Now let’s turn the lens on our own personal folly, and take a visit to psychologists’ and behavioral economists’ Land of Advice. Maybe with some study we can stumble into a few methods that will help us keep from falling on our faces, at least so frequently.
Advice #1: The pre-mortem technique is an incredibly useful method to combat overconfidence when you embark upon a complex plan. This simple technique might be painful, but it’s good for you. Here it is: when you start on a plan, imagine that it’s a year or two down the line and the plan was an absolute failure. What went wrong?
This would be a good thing to do in earnest when considering entering an MFA or PhD program, or trying to write a book, or getting married, or relocating to the middle of nowhere for that job you think you can’t do without. It’s difficult to make people use the technique on their own, since they want so badly for their immediate desire also to be the smart thing to do. This is why they need to be encouraged heartily to consider their own demise. And even then, they’ll probably ignore the findings. Humans are an obstinate species.
In general, a good way to retroactively assess this method is to reflect on your errors, and to be truthful about what is an error. Don’t kiss your own ass. Most people, though, tend to focus on their successes. But focusing on these rarely prevents future folly.
Be honest: you love(d) those compliments in your writing workshop, but sure hate(d) that punk who cut out your favorite simile.
As an extension of this, studies are clear that it’s unwise to tell a kid that she’s smart, because it will foster entitlement and also a fear that something (“smartness”) can be lost. It’s much wiser to tell her that you’re proud of her for working hard.
This is why it’s probably a bad idea to tell young poets that they have talent. Even if they do. It may be better to emphasize the labor that went into the successful poem, or even the serendipity.
Advice #2: Another interesting way to address a pernicious problem is called “Paradoxical Intention”: in this, you actively encourage the thing that’s giving you trouble. For example, if you have a stutter, rather than trying not to stutter, you should try to stutter more, and the effort might give you some relief. If you are really anxious you should try to be anxious to see if it gives you an objective viewpoint over the problem itself.
This would mean that if you want to stop writing bad poetry, you should make yourself write purposely bad poetry. This way you will truly know it when you see it. Or, you might find the low-stakes approach frees you to write with more spontaneity.
Advice #3: For God’s sake, let’s not over-think things. Because when we do so, we can be dumber than rats.
Proof: in one interesting study in which a reward lays sixty percent of the time on one side of a T-shaped maze, rats actually did better than Yale undergraduates. This is because rats identified that it was much more likely to be on one side than the other and they would continuously go to that one side over and over again, and thus took advantage of the sixty percent correctness rate. The Yale undergrads, on the other hand, tried to outsmart the system and find the pattern underlying it, so they continued to go to the right side in some cases, and ended up with only a fifty two percent correctness rate.
Rats, smarter than Yale students. Sometimes it’s best to go with the gut, and not work too hard to find the concept that resides behind the wizard’s curtain.
Advice #4: When writing, trust thyself.
So when someone says that poetry is rotten, that its best days are past, that the academy has ruined it, that there is too much of it, that there is no room anymore for experimentation or for tradition, for relevance or for impact, for wisdom or for insight, for brilliance or for illumination, that person is likely just the codger shaking his fist on the lawn, rake in hand, desperate, wanting, the only thing that can make him feel better being to take his own misery out on others.
So, as a matter of policy, let’s just ignore that guy.