Friday, August 27, 2010

Two Kinds of Writers

At our first faculty meeting of the year, a fellow named Jeff Howard, a social psychologist, spoke to us. Now, I often don’t find such speakers very interesting but I really enjoyed what Dr. Howard had to say. And though he was primarily talking about student types, I think his ideas apply to writing, as well. Of course, I tend to think most everything applies to writing. Below, I’ve extended Howard’s ideas to writing. These are my interpretations, not his, so I hope I got his basics down right.

First, Howard suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: “Performance Oriented” and “Learning Oriented.” Performance Oriented (PO) folks come into every new situation looking to “prove” something to themselves and others. Generally, that means ‘proving’ that they are smart and capable. Thus, PO writers want to show others and themselves how smart they are in their work. PO individuals also tend to believe that writing is a “talent” rather than a learned craft, and PO folks tend to believe that if something requires a lot of “effort,” then that reveals less “talent.”

Learning Oriented (LO) folks come into new situations looking to improve themselves. Their main goal is to learn “how” to do a particular thing, and they don’t doubt their ability to learn that material. LO folks believe that “effort” controls outcome and is the key to success. They don’t equate less effort with a sign of greater talent.

A key difference between PO and LO folks shows up when a “failure” occurs. Say the writer approaches a major magazine publisher with a story and gets rejected out of hand. PO individuals take the failure as a sign of lack of talent, and often develop a sense of helplessness, which leads them to either quit writing or to lower their sights. The PO writer may think things like: “I just can’t do this.” If the same rejection comes to an LO writer, the response is quite different, something along the lines of: “OK, that didn’t work. What do I have to change to make sure I’ll sell my next story to that magazine?” The LO writer then begins generating ideas and strategies to improve his or her work to the point required for success.

Dr. Howard went on to say that Americans “take in the PO attitude with the water” as we grow up and that the vast majority of us are PO when we need to be LO. He does believe we can move people away from PO toward LO. Here’s my take.

The “two kinds of people” thing is always an oversimplification but it can be a useful one. I believe Howard is definitely onto something here. For his “taking it in with the water,” I suspect what he is getting at is that all children really begin life as PO. Most of childhood seems to be about proving oneself to others, both adults and peers. And children, being small and inexperienced, are going to have quite a few failures and naturally look to someone else to tell them how to do better. The LO attitude itself is a product of education and experience, although certain cognitive (thought) processes need to develop along with the training and experience.

I think I definitely began my writing life as a PO kind of person. I don’t think I was trying to show others how smart I was as much as I was trying to show myself that I was capable of writing material good enough to be published. Then came the failures. I definitely remember thinking, “I just can’t do this.” And if I hadn’t of had a few small successes here and there I quite probably would have quit. I did understand, though, that the route to success most often comes through sustained and directed effort. I began putting in that effort, and was rewarded with more successes. I could see that I changed things and they “worked.” Out of that I really developed the LO attitude.

I’m not sure one ever becomes completely LO, though. I will always believe that there is an element of innate talent in many peoples’ successes. That’s the biologist in me talking. I also still suffer at times from self-doubt; I wonder if I really “can” do this. Most of the time, though, I’m going to try anyway. And if I fail, I’m going to study harder and try again.

How about you? PO? LO? SOB? Something else I haven’t thought of?


X. Dell said...

Obviously society trains us to be PO from an early age. What else are grades for? It also rewards PO; LO not so much.

Still, I'm betting that there are great PO writers out there. I wouldn't be surprised if I liked their work more than your typical LO.

David J. West said...

I currently feel about 50/50 PO-LO or perhaps as you suggested 33/33/33 PO-LO-SOB.

Kaz Augustin said...

As someone with a psychology degree, I detest such either-or scales. Therein lies instant gratification, not deep insight; a laminated badge to wear on your virtual jacket, not a thorough understanding of who you are and what moulds you.

Assuming that what you related is in any way accurate, the fewer Jeff Howards are around, the better. Did you say "social psychologist", Charles, when you really meant "pop psychologist"? ;)

Deka Black said...

Well, i like to think at first i was a very bad case of PO (really, in the past i was a real jerk). And now, i like to think i'm improved how much, don't know. But improved.

And for the writing... i'm with you. There is no absolutes, and is needed both sides. Sometinmes is 50/50, and sometimes the percentage changes. depend on the person.

Angie said...

I agree with Dr. Howard that our society largely teaches us that talent is a big deal and that people with talent will always be the best and be the ones who get the biggest rewards. And that if you're talented, then things should be easy, and if they're not easy then you're not talented and you should probably go do something else. People who are trying to see this in a positive light will assure you that you do have a talent, it just lies elsewhere.

This is incredibly unhelpful, and completely ignores the benefits of working hard to learn and improve. It does everyone a disservice to prop up the notion that anything that's difficult isn't worth doing, fostering a learned laziness which is a logical response to the assertion that talent is all.


Liane Spicer said...

I think the balance changes for me depending on the situation. If it's something I think I 'should' do, then I'm more PO, whereas if it's something I deeply, passionately 'want' to do, the balance tips toward the LO side.

Bluestocking Mum said...

I'm completely with Liane. I'm neither one or the other - definitely a combination. said...

Good write-up on Dr. Jeff Howard Charles.

You yourself have obviously got the PhD snap without sounding "classroom."

Fascinating thesis on PO and LO.

Nyself, the graduate of a technical university, it sort of had to be Ambi/PO and LO. You were learning oriented, and by the necessity of your trade, certainly performance oriented.
But there was a secret smugness here. I got to university late, after a long stint in the Air Force. I had done much reading and learning there and had a secret vanity that I would be ahead of the other young whippersnappers in class, even if they misunderstood my lame joke about the Marquis de Sade being the first whippersnapper.
After Ryerson Polytech, I went on to Trinity College, University of Toronto to find that this was like high school, but three times as hard. Definitely performance oriented--you had to get your A's--but no so much Learning oriented. ...Much of the material was rote learning.
So I would have a secret smile as I drew my C's and B's.: I felt myself learning oriented. I wanted to know, not to repeat.
It seemed to me that I was a sort of Diogenes with his lamp, but if I stayed in this group of competitive crafty high achievers, they might not find it above themselves as to be so competitive as to actually try to steal my lamp. Harvard Business School?

I agree with Dr. Howard that Amerians seem to take in the PO attitude with the water”, but I think there is more.

Seems to me there are insiders and outsider.

When I was inside the Toronto Star Weekly, publishing was routine, your work would go out all over the worled, creative and nonfiction. It was a job, you were expected to produce a minor masterpiece every three days or so.
As I say, it was a job. Some of us on staff would even look down on a great writer like Norman Mailer and wonder if he would last a month under regular editorial pressure. In spite of his awesome successes, he was nevertheless a freelancer, a writer without a job. And besides, as we all joked, all the man needed was a little height

So yes, PO and LO.

But it seems beside the point--if you are not inside, regularly working,if you are a just freelanc writer,then it hardly matters whether you are PO or LO.
You are just taking a chance on specific publicaion, rolling the dice--a damn dangerous game to play with you ego in a rather hostile environment created by the insiders.
I had to laugh at Canadian comedian, kind of a rude guy, really Jeff Bullard, who had at last achieved a talk show.
One of the guests introduced himself as a frelance writer.

"Freelance writer? Jeez I feel sorry for you. You don't have a job? Jeez, I haven't been in that position for years. You poor bastard."

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Considering the amount of time I devote to learning and fine-tuning any new task or challenge, I must be LO.

Phyllis Bourne said...

I'm think I'm a weird mix of LO/PO.

Charles Gramlich said...

X. Dell, I agree. I don’t doubt people can achieve great stuff with all kinds of orientations. PO may be more attuned to the nature of our everyday worlds anyway. It’s an analogy to how extraverts are more attuned to the modern world than introverts, or so it seems to me.

David J. West, I move back and forth through the percentages myself. :)

Kaz Augustin, well, as I said, any “two” kinds of people statement is going to be wrong. It’s always going to be a simplification, but if we understand that then we can use such ideas sometimes for useful thinking. Howard has a PhD in Social psychology, although he primarily is involved now in motivational kinds of activities. He was actually quite inspiring in a number of things he said.

Deka Black, people are so varied, not only between people but within a single individual. No dichotomy is going to capture them, and, like you say, we all shift from one moment to another.

Angie, that was definitely a main point Howard made, that work is more important than “talent,” and that intelligence is not a “given” so much as it is a “taken” through work.

Liane Spicer, that’s a good way of putting it. I think you’re right. If it must be done then I get the focus on the PO side. If I want to do it, then it changes.

Bluestocking Mum, humans are certainly incredibly varied. Any dichotomy is going to be inaccurate., there are many routes to success. I just haven’t really found mine yet. As for being a freelance writer, I haven’t the guts for it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, or maybe OCD. ;) I’m the same way.

Phyllis Bourne, I don’t think any one of us can escape the PO side of it, and it may be very adaptive in the current world. It may be good for us to recognize our mix, though.

Charles Gramlich said...
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RRN said...

Quite interesting thoughts here. This brings a lot to mind and provides room for pondering. Thank you for sharing this.

In the end...
I think failure and hard work are the true paths to honest success.
Often , the travel is what matters rather than the label placed on it or end result.

Great stuff.

laughingwolf said...

good points to ponder...

often i'm of the po bent, pissed off!

then plug away til i get my lo, little orgasm, which means i had some success with my tale... since tail was out of the question! :O lol

Charles Gramlich said...

RRN, I agree, and I think that's kind of what he was talking about. And you sure do appreciate it more after all that.

Laughingwolf, I used to enjoy what I called "recreational anger." Not so much these days.

Ty Johnston said...

I think I tend to be a LAH writer.

LAH? Lazy as hell.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, I give the impression of not being lazy at the same time I'm actually being lazy!

Shauna Roberts said...

I'm definitely an LO writer and an LO everything else.

I can see ways in which being more PO would be useful to me as a writer. For example, I might sell more novels if I wrote things that were at all related to what editors are buying.

Charles Gramlich said...

Shauna, yes, I think I'm the same way. But I have to write what I really love.

eric1313 said...

I was no doubt a PO artist in general, from music to writing... all of it taught me (very slowly) to be much more LO. I gave up both arts when very young (sometimes repeatedly) and returned to them while still young, in spite of others who would try to reinforce the PO point of view--whether or not they realized that was what they were doing. I was told that I don't have the requisite talent to play guitar, but after a year of practicing every day in my room I found a band and have recorded many demos and played well over 70 live gigs (not in a while though...).

Same for writing, was told over and over that I should think of something else. Until one person had enough faith in what I could do to encourage me in every way to pursue it. Then I excelled, i could pass beyond the doubts that still nagged because a professional in the field told me. Would be nice if it was I who had the strength to not give up, but instead I had to borrow it.

So, ironically, the PO attitude really seems (at least seems to me) to be a learned point of view. Perhaps we could be LO from the start, but that is overshadowed by an entire PO culture. I don;t know, this is your realm of thought, and I'm just musing out loud.

Either way, glad to read this and learn more about the subject. Very cool post.

eric1313 said...

Either way, it all goes back to Socrates (...damnit, lol): True wisdom is in knowing that one knows nothing.

Keep clearing the slate to write new values. Never stop learning, never stop trying to make ones self better and progress will be made if honest effort is indeed applied. That is what experience has taught me.

Again, wonderful post.

Farrah Rochon said...

Definitely both PO and LO, depending on my mood and how much energy I'm willing to expend.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I definitely am a combination of PO and LO. No one is absolute. Eg. If an LO gets rejection often enough, he will give up.

When I got rejection on my first book, I gave up pushing it and wrote another. I got that other one published. And when for almost a year I recieved rejections for that second one, I started a third.

So I don't know the ratio (50/50, 30/70 or whatever), or if I ever was strictly PO as a kid ( know I was always a learner) but I'm definitely a combo.

Jewel Amethyst said...
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KeVin K. said...

There are two types of people in the world. Those who divide people into two types and those who don't.

I will say that people who approach life as a learning experience tend to be more successful than those who don't. And a writer who learns from editors who reject her story is more likely to come closer to the mark in subsequent efforts.
If approximations of the target behavior are reinforced with positive -- or at least useful -- results, the subject will eventually master the target behavior. If the writer does not perceive rejections as useful, she will never strive to improve her craft. The difference is in the perception, not the event.

Charles Gramlich said...

eric1313, I think the PO attitude is a learned thing for sure, picked up by how we are put into situations as children and the fact that as children we really probably don’t have the ability to do many things. The educational system also seems to pit us against each other at times, which doesn’t help.

Farrah Rochon, there’s always that, for sure. And that comes back to our motivations for doing the things we do.

Jewel Amethyst, as the guy said, the final analysis is how we react to inevitable failures. The helplessness concept has been a useful one in psychology, although probably overextended. His main point was that success comes through application of work rather than through innate talent.

KeVin K., I don’t think the guy meant to imply that his division was the be all and end all of human existence, only a kind of dichotomy along the lines of introvert and extravert, or Type A and Type B. Many humans, particularly academics, like to put things in categories. We do that with books by putting them into genres. I actually find such activities interesting to consider, although I’m aware that it’s a big simplification.

Jess said...

Wonderful post, Charles. I'll say
PO LO Combo
Unfortunately, I'll always be that little girl who's trying to prove to her mom that she can "do it" now. No need to dot my i's, cross my t's or close my a's...or remake the bed because one side drags the floor. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

I think there's a bit of that child in many of us. I see it in a lot of my friends, adn sometimes in myself.

the walking man said...

I think I am a NO. I just write rarely look for things that validate the writing other than it's there on the paper.When I have something I want to say I put it our publicly and if it something I think more than a few people need to hear I publish it myself. But for the most part POLO ride the horse for different reasons than I do.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think it varies with me--depending upon how secure I feel in an area. But in general I think I am LO.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, I think it's possible for folks to be more PO in one aspect of their lives and LO in others. I'm probably still somewhat PO in my school work because I get evaluated by a "boss". Less so in writing.

Pattinase, I think that sense of security probably makes a big difference.

Erik Donald France said...

Well, Walking Man stole the horse already and burned the stable down. What to add? Keep on fighting the good fight. There are many paths to the waterfall, mix metaphors when you can get away with it.

In sum, PO, LO and GO~~~~~

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik metaphors are made to be mixed.

Christina said...

I know writers on both sides.

Another awesome article, Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

Christina, thankee!

cs harris said...

Being LO sounds as if it would definitely be easier on the ego, and more productive in the end.

I suspect I'm PO. I do try to adapt what I write in order to sell better, so maybe I've learned to be more LO. But when the rejections come in, I'm definitely a PO!

Charles Gramlich said...

Candy, I'm not sure we can escape it entirely. If we were truly and completely LO, would we even need to write? Maybe we'd be happy just imagining our stories and not worry about being read.