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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

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