Excuses for underachievement

I should begin by saying that these are not my excuses for underachievement exactly, but rather excuses I’ve come across in my research in history of science, that have made me feel better about my own time hungry distractions.  Barely a day goes by in which I don’t read the phrase (or something similar) ‘our hectic modern lives’.  Perhaps I should read fewer glossies aimed at middle aged women.  Meetings are the same.  Few reach an end without at least one person declaring ‘well I have so much to do’, or ‘I’ll try to fit it in, but I have so much on at the moment’, etc., etc.  Twitter is full of similar claims.  All of which suggests I’m not alone in feeling the need to justify my inability to get things done.  Luckily, history of science can provide a marvellous sense of perspective, while pleasingly giving the illusion of being a productive activity at the same time.  Its a win-win.  It turns out, historically no one had anytime to achieve anything either.  Here are a few of their excuses:

1788, William Herschel excuses some basic mathematics mistakes in a letter to Lalande: ‘I have so little leisure for practice that it would be no wonder, on account of the multiplicity of things that take up my time, and continually disturb my thoughts, when I am calculating, if I had made many more blunders than I have made… ‘

1810s, Adam Sedgwick wrote to a friend: ‘Here I am grinding away with six pupils. Under such circumstances it is impossible to advance one step. But I am compelled by circumstances to undergo this drudgery. When I look back on what I have done since I was elected Fellow I cannot discover that I have made any proficiency whatever, or gained one new idea.’

1818, Charles Babbage told John Herschel: ‘I am at present very much engaged with mineralogy and have not much time to think of abstract truth’

1835, Margaret Brodie Herschel to her mother, Emilia Stewart: ‘After tea there is singing & arranging French sentences with a box of letters till bed time at 8 o’clock, & then comes the only hours I have to read or write, learn German or copy for Herschel.’

Something to think about next time you get to the end of a day, having yet again failed to get as much done as you’d hoped.  You are not alone.  Quite the opposite, you’re in very good company.


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