Q&A with Jorge Cham, cartoonist and procrastination expert

Oct. 7, 2015, 11:47 p.m.
(Courtesy of Jorge Cham)
(Courtesy of Jorge Cham)

Jorge Cham, Ph.D. ’02, creator of “Piled Higher and Deeper” (commonly referred to as PhD Comics), a comic strip about the struggles of graduate school, will give a lecture called “The Power of Procrastination” on Thursday, Oct. 8, at 4 p.m. in Hewlett Teaching Center. PhD Comics originally appeared in The Daily.

After the lecture, he will hold a book signing in Packard Auditorium, where he will sign student copies of the first four volumes of PhD Comics. The event is co-sponsored by the Graduate Student Council, the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, BEAM Career Education, the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning, Stanford Speakers Bureau and the School of Medicine Career Center.

The Daily spoke with Cham about how he got started as a cartoonist, what he thinks procrastination really means and how to survive at a competitive university like Stanford.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Tell us a little about the lecture you’ll be giving tomorrow on procrastination.

Jorge Cham (JC): The lecture is kind of my story. It’s about how the comic strip started and generally my philosophy about what I think burns grad students out. A lot of aspects of academia – that’s where that comes from – wrapped around my general philosophy about procrastination.

TSD: How did your experiences in graduate school lead you to start drawing comics?

JC: It was my first term at Stanford as a grad student [in engineering]. I was a TA, and I was doing research for a lab and taking a whole lot of classes and starting publishing for The Stanford Daily. It was just one of those things where it was kind of a very different experience for me to start graduate school, and what I noticed was that I was hearing all the other grad students – whether they were in anthropology, geophysics or economics – talk about their experience in the same way. They’d talk about professors; they’d talk about publishing, about research, and it just kind of occurred to me that this is an experience that is kind of universal across all these different disciplines. And then when I saw an ad in the newspaper at The Daily asking for student comics, I turned to a friend and said, “Maybe I should do it. Maybe I should start a comic about grad school.”

TSD: Do your comics and the lecture you’re giving on Thursday apply to undergraduates as well?

JC: Yeah, I think so. Especially at a place like Stanford, where a lot of kids will come from the top of their class in high school and now find themselves getting a little overwhelmed. I talk a lot about managing your time and managing your motivation and your passion. So yeah, I think undergrads usually get a lot out of the lecture as well.

TSD: What is your philosophy on procrastination, and why is it not always the enemy?

JC: I think people often confuse procrastination with laziness. That’s one of my main points [in the lecture] because they’re not necessarily the same thing. Laziness is when you don’t want to do anything, but procrastination is when you don’t want to do it now. It’s a different point of view.

I can talk about [procrastination] not being bad in two ways. One is that for creative works – if you’re doing research, or you’re an artist or you’re trying to write something for your paper or for a class – you can’t really force creativity sometimes. You have to let it come to you. So a lot of times the bigger ideas – or creative ideas – happen when you’re not trying very hard or focusing on something very hard. Think about Isaac Newton sleeping outside when an apple fell on him. Sometimes if you think too hard, it can be hard to come up with a creative solution.

And I think procrastination kind of reveals what you really want to do. If a lot of times you find yourself procrastinating doing a certain task, maybe it’s time for you to realize that you really don’t want to do that. Maybe it’s not something you really want to do, you know? And I think a lot of times that can reveal your passions for the things you really do want to do. If you find yourself skipping your engineering classes to go to theater or to music classes, that can tell you a little bit about what you’re truly passionate about.

TSD: So what would you say to a chronic procrastinator at Stanford?

JC: I would tell them to listen to their inner procrastinator. Listen to what their inner psyche is trying to tell them. Why are they procrastinating? And to really ask themselves if the thing they’re procrastinating is really something they want to do.

TSD: What advice do you have for students experiencing “Stanford Duck Syndrome”?

JC: Ha, that’s funny. Well, I think the biggest feedback I get about my comics is that people see it, and they realize that they’re not alone. And especially at a place like Stanford, where there’s all this competition and all this avoidance of admitting you have problems or challenges, a lot of grad students will read the comics and say, “Oh my god, I thought I was the only person that was going through this. I thought I was alone in this.” But they read the comics and realize they’re really not alone. So I think what I’m saying is that you’re not alone. There’s probably a lot of people out there who are going through the same things you are.


Contact Sarah Ortlip-Sommers at sortlip ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sarah Ortlip-Sommers '18 is a senior staff writer and former Student Groups desk editor. A senior studying political science, she grew up on the beautiful island of Martha's Vineyard (yes, people really live there; no, she hasn't met Obama). Catch her ordering her fifth cup of coffee from Starbucks, singing with Everyday People, or watching Grey's Anatomy. Contact her at sortlip 'at' stanford.edu.

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