John Perry: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 4th, 2012 by bobmorris

John R. Perry has made significant contributions to many areas of philosophy, including philosophy of language, metaphysics, and philosophy of mind. He is known primarily for his work on situation semantics (together with Jon Barwise), reflexivity, indexicality, and self-knowledge. He is the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy. He has served as Chair of the Philosophy Department and Director of the Center for the Study of Language and Information (CSLI), an independent research center founded in 1983. He is also the author of more than 100 articles and books, including A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality; Knowledge, Possibility, and Consciousness; and Reference and Reflexivity.

In 2004, he became co-host, with Kenneth Taylor, of Philosophy Talk, the radio program that “questions everything… except your intelligence.” He also produces non-technical work that reaches a wider audience, such as his humorous 1995 online essay “Structured Procrastination,” arguably the Internet’s most popular essay on procrastination.  Perry is past Vice President and President of the American Philosophical Association (Pacific Division).  He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a recipient of many honors and awards, including the Nicod and Humboldt Prizes. A popular lecturer, in 1990 he was awarded Stanford’s Dinkelspiel Award for undergraduate teaching. His most recent book, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing, was published by Workman (2012).

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Morris: Before discussing The Art of Procrastination, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Perry: Aside from Frenchie Perry, my wife for the past fifty years, probably my father in law, Merton French.  He was a Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas.  Quite fortuitously, philosophy was the subject I had decided to major in at Doane College, where Frenchie and I were undergraduates.  He gave me the startling information that it was actually possible to earn a living doing philosophy, and that (at that time) there were fellowships available for promising students.  He was aware that the small philosophy department at Doane (parts of three people) provided a rather out of date perspective, and gave me lots of books by analytical philosophers, and we had many good conversations. Thanks to him, I got a Danforth Fellowship and was able to go to Cornell.  Otherwise, I would have gone to law school in Nebraska, and would probably just now be retiring from a life as a lawyer in some small town there.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Perry:  My advisor at Cornell, Keith Donnellan, who became my colleague at UCLA, was an inspiration, a great teacher, and a friend.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Perry:  My main interest in going to Doane, a small college near my home in Lincoln, was the hope that I could make the football team.  I did make the team, but didn’t play much.  After the first season, the coach said, “Perry, you are small, but you are slow.  You seem quite bright.  Why don’t you focus on your studies?”  By then I had found that I enjoyed the academic side of college, particularly philosophy.  So I followed his advice.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Perry:  Well I have spent my life as a college professor, so the formal education was essential.  I’ve enjoyed teaching and writing philosophy, and am thankful that this was a possibility for a person living when and where I have.

Morris:  From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Perry:  When I was a teenager, I came across a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  I think he wrote it with salespeople in mind, but it had a tremendous impact on me, as it is full of common sense about dealing with people, most of which didn’t come naturally to me.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Perry:  This is pretty good advice for teachers.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Perry:  Voltaire was a smart cookie.  I think by “those who find it” he probably meant true-believers.  There are a lot of those in politics today.  Paul Ryan, for example. It’s like waking up and finding one of your more obnoxious know-it-all freshmen is running for vice-president.  Voltaire was on to something.

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Perry:  Another smart cookie.

Morris: From Helen Keller: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

Perry:  Frankly, I think there is a lot worthwhile in between daring adventure and nothing.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Perry: Seems dubious, although on the right track.  Taking a long time to do something not worth doing, that is, doing it inefficiently, seems even more useless.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Art of Procrastination. When and why did you decide to write it?

Perry: Years ago, in 1995, I was depressed about my tendency to procrastinate.  But I noticed that I had a reputation around Stanford as a person who got a lot done.  I wrote a little essay, just for myself, trying to explain this paradox, called “Structured Procrastination.”  One thing led to another, the essay made it to the Net, and received a lot of attention.  So I wrote some more.  Eventually, there was a book.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Perry:  I was surprised by how many people think of themselves as procrastinators, but, like me, seem to get a lot done anyway.

Morris: Please explain the process by which you formulated the concept of structured procrastination. Also, what is the essence of this concept?

Perry:  The essence is that many procrastinators are “structured procrastinators,” people who, like me, get a lot done as a way of not working on what they should ideally be working on.  While procrastinating is not a flaw, being a structured procrastinator is actually one way of being pretty productive.  As a flaw, it’s not as bad as being a serial killer.  If you eliminated all the poems, novels, ideas, inventions and other cultural products that resulted from not working on what one should be working on, we would miss a lot.  So procrastinators need not hang their heads in shame.

Morris: Now please provide a major benefit of these phenomena: dawdling, lollygagging and postponing.

Perry:  Well, as I say, these are flaws.  Better not to procrastinate.  But occasionally they do have fringe benefits: tasks disappear; ideas develop while putting off plunging into the main task, and often the other stuff one does as a way of not doing what one is supposed to be doing turns out to be important.

Morris: What is the “paradox of procrastination”?

Perry:  That so many procrastinators have reputations as people who get a lot done.

Morris: The book is based on an essay, “Structured Procrastination,” that you published in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1996. What was the reader reaction to the article and did that reaction surprise you?

Perry:  A friend sent it to the Chronicle of Higher Education; it was reprinted in the Annals of Improbable Research, and eventually my granddaughter put it up on the net.  Since then I have received a steady stream of email from appreciative readers, who identified with my particular syndrome.  This surprised me.

Morris: You characterize your book as a “sort of philosophical self-help program.” What are this program’s key components?

Perry:  First, recognize that you are a structured procrastinator, who gets a lot done, and quit feeling so bad about yourself.  Second, analyze the extent to which you procrastinate because of fantasies of perfection, and try to manage these with what I call “task triage”.  Third, manipulate yourself, with music, alarm clocks, and all sorts of other ways.  You may lack will power, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a lot of steps to make yourself more productive.

Morris: Is this a program to which one must make a firm commitment? Please explain.

Perry:  No.  It’s not a program to change yourself from a procrastinator to a non-procrastinator.  It’s just a program to realize how you work, and to take advantage of that knowledge to avoid the worst risks and dangers of a tendency to procrastinate.

Morris: Please share your thoughts about deadlines.

Perry:  Some deadlines are real, as in broadcasting, or maybe surgery; many, as in academia, aren’t very firm.  Procrastinators don’t necessarily miss deadlines; they may simply have to stay up late to meet them.  Nothing focuses attention like a real deadline.  If you are in a field where life and death, or having a job or not having a job, depends on not missing deadlines, you need to learn to manipulate yourself to meet them; often a good way of doing this is teaming up with non-procrastinators.

Morris: Those who I invite to be interviewed are told up front, as were you, that there is no rush, no deadline. In my opinion, that is one of the major reasons that almost everyone accepts. What do you think?

Perry:  I’m sure that’s true.

Morris: Please explain what you think is procrastination’s relationship (if any) with several mindsets and let’s begin with perfectionism.

Perry:  The fantasy of doing a task perfectly is common with procrastinators; they set the bar for success very high.  Then they are afraid to approach it.  As the deadline approaches, they must set the bar lower.  Task triage is the habit of making a realistic assessment of what degree of perfection is required for a task at the point of accepting it, so one doesn’t need to rely on one’s habit of procrastinating to lower the bar

Morris:  Inability to say “no”

Perry: Oddly enough, procrastinators get a lot of requests, because they may have a pretty good reputation for not saying “no” and actually getting things done, if not always quite on time.  The inability to say “no” is related to having a faulty understanding of how one actually works.  So it’s very common among procrastinators.

Morris: Please explain the title of Chapter 4, “Get Rhythm.”

Perry:  Procrastination often goes with depression.  Depression may require a shrink, or medication, to get rid of.  But often the right music goes a long way.  The problem is that when one is depressed, one won’t choose the right music.  I suggest ways of overcoming this conundrum.

Morris: Now please explain the title of the next chapter, “The Computer and the Procrastinator.”

Perry:  Computers make some things better for the procrastinator — one can’t wait longer to finish a project, and still meet the deadline, if it is the sort of thing that can be emailed.  But the computer poses many temptations, particularly surfing the Net.  Here is where self-manipulation techniques are crucial.

Morris: What does it mean to be “horizontally organized”?

Perry:  Vertical organizers use filing cabinets.  Horizontal organizers use desktops, chairs, couches, floors, and the like.  They like all of their tasks to be visible, beckoning to them.  We need better tools for horizontal organizers.

Morris: Here’s another intriguing chapter title, Chapter Seven’s: “Collaborating with the Enemy.” Please explain.

Perry:  Non-collaborators really aren’t the enemy.  Like deadlines and alarm clocks, they are tools that help the procrastinator be productive in spite of himself or herself.  It’s important to learn how to work with such people but without totally annoying them, however.

Morris: Here are a few of countless observations that caught my eye: “Procrastination is a flaw, not a well-hidden virtue. The goal isn’t to find a philosophy of life that makes procrastinators into heroes (although it may be fun to try to work out the principles). I simply want to note that it’s not the worst flaw in the world; you can be a procrastinator and still get a lot of work done.”

Here’s my question: What about relative difficulty and personal preference? Don’t many (if not most) people tend to do what they find easier and more enjoyable?

Perry: Well, yes.  But there is a kind of procrastination that goes against this, common with writers.  They may enjoy writing, but nevertheless find it very hard to get started.  It’s not mysterious why we procrastinate with tasks that we see as unpleasant, but a bit more mysterious about why we procrastinate with tasks that we basically enjoy, find value in doing, and are of a sort required by the very profession we have worked hard to find.

Morris: When is procrastinating most annoying? Why?

Perry: Procrastinators are most annoying when they interpret their procrastination as having a deep understanding of what is truly important, that other people just don’t share.  I call such people “arrogant procrastinators.”  They think, or at least seem to think, that the tasks they have been assigned are simply not as important as the tasks they do as a way of not doing those.

Morris: You include in the book a number of outstanding quotations. Here’s one of my personal favorites from Mark Twain: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”  Your own thoughts about Twain’s observation?

Perry:  In my day, every literate family had a set of Mark Twain’s collected works.  There were a lot of them, an incredible oeuvre.  Twain went bankrupt after investing in a competitor to the linotype typesettng system.  He worked for years lecturing and writing to pay off his creditors, even though he didn’t have to.  The man was an incredible worker.  Was the quote insincere?  Or did he accomplish so much because he had other things he was putting off by working on his novels and lectures?

Morris: I selected an observation by Steven Wright to serve as the title of my review of the book for various Amazon websites: “The early bird may get the worm but the second mouse gets the cheese.” Your own thoughts about Wright’s observation?

Perry:  Insightful, but the second mouse has to nibble around the corpse of the first mouse.  Distasteful.

Morris: Near the conclusion of your book, you refer to a “great danger.” Please explain.

Perry:  That’s the danger of becoming an arrogant procrastinator, or of thinking that procrastination is really a virtue, and adopting a code of values that treats it as such.  Being a procrastinator is like being short, or stammering, or not liking vegetables.  It’s a shortcoming for many purposes, but not a fatal one if you realize you have it and think about how to work around it.

Morris: Please explain the reference to “booby-trapping your environment.”

Perry:  This means self-manipulation.  Plan your day with an eye to your tendency to procrastinate, and put in safeguards to keep it to a minimum.

Morris: In the book’s Appendix, you identify various resources that may be of value to those who wish to “kick the habit” of procrastinating.  If viewed as a habit, how do you explain its development?

Perry:  What deep psychological needs does procrastination satisfy, or seem to?  Are there evolutionary reasons why so many humans procrastinate?  Interesting questions — but above my pay-grade.

Morris: If viewed as a habit, can procrastination be broken?

Perry:  I’m sure it can be.  My advice, if you want to go that direction, is to get Timothy Pychyl’s book, The Procrastinator’s Digest.  But why work so hard to overcome a trait one shares with so many creative and brilliant people?

Morris: Years ago, I realized that I am a selective, perhaps even strategic procrastinator. I consider each opportunity for inaction on its own merits (demerits?) in terms of my self-interests. To what extent (if any) is this a structured approach?

Perry:  Well, if you really approach it that rationally, you may not be a procrastinator.  You are really working on what you have decided, rationally, on balance, is the best thing to be working on.  But you may overestimate the extent to which you are being strategic and rational, as opposed to just rationalizing.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Perry:  Very thorough interview.  Can’t think of any.

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John cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

His faculty page at Stanford University:

“Conversation with History: John Perry”:

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