To be a better writer, try closing a few doors

Is it better to keep your options open? To be a better writer, maybe not.

In Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he discusses why keeping our options open isn't always the best idea. He supports his idea with an experiment from MIT:

[Students] played a computer game that paid real cash to look for money behind three doors on the screen… After they opened a door by clicking on it, each subsequent click earned a little money, with the sum varying each time.

As each player went through the 100 allotted clicks, he could switch rooms to search for higher payoffs, but each switch used up a click to open the new door. The best strategy was to quickly check out the three rooms and settle in the one with the highest rewards.

Even after students got the hang of the game by practicing it, they were flummoxed when a new visual feature was introduced. If they stayed out of any room, its door would start shrinking and eventually disappear.

They should have ignored those disappearing doors, but the students couldn’t. They wasted so many clicks rushing back to reopen doors that their earnings dropped 15 percent. Even when the penalties for switching grew stiffer — besides losing a click, the players had to pay a cash fee — the students kept losing money by frantically keeping all their doors open.

Why would these smarty-pants students do this?

Here’s three ideas. First, fear of loss. In giving something up, they may regret it later. A second could be their competitive nature. In order to keep up with the overachievin’ Stephens (or Stephettes) sitting next to them, the pressure to excel pushes them to keep each door open. Third, more options is safe. In life like in finance, diversification trades risk for reward.

For writers, what projects have you undertaken that’s shifting your attention away from writing. Can you really be great at writing, great at music, great at soccer, great at running, and great at karate; or are you really just mediocre at a lot of things.

Is it necessary to give up all your goals to be a good writer? Probably not (certainly keep your day job). However, if you’re unable to reach your writing ambitions, you have two options. Change your goals or change yourself. Since the goal of proficient writing is obviously out of the question (right?), consider closing a few other doors that don’t matter. This might cause fear, conflict with social pressure, or feel risky, but you’ll quickly get over that. Even better, you’ll raise your chances for greater reward.
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