How often do you get stuck in the chaos?

Today is November 17 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you get stuck in the chaos?” Today’s reflection revolves around the polar opposite of a previous entry that focused on the Dunning-Kruger Effect that explains why incompetent people think they’re so smart. There are competent, smart, and energetic people who get themselves stuck in the chaos and fail to complete a project because they simply love their work too much. Sometimes, people who learn to navigate the chaos take far too long to realize they first had to get unstuck from traveling their path. Getting themselves unstuck usually requires some external force. Such is the case with the backstory of the Charles Frazier novel Cold Mountain.

It made history in 1997 with a 61-week run on the New York Times best-seller list, moving 3 million copies. Based on its success, Frazier received an $8 million deal for his second book, with nothing more than a 1-page proposal. Cold Mountain swept the award scene and went on to receive seven Academy Award nominations.

In her October 15, 2020 article "The Cold Mountain Effect Explains Why Incredibly Talented People Struggle to Achieve Their Goals" Jessica Wildfire provided some perspective and wrote “You probably don’t know that Frazier spent almost a decade working on Cold Mountain. According to lore, he couldn’t stop. One of his friends finally snuck an unfinished copy of the manuscript to a literary agent, who signed Frazier on the spot. That’s the only reason anyone knows anything about Charles Frazier. It’s hard to imagine how long he would’ve kept revising it.”

In an interview about Cold Mountain and how long his writing process took, Frazier shed some additional light and said:

“I think I worked on it for six or seven years. It's hard to say since I worked on it for quite a while without knowing that's what I was doing. I was just going up to the mountains, knowing I wanted to write a book set there, but I didn't have a story. I spent two or three years just trying to learn the kind of plant lore, for example, that would have been a piece of everyday knowledge in the nineteenth century and that we tend not to have these days. Learning that kind of thing, learning the details of local history, of local happenings, those kinds of things took a long time and didn't seem to have any purpose for quite a long time.”

When asked about how he found a publisher Frazier noted:

“Well, the novelist Kaye Gibbons is a friend of mine and she read the book when it was maybe halfway done and sent it off to her literary agency. A young agent there decided to take an interest in the book, and I guess when it was three-quarters done, my agent said, "I think we're ready to send it out." She did, and had it sold within a few weeks.”

So, let us review. Here we have a writer who is taking notes, has no story line in mind, and seemed content to write for years without any definitive end in sight. Frazier’s wife even convinced him to quit his teaching job so he could finish the book. Luckily, Frazier’s friend Gibbons read his draft manuscript and sent it off to a publisher willing to print it; even though it was unfinished by the author’s standard.

Wildfire labeled this particular strategy of navigating the chaos “The Cold Mountain Effect where someone can know too much. They can be too talented. They will turn any project into an epic journey through the Himalayas. They do not get tired of working. They do not want to see the end. They are not even perfectionists. They just love their work too much.”

Are you so in love with your work you have no definitive end in sight for your project? Why do you think you get stuck in the chaos? Do you have the self-awareness to understand this is a habit of yours?

As Wildfire proclaimed: “When you finish something, you have to start something else. Or you have to take a break and figure out what’s next. That’s often the hardest part for smart, talented people. They don’t like hangovers that follow achievement. They die by comparing themselves to their own potential. They try to outdo themselves. Think of it this way: They try to write Cold Mountain, every single time.”

As a postscript to today’s entry, it is interesting to find out that following Cold Mountain’s success, publishers salivated at auction over Frazier’s follow-up novel Thirteen Moons. The winner, Random head Ann Godoff, gambled against the sophomore curse—and lost. Godoff paid Frazier an $8 million advance with an initial print run of 750,000 copies but only 368,000 were sold resulting in a $5.5 million loss. Godoff was fired not long after the deal was made. By the way, it took Frazier almost ten years to complete his second book.

How often do you get stuck in the chaos and turn any project into an ‘epic journey through the Himalayas?”