoy when I have that sickly feeling there is something else I should be doing, and the world will end if I don’t. Accepting myself as is would greatly reduce my anxiety and perhaps help me get things done in more reasonable timeframes. Or not…

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yasleva July 18, 2016 at 2:22 pm

Ha! just about to go and finally mail this package that my mom asked me to mail….3 weeks ago…

Yup. True story. :)

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