Get Out of a Funk

>> Friday

I OCCASIONALLY have what I call a "doubt funk." It usually happens when I'm in the middle of a big project and I start thinking maybe there is a better use of my time; maybe I should be doing something different; maybe this project will fail; maybe my destiny lies somewhere else and I'm wasting my time.

I never seem to get a doubt funk between projects. I'm great at thinking up new goals and I get very enthusiastic about them. But I suppose it is "the grass is always greener" because no matter what I am working on, I can think of a hundred other projects that might be a better use of my time and I have doubts about what I'm doing. I've aborted a lot of perfectly good projects because of it. I have several half-finished books sitting in my filing cabinets. Lots of projects of different kinds down through the years never saw the light of day because a doubt funk came along and deflated my motivation.

I just had a doubt funk recently about this article, but doubt funks don't stop me any more. A few years ago I learned the right way to handle one: Finish the project. That will get the most done with the greatest fun in my lifetime. Half-finished projects are a waste of time. To spend all that time getting something halfway done and then stopping means all the hours spent on the project were wasted. Wasting time is demoralizing.

I got the answer to doubt funks when I read a true story by A.J. Cronin. When Cronin was 33, he was a doctor in London. Once in awhile, he experienced doubt funks, thinking maybe he should specialize in a different kind of medical practice. He worried that what he was doing wasn't good enough. He eventually developed an ulcer and his doctor prescribed the standard treatment of the time: six months "complete rest in the country on a milk diet."

He went to a small farm outside a village in the Scottish Highlands. After about a week, this man with overactive adrenal glands was climbing the walls. His mind was thrashing around for something to do. Then he realized he'd always wanted to write a novel if he ever found the time, and now he had the time! So he began.

After three months of being engrossed in the project, he sent his handwritten pages to his secretary to type up for him. When he received his first chapter and read it, he was devastated. It was terrible. He realized he had no business trying to be a writer. In his anguish he grabbed the whole manuscript and threw it into the trash.

Feeling glad and relieved that he had "come to his senses," he went for a walk. He saw Angus, the farmer, and stopped to chat, as he often did. When Cronin told Angus what he had just done, Angus was silent for a long time; then he said, "My father ditched this bog all his days and never made a pasture." He stopped digging and looked at Cronin. "I've dug it all my days and never made a pasture. But pasture or no pasture," said Angus as he pushed the shovel back into the bog, "I canna help but dig. For my father knew and I know that if you only dig enough a pasture can be made here."

Angus kept digging. Doggedly. Relentlessly. Unmercifully. Cronin stood there watching him, and while he watched he experienced an intense personal crisis and then a revelation. Cronin saw his situation as the pattern he'd followed all his life: He would start off in a particular direction and never get anywhere because doubt would overtake him halfway through it.

And then he saw it as a pattern and revelation not just for himself, but for all of humanity. He wrote later, "In this present chaos, with no shining vision to sustain us, the door is wide open to darkness and despair. The way to close that door is to stick to the job that we are doing, no matter how insignificant that job may be, to go on doing it, and to finish it."

Cronin stomped back to his room and pulled his manuscript out of the trash. He was angry, ashamed, determined. He got back to work on the manuscript and would not stop, no matter what kind of doubt or frustration he encountered, he kept working until he finally finished the damned thing.

He randomly chose a publisher out of a catalog and mailed off the manuscript. Then he relaxed and recovered from his ulcer.

Just as he was finally preparing to head back to London, he received a telegram from the publisher: they were interested. Unbelievably, this manuscript that he had thrown away was published as a novel and sold three million copies. It was even made into a Hollywood movie.

The answer to a doubt funk is the same for you and me as it was for Cronin: to go to work on the current project, determined and resolute, and to finish it.

Another important factor affecting your feelings of doubt is your "explanatory style," that is, the habitual way you explain setbacks to yourself. Some ways of explaining setbacks leave your determination intact or even strengthen it. Other ways demoralize you and can lead to doubt funks. Learn more about solving that problem here.

2 comments:

Adam Khan 4:42 PM  

Someone just emailed the question: "What was the name of his book and movie?"

Hatter's Castle was his first book.

From Wikipedia:

Many of Cronin's books were bestsellers which were translated into numerous languages. His strengths included his compelling narrative skill and his powers of acute observation and graphic description. Although noted for its deep social conscience, his work is filled with colourful characters and witty dialogue. Some of his stories draw on his medical career, dramatically mixing realism, romance, and social criticism. Cronin's works examine moral conflicts between the individual and society as his idealistic heroes pursue justice for the common man. One of his earliest novels, The Stars Look Down, chronicles transgressions in a mining community in Northeast England and an ambitious miner's rise to be a Member of Parliament. Cronin's humanism continues to inspire — the film Billy Elliot was partly drawn from The Stars Look Down, and the opening song of Billy Elliot the Musical is entitled thus as a tribute. Through the years, Cronin's body of work has influenced many people to become writers or to enter the medical profession, including Giorgio Armani, who planned to become a doctor before becoming a designer.

Fred Miller 5:45 AM  

Anyone who wants to write novels should read Cronin. My favorite was The Keys to the Kingdom.

Steven King says he threw the first fifteen pages of Carrie in the trash because it was going to be too long. He wanted to write a short story and make $500 from a magazine. Tabitha fished it out of the trash and told him to finish it.

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