Adam Grant is almost certainly the most widely published psychologist in the world. Not surprisingly, he was the type who typically completed papers in college long before they were due, not in last minute all-night sessions. Yet recently, he published in the New York Times an oped piece touting findings that procrastination can lead, in some circumstances, to greater creativity.
I happen to be a bit of procrastinator myself. Once a year, as Pesach approaches, I collect all the unopened mail in my room – and unopened is the default status of mail arriving in the Rosenblum household – and turn it over to one of my daughter's-in-law for sorting. Surprises abound, some happier than others. Everything turns up from unexpected checks to notices that our health insurance has been cancelled.
I can't say that Grant's theory of procrastinator's creativity resonates particularly with me. But there is one pleasure that goes with the territory: the rare day where one finds oneself going through in rapid-fine order a laundry list of to-do items. For me, that mostly happens in the one or two days leading up to a trip abroad. Few pleasures can match that of completing long avoided tasks.
Recently, I experienced such an Erev Shabbos. Arising early, I found both sinks filled from my wife's pre-Shabbos exertions the preceding night. By the time she awakened, I had almost finished both sinks. And there was still time to finish two-thirds of the floors of the front of the house and spend half an hour talking before davening, without any outside distractions other than the few remaining pots and pans.
By the time, I headed out for the 45-second walk to my early morning minyan, I realized that I was in a mood so elevated that I barely recognized myself. And that was only enhanced by coming up with a column idea on the way to davening. (No, not this one.)
From davening, it was but a short time to the gym for my session with the trainer who has succeeded in making worn out knees and ankles function again in ways only dimly remembered from an athletic youth. And lo and behold, all the various exercises on the balance beam, standing on half a rubber sphere, while performing various twists and turns, and the like went more smoothly than ever before and with fewer instances of falling off. I remarked on my "high" to my trainer and how easily everything seemed to be going, and he confirmed that mood plays a major role in athletic performance, even the performance of elders attempting to discover Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth.
In the middle of the session, a friend whom I had not seen in a bit walked in. I told him that I was working on a curriculum on ahavas Yisrael and wondered if he had any stories from his father, a well-known tzaddik. He did not disappoint, and shared with me two stories that his father had heard directly from is rebbi Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz. They were not only perfect for the curriculum that I'm working on, but also could not help inspire anyone who heard about Reb Baruch Ber's love for every Jew as he found him or her, without adornment. My feeling grew that this was a day that nothing could go wrong.
The friend who follows me with our trainer entered, and he and the trainer slipped into their usual conversation of Dr. Fuhrman's nutrient diet. They both weigh about 115 pounds, though neither weighed much more before they discovered the good doctor and the secret to immortality. Much of this discussion involves recipes and discussions of the various roots and berries that they both grow in profusion on their porches.
My successor in the clutches of our trainer mentioned that he had just procured some organic turmeric, a spice that even an am ha'aretz like me knows has many anti-carcinogenic properties. When I expressed an interest in where I could procure some, he took out an "extra" bag and gave it to me, while refusing to take any payment.
I understood that he really wanted to give it to me and accepted. For a moment, he made me feel like the adam chashuv (important person) in the Gemara in Kiddushin whose receipt of a present constitutes a form of giving. That too was pleasurable.
By the time, I left the gym, I had begun to wonder whether it is possible for a person to experience his first manic episode at the age of 64 and made a mental note to ask the resident house therapist. I walked over to the hardware store to purchase some small item that under normal circumstances would probably have taken me several weeks to get around to buying. Next door, in the pharmacy I ran into three separate friends, whom I tried, with indifferent success, to pull into my wonderful day. But there was something so effusive about my "Gut Shabbos" farewell that the fourth person in line, whom I did not know, asked, "What about me?" He received the same hearty "Gut Shabbos" and seemed pleased to be included in the fun.
Arriving back home, there were only a couple of small pre-Shabbos preparations left – setting up the Shabbos licht and finishing the remaining floor – before Minchah Gedolah. Minchah completed, I found myself with several hours to learn without pressure – something that almost never happens on Erev Shabbos.
Ever since that wonderful Erev Shabbos, I've been trying to recreate the magic elixir that made it possible to experience an ongoing state of euphoria that I don't recall having ever felt before. Discovering such a formula would be a great prize since it required no great tangible achievement, like finishing a book (though I now realize that the imminent completion of a long book project was one of the elements of my mood), or winning the Lotto.
At one level, my efforts at spiritual alchemy have not borne results. But at least, I have begun to identify some of the ingredients in the brew. The first is the satisfaction that comes from even very small acts of kindness, especially when they are expressions of love. When I was trying to review the past year before Rosh Hashanah, I discovered to my shock that my greatest satisfaction came from a small deed so trivial that I don't even know how I remembered it: driving a neighbor's child to a physical therapy session – something that took me no more than forty minutes maximum.
Being the recipient of such small acts of kindness also provides a lift.
Following Poor Richard's advise to be "early to rise," especially if accompanied by getting a lot done or an extra seder of learning, puts the whole day off to a positive start. The older I grow, the more I realize the wisdom of the Alter of Kelm's seemingly fanatic emphasis on seder (order). In an age of constant distractions and temptations, the ability to plan one's day and follow a schedule is more crucial than ever.
Positive experiences create their own momentum and lead to others. The trick is to be alert to the small every day joys and to learn to savor and appreciate them.
And finally, going into Shabbos with a dvar Torah or ma'aseh rav that inspires one and that one can hardly wait to share with one's family and guests heightens the anticipation of Shabbos.
I hope to rediscover the secret formula for euphoria and identify the small trace elements I have perhaps overlooked in my recounting of that special Erev Shabbos. Nothing would give more pleasure than feeling I had in some small way helped a fellow Jew learn to fly.
It's Coming to Me
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, cited some important psychological findings in a recent op-ed. Four Stanford researchers conceived an experiment in which the subjects were asked to help the researchers in some easy, simple task after writing essays on different subjects.
One group of subjects was asked to write about being bored. A second group was asked to write about "a time your life seemed unfair. Perhaps you felt wronged or slighted by someone."
Those who focused on their feelings of being wronged or somehow shortchanged, were 26% less likely to agree to perform some minor act of helpfulness to the researchers than those who wrote about being bored, and 13% more likely to feel entitled. In a separate experiment the unfairness group was 11% more likely to express selfish attitudes. Though it was not part of the experiment, the experimenters found those complaining of being treated unfairly were more likely to leave trash on their desks and to steal the experimenters' pens.
Brooks, as head of a conservative think tank, is concerned with larger societal implications of these findings, in terms of the types of citizens produced by different types of messages. Messages of entitlement and unfairness, he argues, produce weak and angry infants in adult bodies.
College campuses increasingly prove the point. After smearing themselves in blood and trying to stop conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulus from challenging the mythical "wage gap" between men and women for the same work, students at Rutgers told reporters, that they "broke down crying after the event" and were "scared to walk around the campus the next day." Despite the presence of both Psychiatric Services and the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at the event, they complained that the university did not care about their mental health.
Prior to a debate between two women representing different strains of feminism about oft-cited statistics of campus aggression against women and the wage gap, Brown University's woman president provided a "safe room" for those offended by the very idea of debate. As described by Judith Shulevitz, the "safe space" was replete with, "cookies, coloring books, donuts, bubbles, play-doh, calming music, and videos of frolicking puppies." These students parents pay $65,000 years to have their children infantilized and to provide the still sane with belly laughs.
The victimhood culture has produced a wealth of aggressive, stupid, pathetic, and quite possibly insane students.
All this, of course, is very far removed from us. All this, of course, is very, very far removed from readers of .Mishpacha But nevertheless there is something that even parents of yeshiva students and seminary girls can take away from the Stanford study cited by Brooks. We must do everything possible to prevent our children from developing an attitude of "magiah li – it's coming to me." If we don't, we are likely to discover that our children are much more self-centered, immature, lacking in resilience, and less willing to lend a hand to others that we had hoped.