Do you remember the children’s story The Little Engine That Could? This classic American moral tale of optimism and stick-to-it-iveness, describes a small steam engine asked to pull a train that other, larger engines have declined to take on. As the plucky engine chugs up the hill, it says to itself, “I think I can, I think I can.” And so it does.
I must confess, I always found the story a little sucky — overly saccharine and just plain unrealistic. Turns out, according to social scientists, I was wrong.
In an experiment described in Malcolm Gladwell’s marvellous book Blink, Dutch researchers performed a study in which they asked two groups of students to answer some difficult Trivial Pursuit questions. But before beginning the quizzing, they asked the first group to spend five minutes thinking about soccer hooligans. Then they asked the second group to think about what it would mean to be a university professor.
And, here’s the interesting thing. The hooligan group got only 42.6 percent of the questions right while the university group scored 55.6 percent.
Says Gladwell: “The “professor” group didn’t know more than the “soccer hooligan” group. They weren’t smarter or more focused or more serious. They were simply in a “smart” frame of mind, and, clearly, associating themselves with the idea of something smart, like a professor, made it a lot easier to blurt out the right answer.” In other words, thinking about being smart, helped make them smart.
This got me wondering — could the same principle apply to writing? I believe it could. But I’d approach it slightly differently.
I wouldn’t think about myself as a university professor, or even a “smart” writer. That’s because (warning: sweeping generalization to follow) people focused on being “smart” aren’t sympathetic enough to the reader. Their thoughts are too complicated. They would rather use four-syllable words than two-syllable ones. They’re concerned with burnishing their own image, so they talk “down” to the less educated and less informed. They resist simplifying — because they worry simplification might lead to misunderstanding.
Instead of thinking of yourself as smart, I encourage you to think of yourself as fascinating. That’s what the world wants—writers who tell stories and who make the words interesting and engaging.
So… Picture yourself at a party. A cluster of people is gathered around you, hanging on to your every word. From time to time, listeners elbow each other in the ribs as if to say, “Interesting, eh?” and occasionally the group bursts into loud, raucous laughter.
Got that image? Good.
Now go write!
(Thanks to Tragnark for the image.)