On Conscientiousness

It smells like cider, my ongoing, lifelong lack
Of industry. We’ve lived here twelve years now,
this summer becoming for us a massive wreck
of good intentions rotting on the ground.

I was so happy when we bought this house,
With its fulsome, near-truck-garden and fruit trees.
But year by year I’ve scaled back. It turns out
I can’t work full-time and be a mom and weed.

Or maybe I just can’t keep up with everything
I wish I could. Unnecessary further proof
I am not Robert Frost: apple-picking
Exhausts me before I ever start. The ruin

of this apple harvest shames me, and yet—
a mess like this taught ancient humans to ferment.

I am now caught up with apple-mucking (cleaning up the rotten apples on the ground under our apple tree), and we did harvest enough to make some apple sauce. But there’s still a faint smell of cider in our backyard, and I’m sure the yellow jackets are still on the prowl. Now they can focus more on the rotten apples hanging high up in the tree, which I can no longer reach, because the apple-picking tool for high branches broke last year. It was modeled on one my Granma Roane used for her cherry tree–a broom handle with an empty tin can attached to the end.

I’m campaigning for a massive pruning of this tree this fall. It’s tall enough it could conceivably be a problem for the phone lines that run through it. Also, it’s too big for an orchard tree, and although we don’t have an orchard, we do have a plum tree and an asparagus bed, and some years I have an actual vegetable garden, so I need this tree to be manageable. Here’s what I’d like—a much smaller tree that I feel good about taking good, organic-gardener care of. I’d like to learn more about apple maggots and whatnot, so that our next harvest will yield fewer BUT MUCH NICER apples. The ones we get now are not the kind you can just pluck off the tree, polish up, and take a big bite out of. Almost every one has a worm in it, so you have to wash them & cut them & use only the parts not bruised by worm travel.

Pruning back the apple tree feels metaphorical to me right now.

This time last year, I came across an article in the New York Times on Grit. I loved the article a lot, and shared it with my students in my composition classes. Many of them seemed to benefit from it. Angela Duckworth is featured in the article; her research coined the term “grit,” and she has questionnaires available where you can see how “gritty” you are, and also how ambitious you are.

I would be VERY gritty if it weren’t for needing to admit that statements like “new ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones” are indeed “very much like me.” (If there were an option on the Likert scale that said, “Are you kidding? This is me, 1,000,000%,” I would have to choose that one.)

I am VERY ambitious. No qualifiers.

This article and Duckworth’s grit research helped me realize last fall that chief among the many things keeping me from realizing my ambitions, is my tendency to start new projects (without every actually letting go of previous projects). I decided to list, off the top of my head, the projects I had in mind to work on and complete in the next three years or so. Without even straining my memory at all, I came up with 17 projects. 17. Each of which I estimated would take six months to a year to complete, assuming that I still have to teach to pay the bills. Crazy. So I set up a survey asking people to help me decide where to focus my efforts. Not surprisingly, the votes were pretty evenly spread out, because I tried to choose people who knew me from a variety of contexts.

One thing that got proportionally more votes, which surprised me, was having actors perform some of my narrative poetry at The Sh*tty Barn (an amazing venue in Spring Green). So I churned out some grant applications, and am now in the process of working on that performance with David Daniel as my director. (More on that project soon, as we get the cast set and rehearsals in full gear—but mark your calendars: it’s happening on Monday, September 24, 2012!)

One thing that got fewer votes, proportionally, was raising funds for a sabbatical project—developing creativity workshops. I’m plowing ahead with that. It occurred to me as I was reading the survey results that I had not talked to many people about the project—so why would they vote for it?

(Blogging got a lot of votes. So here I am.)

My friend Kim’s response to the survey was recommending that I read an article on Atul Gawande (which I wrote about a little in a previous post, “On the Lighting of Farts and the Reduction of Bile”).

I identified with Gawande’s push for excellence, but I suspect I do not work as many hours as he does. I also suspect he is someone who needs less sleep than I do. (I often suspect this of successful people, which may not be logical.)

Regardless, I was already learning that I can only realistically work on one or two professional projects at a time even before I came across this quote:

“Highly productive academics focus on one thing at a time….Switching back and forth between ideas breaks up concentration and eats up valuable time. By contrast, people who meditate and focus on breathing are better able to concentrate and focus on their immediate tasks,” which comes from an article that brought Angela Duckworth back to the forefront of my brain recently.

(She’s also on my mind because I’m working on my syllabi for the fall semester, even though I’m not on contract again until 8/27.)

The article is called “Traits of the ‘Get It Done’ Personality: Laser Focus, Resilience, and True Grit” recently appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

NOW, in addition to Duckworth’s Grit and Ambition scales, I could also take Brent Roberts’ Conscientiousness quiz!

It turns out I score above average in virtue and responsibility (I will always be at least partially the GOOD BAPTIST GIRL I strove to be whilst growing up), and then ALMOST up to average on industriousness, and then far below average on self-control, order, and traditionalism. (Of those, I’d like to improve in self-control most. I’m not sure how much order I actually want or need, though more than I currently have, probably. Don’t care at all about traditionalism.)

The Chronicle article does a nice job of pointing out that it takes a balance of traits to publish successfully in academia—that you also need to be creative, and if you score high in traditionalism, for example, you’re not going to score high in creativity.

The article quotes Roberts: “If you look at the profile for someone who’s realized creative success, they can’t be conventional….Whether you’re an engineer or an artist or an English professor, your job is to create new knowledge.”

Which brings us back to those apples.

Yes, I wish I’d kept up with them as the summer wore on. Yes, I wish I’d pruned the tree years ago. Yes, I wish I’d hung up all manner of pie tins and jingle bells to scare away the birds and squirrels who started enjoying the apples long before they were ripe. Not having done any of those things, I am currently satisfied with having mucked up most of the cider makings.

I anticipate pruning the tree back because the huge harvest of minimally useful apples is not something I’m capable of (willing to be? interested in?) staying on top of. A significantly smaller harvest of more usable apples—I’ll Robert Frost myself all over that.

Metaphorically, then, I’m also learning how to prune back my short-term, how-much-can-I-actually-get-done-in-a-year ambitions. If I keep coming up with new ideas all the time, without following very many projects through to completion, I’ll end up with a multitude of rotten projects at my feet. (And that attracts yellow jackets, which, in my case, since I’ve already been promoted to full professor, can’t be a dossier committee—could be, instead, a hiring or grants committee that turns me down, OR, more likely, my own self-loathing thoughts.)

Let me emphasize–over the years, I have followed a number of projects through to completion, to respectable levels of success. Just not as many projects, and not the level of success I’d prefer. Other years I put up more apple sauce, in other words.

Two final thoughts on those apples–I suspect there’s a yellow jacket symbol for “kind-hearted woman” etched on every building and etchable plant in our yard, which, unfortunately, won’t keep them from stinging me.

And then this–if everyone on the planet had always been diligent about harvesting everything right when it was ripe and not letting anything rot, we would never, as a people, have discovered beer.

4 responses to “On Conscientiousness

  1. one of your best!

  2. Definite two thumbs up!! Especially love the closing part about the accidental invention of beer…LOL…

  3. Pingback: Car Sonnets, Bloems, and Pogs | marniere

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