Thursday, August 16, 2012

Legalism and Spell Check

I want to make sure that no one got the wrong impression from what I said about excellence in Wednesday’s post. Sometimes, I tend to take my perspective and preach it to the world, without taking time to consider the other side.

And I know there is another side to this because when I was a sophomore in high school, I decided that what I needed to do in order to be a better writer was turn off spell check.

Yep. That was my secret to success. I was going to get rid of those squiggly lines forever. Not because I held some hippie-like belief that I should just try spelling words however I felt like to free myself from an oppressive and arbitrary system of spelling. I just thought that being forced to look up words I didn’t know how to spell in an actual dictionary would be a good discipline to get into and (somehow, not sure how this was going to work) make me a more careful editor.

When I gave up on this little program after only three weeks, I chalked it up to laziness and felt a little ashamed of my “failure.”

Later, I learned this important rule: making something harder is not the same as making something better.

This is the other side of my post on Wednesday. Sure, some worthwhile things will cost extra time and effort. But there’s no need to add layers of difficulty for no good reason. Tools are meant to be used.

I seem to have a problem with this. I refuse to use a mixer whenever I can avoid it, stirring cookie dough with a wooden spoon. Our mower has a self-propelling feature that I usually ignore. And, often, I prefer writing old-fashioned snail mail to emails just because it takes more work.

I probably come from a long line of stern old Puritans who whacked kids’ knuckles in the schoolhouse and worked from dawn until dusk as their religious duty. Maybe I have deep-rooted problems with guilt and legalism and blogging about them is cheaper than talking to a psychologist. But, for whatever reason, I tend to vault to the opposite end of the “strive for excellence” spectrum and assume that the more work I put into something, the better it will be.

At first glance, that statement sounds like a good, old-fashioned, Benjamin Franklinesque piece of common sense advice.

The problem is, it’s not always true.

For example, sometimes, determined to be someone who saw things through, I spent hours on the struggling second half of a book whose plot was going nowhere, just because I felt that I had a moral obligation to finish everything I started. (On the positive side, I have three unintentionally hilarious chapter books in my graveyard vault when I need a good laugh. You will never see these books.)

And, if you still have a hard time believing that working harder could be a bad thing, see this post about my excessive devotion to getting these blog posts out twice a week, and how an exercise ball made me realize the error of my ways.

If you are an overachieving, borderline-legalistic hard worker, please listen to me: there are some projects that need to be abandoned. Some of your priorities may need to be rearranged. Give yourself a little grace when you feel like you’ve failed. And you can go ahead and keep spell check on. Use your discipline on things that matter, instead of regulating the life out of yourself.

If this doesn’t seem to describe you at all, don’t take any of that advice.

Okay, not really. You can still give grace and use spell check. But you might need to focus on challenging yourself, setting deadlines, and deciding to work on something even when you don’t feel like it.

People are different. Which is great, but makes it much harder to give advice and easier to assume that everyone needs to emphasize what I happen to think is important.

I write about life and the choices in it from my perspective, tripping my way through my own shortcomings, probably overcompensating in some areas, and maybe even making what comes easily to me seem like it should be easy for everyone.

All that to say, excellence, like almost anything else, can be taken too far.

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