Sunday, July 8, 2012


I’m bad at finishing things.  Without strict discipline, I would start a thousand projects and never finish any of them.  When you start writing a story or drawing a picture or designing a new college English course, it is full of excitement and possibility.  You can imagine all the fabulous things that you will include, all the brilliant details, how much everyone will enjoy it. It is rich with unrealized potential, ready for action like a new battery or a wound-up toy or toddler.

Finishing things is grueling.  All the hopeful energy of newness has been spent, and you must deal with the reality. You need to make sure that everything works, that it’s all been done correctly, that nothing has been overlooked.  There will certainly be parts of the project that are painful, tedious, miserable. You need to get through those parts to finish.  You also need to accept all the imperfections that you know are there but don’t have time to fix and all the awesome parts of your plan that didn’t end up happening.

The worst part about finishing things is that it always seems to take about three times longer than anyone could anticipate.  That’s why I never finish cleaning my kitchen: I always feel like I’m about ten minutes from getting it really clean, which means it will take thirty minutes, and I always need to leave my apartment in twenty minutes. 

Last week, I finished revising a novel.  I had been revising it for over a year.  I thought I could do the entire revision last summer during my two-month break. But when school started again, I was only halfway done.  When this summer started, I promised myself that I would be finished by the end of June.  But as my self-imposed deadline arrived, my speed slowed to a crawl, like decelerating at the end of a sprint. There were so many little details to check, so many final issues to address, so many finishing touches.  I wasn’t done on Friday, June 29th, as I had hoped.  I swore I would finish by the end of the day on Monday, July 2nd, but as the end of the day approached, I still had about fifteen things to do.   It will be done by noon on Tuesday, I assured myself.  By 3pm, I had to cut myself off—for better or worse, I was done. There were still two things on my list I hadn’t gotten to, but I needed to be somewhere at four, and I didn’t want to wait another day.  I was afraid if I didn’t send the draft off right then, I never would, that Wednesday would stretch into Thursday and into the weekend and then suddenly it would be August and my summer would be over and I would still be working on the last two things on the list.

That’s how I feel about finishing anything. Eventually I have to make a proclamation that something is finished, because if I didn’t, I could keep fussing at it forever, fixing up different parts, ignoring it when I didn’t like how it was going, impulsively changing this and that every time I got a better, more interesting idea.  

I always thought everyone shared these same preferences, that starting things was objectively more satisfying than finishing things.  But recently I learned that there are people who enjoy the end of a project more than the beginning.

I learned this from a program I teach in.  As part of the program, students identify themselves with one or more of the following learning styles: synthesizer, interactor, analyzer, and concluder. These styles correspond with the types of energy needed to work on any sort of project.

Synthesizer energy is what you need to start a project.  People who are high synthesizers like to brainstorm and come up with ideas.  Interactors, predictably, like to talk to people and make connections.  This is the second stage of a project: once you have an idea, you need to get other people involved and find out who can best help you. Analyzers like detail work.  They enjoy reviewing numbers, double-checking data and calculations, editing for grammar and clarity, and making sure all steps have been followed.   The final kind of energy is the one needed to finish a project.  Concluders like to cross things off their to-do list.  Given a task, they start right away, don’t procrastinate, and check in with others on a team to make sure they are also finishing their assigned tasks according to schedule. 

While the students in this program are fairly evenly spread amongst these four energies, almost all teachers who take the learning styles test, including me, come out high on synthesizer energy. We love brainstorming, coming up with ideas, discussing ideas with others; that’s why we became teachers.

Since synthesizers are good at beginning things, they are often horrible at ending things. Not all synthesizers are low on concluder energy, but many of us are, myself included.  Working with a panel of teachers can be a nightmare for this reason.  We will come up with a million grandiose ideas and never devise a realistic strategy to implement them.  College administrators, many of whom are concluders, hate working with us because we will spend hours coming up with a million ideas that suit everybody’s competing needs and desires and are completely impractical to implement. We have to make a point of writing outcomes for any meeting or we’ll just brainstorm and never actually devise a plan.

Of course, the concluders need us as much as we need them.  My students who are concluders will rush through an assignment and turn it in without proofreading, skipping any directions that seem too intricate or time-consuming.  My coworkers who are high on concluder energy will roll their eyes as we engage in our (admittedly annoying) brainstorming, but left to their own devices, they would choose a plan that wouldn’t work well just for the sake of having made a firm decision. They need us to devise the alternatives and we need them to force us to choose one.

In the teaching materials explaining the types of learning styles, concluders are horribly maligned.   The Powerpoints and handouts for the program include examples indicating that the concluders are bossy, fussy, controlling—basically a bunch of jerks.

A typical example is something like:

Imagine how each learning style would help plan a surprise party for Sarah.

Synthesizer: Let’s have a pirate theme for the party.
Interactor: I’ll invite all of Sarah’s friends.
Analyzer: If everyone pitches in $20 we can afford enough food and drinks for 30 people.
Concluder: You all need to listen to me because you are doing this all wrong.

When I teach these materials, I always jump to the concluders’ defense—and not only because about a quarter of the students in the class fall into this group. I tell the students, honestly, that I love concluders.  Sure, they’re bossy sometimes, but they keep everybody focused and make sure things get done.  If I am working on a project, I always try to find a concluder to be my partner or teammate.  If I know someone is expecting me to finish my part of a job, I am much more likely to do so in a timely manner. If I know that nobody I’m working with cares if I finish or not, I might procrastinate and stretch out my task forever.

For example, my novel revision—when I finally emailed it, I got a message saying that the agent I sent it to will be out of the office until next week.  Five extra days until anyone will look at it. That means I still have time to go back and finish those last couple revisions on my list, right?

I know the title of this post totally scared the crap out of you, but don't worry, I am not done with Smythologies. What a relief!  I have just been taking a break from things like this blog, my friends and loved ones, cleaning my apartment, while I concluded my novel revision.  I'm happy to be back! 


Unknown said...

I also suck at finishing things! My computer hard drive, and extra hard drives, are full of projects that I started but never finished. But that shouldn't stop us from starting projects because you never know, something might just stick around and get finished! That also gives us a wide range of interests and generally enthusiastic at trying things out. As long as we finish those few important things (pay rent and not get fired) I think a synthesizer lifestyle is pretty good :)

Michelle Cruz Gonzales said...

You know I'll be happy to be your concluder buddy anytime! I'm good at finishing stuff when I have people to interact with.

Karin Spirn said...

Dude, Michelle, who do you think I was talking about when I said I always try to work with a concluder! :)

Karin Spirn said...

Bonny! I didn't know that was you up there! Yeah, I guess we both finish enough things to justify our existences and not get kicked out of our apartments...

Anonymous said...

Busted. I'm a crow. Love the shiny new toys. Fucking Enneagram even has a number for me. And you. And you too, over there laughing at us. Not that i believe those diagram humpers.

Karin Spirn said...

that was some poetry right there