A Garden Of Non-Finishers

There is nothing which requires such gentle handling as an illusion.

—Soren Kierkegaard

Finishing conflicts often go beyond the obvious obstacles of time, space, and money. They reflect how we see ourselves and, particularly, our relationships to others. They represent our worldviews about authority, success, and our ability to "make it" as adults. And, although your particular finishing conflicts are a function of your individual history and belief system, I've found that there are certain typical ways that these conflicts manifest themselves. I've somewhat humorously grouped those types into what I call a "garden of flowers," each of which represents a particular style of non-finishing. When we say "style," we're talking about several different aspects of non-finishing stories, including:

How a person feels about why he or she can't finish (Feelings)

What a person believes about why he or she can't finish (Beliefs)

How a person behaves regarding his or her work (Behavior)

Each of these three aspects contains elements that you're more or less aware of. The purpose of showing you these "flowers" is to give you the opportunity to recognize some of the elements of your finishing conflicts of which you may not be fully aware. The following "flowers" are just a sample of the many "species" discussed in Finishing School. Perhaps you'll see yourself in one or more of them:

The Perfectionist

From the 5th through the 9th grades, I played the cello. And not very well. This is because, like a lot of kids, I rarely practiced. My teacher, a rather formidable man, came to my house after school once a week and got mad at me for my lack of improvement. His approach was to yell at me in a booming voice, as follows:

"DEAR, you don't want to be MEDIOCRE, do you?"

I felt terrible. In fact, I didn't want to be mediocre. I wanted to be great. But what my teacher didn't understand was that, when I did practice, I couldn't tolerate the frustration of playing poorly. I could tell myself as well as anyone else could that "practice makes perfect," but, in reality, practice does NOT make perfect. Not immediately, anyway. Practice makes you a little better, a little bit at a time. And that wasn't enough for me. I didn't have the patience to work on my pieces in tiny little incremental bits, holding in my mind as I sawed away the little bit of raw faith that, in time, I'd sound good. So, when I could muster the courage to pick up the cello between lessons, I'd practice for five minutes and then give up. It wasn't a conscious decision, to give up. It was that I couldn't tolerate the physical and emotional tension longer than that five minutes.

Later on in my life, I was able to practice (on other instruments — the cello was long gone) and get somewhat better. But I still retain the residue of that feeling, that anything less than perfection equals the horror of mediocrity. I retained an idea that I had to be "perfect" — and I put that word in quotes because, of course there is no such thing as perfect. There may be greatness — but greatness only as defined by whoever is doing the defining. Striving for somebody else's (or, after you internalize the other, your own) idea of "perfection" is a great way to develop work paralysis.

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The Secret Genius

Do you believe that, if you only finished your projects. the world would finally see your true, unique genius? Do you have fantasies of becoming a superstar in your field, of being beloved by your peers and respected by your friends, and finally, vindicated to your teachers and anybody in the world who didn't treat you well? Do you harbor a secret belief that the actual work involved in finishing is really just a technicality? Have you written entire (fantastic) books in your head, but have trouble committing your ideas to type?

Keeping your work from exposure to the harsh reception of a critical audience (including, and especially, yourself) is a way of protecting yourself. Remaining in your fantasies of Secret Geniushood seals you off from what you imagine would be intolerable criticism (or, maybe worse, being ignored), but it also keeps you from developing as a individual — and finishing your projects.

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The Envier

Do you find yourself lost in daydreams about other people's lives? Do you burn with jealousy when you see people on tv or in your real life who seem to have the great jobs, the perfect relationships, and all the leisure time you want (or, as the band Dire Straits eloquently put it, "Money For Nothing")? Envy is understandable when you don't have what you want. You might even envy people who are able to complete their projects when you're always struggling. But envy is also a way of avoiding the necessary slogging through the mud that actual work entails. When we envy other people we take ourselves away from our own subjective experience and become immersed in our fantasy of somebody else's life. Envy can just feel like a wistful, innocent longing for something we don't have — or it can take more aggressive forms, when we feel we'd rather destroy what another has rather than work for what we want.

Envy often comes from a feeling that we can't compete. That we're "less than." However, oddly enough, feelings of envy can also be a way of trying to connect to people. When we've been conditioned to feel that others are off in their own, superior worlds, and that we barely count, envy can be the vehicle by which — in fantasy, of course — we get to have some sort of relationship with a powerful "Other."

Feelings of envy run deep and can be hard to explore — sometimes they're embarrassing to admit — but they may be at the heart of your non-finishing and, therefore, working on them can result in feeling free to concentrate on your OWN projects.

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The Dilettante

When I was a little girl I had a record (actually, a bunch of records (this was in the days of "78's"!)) called Sparky's Music Mixup. Sparky was a little boy who decided to play the piano. He took a few lessons, but quickly got bored. Then he saw his friend playing the clarinet and decided that that instrument was much more exciting. So he switched. Several more switches occurred. Finally, Sparky saw the error of his ways and went back to the piano.We could say that Sparky had the makings of a dilettante. Although his tale had a happy ending, you might recognize in yourself the urge to abandon whatever you're working on because another topic or project or field of study looks so much better.

If you fall into the dilettante's pattern, you might start your final paper on 18th century French history, but then decide that 17th century is so much more interesting. So you start again. But then you decide that history is really so boring. Now *art* history, that's interesting. And so on.

It's important to realize that dilettantism has little to do with the actual content of what you are doing. It has to do with the fear of commitment itself.

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The Rebel

Do you tell yourself that you *could* finish your projects, but you don't *want to*, because that would be "giving in" to "them"? Or that getting your degree, or trying to get published, or finishing a series of art works, is just "so bourgeois"? Do you tell yourself you're happiest "outside the system," but then get depressed and fed up with yourself because you can't just get things done that you would really like to achieve? Do you feel disdain (and also, of course, secret envy) when you think of artists and writers who at first seem terminally cool, when you find out that they work very hard to attend the right parties and meet people in positions of power who can help them get ahead? Do you tell yourself that they're sellouts whereas you are "pure"?

The rebellious attitude is one many of us can relate to. We want to see ourselves as motivated by "higher" aims and as being resistant to the "superficial" charms of the bourgeois world. However, if you've been reading this far, you may agree that the rebel's stance also falls under the heading of "Cutting Off Your Nose To Spite Your Face."

As with the other specimens in the Garden of Non-Finishing Behaviors, the rebel's posture is a defensive one. In fact, whether you are not finishing your work because you are rebellious, envious, over-invested in one project, a dilettante, perfectionist, or believe you are a secret genius, what you are really doing is sabotaging yourself by projecting onto the world your own internalized feelings of doubt, insecurity, and, most particularly, shame.

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The Overinvester

Do you tell yourself that everything would be wondeful if only you could finish that ONE project? That that project is the absolute key to your success (and that, paradoxically, that is the one thing you can't see to completion)?

When I was at the dissertation stage in graduate school, many of my classmates talked about wanting (no — really more like Needing) to turn their (far from complete) dissertations into a book (even though we were warned against this many times by our professors — who knew that books are very different from dissertations, and that thinking ahead to a book was a potentially disastrous diversion.) These students had overinvested in the dissertation as a repository of every thought they'd ever had and as the singular road to early greatness. And many of these overinvesters, in fact, did not graduate. They'd overbloated their dissertations with so many ideas that they were never able to edit them into a simple but elegant research study that is what's actually required to pass a final committee in the field of psychology.

If you are an overinvestor, it might be because you think, "I'd better get it all out now, because who knows if I'll ever have the opportunity/time/talent/health to do another project." This is because you see your abilities as insecure, precarious, fleeting. It's important to understand that this is *your* perception of yourself — not objective reality. In reality, you project is only one project. There will be time for others!

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