A Justification of Procrastination

Ever heard of Fermat? It’s a name I feel like I should know, but didn’t until today. See, Google’s homepage today shows Fermat’s “Last Theorem,” in celebration of his birth date, which has spurred dozens of articles on the mathematicians accomplishments throughout his life. My favorite, however, comes from the Christian Science Monitor. They explain:

But Fermat is best remembered not for what he did, but for what he left undone. One day in 1637, while perusing his copy of an ancient Greek text by the 3rd century mathematician Diophantus, Fermat jotted a note in the margins that would drive mathematicians crazy for the next four centuries.

Fermat’s marginalia, which was written in Latin and later discovered by his son after he died, read: “It is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

The proof for Fermat’s scribbles didn’t come until 1994, and the methodology used over the 1000 page proof was not available during Fermat’s day, which means we may never know what proof he had devised at the time. Maybe he devised nothing.

Anyway, the last paragraph made me laugh.

So the next time someone asks you about the dishes in the sink, the half-written novel in the desk drawer, or that ’67 Camaro sitting on blocks on your lawn, simply think of Fermat, and respond that you have a truly marvelous plan to finish your project, but that the day is too narrow to contain it.

A couple of notes. For one, I’m definitely using that response. And I will be endlessly humored by my contrived wit and the confusion sweeping the face of my partner in conversation. It will probably end up being my mom, and she’ll probably just shake her head and repeat the demand, but it will be amusing. For sure.

For two, it’s an interesting thought. I’m very much about completion and closure. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a guy I hung out with last week or a project I’ve spent months on at work. I like to see things tied up neatly with a bow and a decisive conclusion.

But what about the things we leave undone? I think of all the blogs I’ve started and stopped; the short stories abandoned in waste baskets; the websites laying half-created in the annals of my hard drive.

It’s a lot to think about (and more than I care to admit). Some of these things are disappointing, I suppose. But I think of what came in their stead, and I don’t know that I’d do things differently. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t.

I like order, but I live in chaos because I’m pretty sure I would not be entertained enough to survive in an orderly world. I like organization, but I love the thrill of moving at break-neck speed. As Attain’s President is fond of saying to me, “Better busy than bored, eh, Nelson?”


If I had completed all of those projects sitting around, I probably would have wasted hours of my life, quite frankly. I am an idea person, but not all of them are good. If I tried to see all of my ideas through to the end, not only would I lose my mind, but I’d also probably hit dead end after dead end after… well, you get the picture.

Our CEO has another reminder he frequently issues to me:

“Triage, Nelson. Triage.”

In other words, sometimes you’ve got to take the view from 10,000 feet above, figure out how the pieces work together and make some tough calls. If you’re focusing on a tiny cut on your pinky (getting that logo just right, for example), you may miss the hemorrhage spouting from your leg (umm… why is the blog down?!). In many ways, I feel like the ability to do this is actually more valuable to me than the perseverance associated with follow-through.

So I may not have known who Fermat was this morning, but he’s now my bestie (even though math is SO not my thing).

I’d come up with a clever ending for this, but the day is simply too narrow to contain such brilliance…


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