Kevin Roose ’09: A call to action

As finals approach, we should channel history's most productive individuals to stave procrastination

Thursday, April 27, 2006

We, the Brown student body, do many things really well. We sing, we paint, we juggle, we write and we compute, all with the same aplomb that got us here in the first place. But, without a doubt, what we do best is waste time. Reading period and finals are nigh upon us, which means that we’ll be spending our time more ineffectively than ever, eschewing papers and problem sets in favor of watching the “Chronic-WHAT-cles of Narnia” for the 17th time. Oh, sure, we’ll get our finals done eventually, but not before Facebook voyeurism, Xbox gaming and sunny afternoons on the Main Green push schoolwork out of the present and into bleary-eyed, Red Bull-fueled early morning last-minute cram sessions.

Knowing that I’m probably not the only Brown student who can’t work well in the spring, I set out to discover what we, the purported leaders of tomorrow, are up against. I found a world beyond procrastination – a world where a four-page paper would only take me two hours, where I could do my work and still get to sleep in the pre-Morning Mail period, where studying for a French exam would take precedence over rearranging the shirts in my closet by sleeve length.

My friends, I have seen the Promised Land, and it’s scary as hell. Contrary to popular belief, procrastination is not the de facto setting of the human cerebrum – some people actually transcend slacker’s inertia and check off the items on their to-do lists at breakneck pace.

Take, for example, the world inhabited by masmids, Hasidic Jewish boys who spend their teenage years in yeshiva studying religious texts for up to 16 hours a day. 16 hours a day. I read that number over and over, and felt the profound sadness that comes with knowing that I’ve never once in my life done anything for that long. In the time one masmid studies daily, I could (and probably would) watch two entire seasons of “Saved by the Bell,” enough to see Mr. Belding ask, “Hey, hey, hey, what is going on here?” approximately four hundred times.

Or consider Charles Harold St. John Hamilton, a British writer who holds the Guinness World Record for Most Prolific Author. Hamilton wrote an estimated 72 million words under several pseudonyms between 1908 and 1961. That’s almost 1.4 million words a year and over 3,700 words a day. That’s a ton of inspiration for one man, to say nothing of the hand cramps.

But it’s not just the writers among us who can take a lesson from history. Math types would be well served to consider Leonhard Euler, the Swiss mathematician, whose lifetime output filled 70 large volumes, and who was said to have often written complete mathematical proofs between the first and second calls for supper. Musicians can be prodded on by invoking the spirit of George Frideric Handel, who composed his Messiah in a mind-blowing 24 days. Engineering majors, the poor things, can channel Shunpei Yamazaki, a Japanese inventor who holds 1,432 patents (and counting) on his tech products. Around every corner of history, there’s someone waiting to make us feel bad about ourselves.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so discouraged. I mean, there’s no way college can be just about papers and problem sets, right? No man is an island, after all, and if we just worked in solitary confinement all the time, we’d either be really unhappy or computer science majors.

On the other side of the coin, the annals of history aren’t filled exclusively with workhorses, either. The story of I.A. Shapiro, an eminent Shakespearean scholar, gave me some solace. Shapiro was hired by Oxford University Press to edit and compile the collected letters of John Donne in 1930. He was still working on the project when he died at age 99 in 2004. And he didn’t even have Facebook.

Or console yourself by thinking about Noah, of Biblical ark-construction fame. It took him 100 years to build and populate a freaking boat.

So go on, spend your afternoons flinging Frisbees, put your pens down and blow off a little steam now and then, but whatever you choose to do, be careful – history is watching.

Kevin Roose ’09 put off writing this article until last night.