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Excuses, Excuses - The Motive Center
June 26th, 2006
08:24 pm

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Excuses, Excuses
My beloved wife Toni pointed me to an interesting link: http://www.writing-world.com/basics/excuses.shtml

Essentially, the message is that there's no pattern among successful writers, but there is among the unsuccessful: they make excuses, and they are more inclined to blame others for a failure of writing (e.g., "you don't get it") rather than accepting it or fixing it.

This fits into the concept of Attributional Style, which has been on my mind lately, and is in the book. Attributional Style is the brainchild of Martin Seligman, a topnotch psychological researcher who also manages to write popular books with some heft (E.g., What You Can Change, What You Can't and Learned Optimism). I want to give him a shout-out, but also talk about this concept. This is by way of apologizing -- or perhaps justifying -- not putting anything in here for over two months! (Excuses after the Cut.)

Seligman studied bazillions of salespeople, who are certainly familiar with rejection, and found that successful ones attributed their failures to different things than their less successful counterparts.

He identified three categories of attribution: time, space, and internal/external. The unsuccessful salespeople would say things like "I've never been good at this" (enduring time), "I'm just not good in these situations" (broad space), and/or "I'm not good" (internal attribution -- accepting fault). Successful ones, on the other hand, said things like "they weren't ready to buy today," which is another way of saying "in THIS time, in THIS place, THEY weren't ready:" time-specific, situation-specific, and external. As a result, they could bounce back and assume that the next sale was a whole new deal. After all, it wasn't their fault -- just get into the right place with the right client, and they were sure to win!

Years ago a colleague and I applied this to a different issue: managers. We found a slightly different twist. Better Managers also made situation-specific and time-specific attributions, but the internal/external attribution had a twist. They didn't blame themselves, as such, but they did take responsibility. In other words, they didn't think they were at fault, but they did think it was their job to fix what had gone wrong.

Interestingly, this is not a new concept; the military has used it for decades or perhaps centuries: it's always the commander's responsibility. Especially in a military organization, where there is tighter control anyway. I can also contrast JFK, who took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs fiasco even though it wasn't really his plan, and a certain other American President in Iraq...but I digress.

This article was interesting, because it addressed precisely the same issue. Less successful writers blamed the market, the editor, etc. More successful ones either changed what they were doing, or accepted it.

William Gibson, the creator of "cyberpunk," took four years to sell his first story, Johnny Mnemonic. Once he did, he almost immediately got grabbed by a visionary editor (Terry Carr) to write Neuromancer, and around the same time Bladerunner came out, which depressed him enormously, because as he saw it, it was precisely his universe -- someone else had already found it! But you could argue that he had prepared the ground, or perhaps he was in the right place at the right time. Note that he didn't let it stop him, and he's had a long and productive career since. He wanted to write something different, and he was willing to wait to do it.

So for writing, the message is: if you are deliberately trying to do something different, be aware that it will be harder to win people over -- take responsibility for it!

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