Novel Spaces is in its 10th year! Over the coming months we'll be featuring some of the most popular posts from our archives. This one was first published August 27, 2010.
By Charles Gramlich
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 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?