second chapter syndrome

I can eat fifty eggs.

—Cool Hand Luke

Knitters dread “second sock syndrome”:

Knitting the first sock usually goes quickly. But the second one seems to drag on, never gets completed or even cast on in the first place.

Why does SSS happen, according to Nadja at the knitting blog Sheep Among Wolves?

Knitting the second sock often amounts to knitting the same thing twice in a row. We already know what’s coming, what it’s like to knit this sock. The thrill of the new is gone, and it doesn’t hold our interest as much as the first one did.

As a metaphor, SSS offers writers a useful parallel: Second chapter. Second draft. Second book. There’s a good reason knitting the second of anything can be so difficult in terms of our motivation. The obvious place you tend to get stuck is the start. Typing the very first word of a book takes some people decades. That isn’t much of a surprise because it’s frightening to leap into the unknown. Ultimately, the leap to do something for the first time is driven by an irresistible itch to cross something off your bucket list.

The second syndrome, on the other hand, arrived unexpectedly. You write your first book, it’s successful, and now you think you can write books ad infinitum. The subsequent books will be much easier now that you’ve walked the path once. That’s when you discover what it’s like to work without the “thrill of the new.” Try as you might, you can’t seem to muster the same energy and enthusiasm the second time around. After all, you’ve already written a book. Lay off, brain!

When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.


This syndrome appears across the creative spectrum. Depending on how you’re wired, the sense of completion can really sap your momentum on a level well below conscious thought. Any milestone can force an internal reevaluation of priorities. Once you reach a stage that appears complete to your limbic system, you’re suddenly forced out of the flow of accumulated habit. “Do I really want to keep grinding away at this?” you ask yourself. “Is this still interesting/relevant/important enough to justify the time and effort?”

Years ago, the 50th episode of my podcast threw me off-kilter. The 75th sealed the deal—I quit. Hadn’t I done enough? (What’d I tell you about laying off me, brain!) Likewise, a novel I tried to write for NaNoWriMo ground to a halt once I hit the targeted 50,000 words, even though I was miles away from a complete draft, let alone a publishable book. My interest in continuing just evaporated once I reached the arbitrary milestone.

This is why I never look at the “issue number” of the Maven Game. I don’t want to trick my brain into thinking I’m “done” writing this newsletter. Even that strategy has its limits, however. Future-proofing your output—of books, blog posts, podcast episodes, whatever—can’t rest on willful blindness alone. There, you’re just a Looney Tunes character running off the side of a cliff and refusing to look down. Eventually, you’ll be tempted to peek, and down you go.

Maybe the solution to the second sock syndrome is setting a larger, more ambitious goal. Knit fifty socks. One book isn’t “done” if you take Sue Grafton’s approach and title the first one A is for Alibi. (She made it all the way to Y is for Yesterday before passing in 2017.) Push the finish line so far out of sight that there’s no conceivable way you’ll ever get there, and you’ll never want for motivation. Right? Or would that be too dispiriting, knowing you’ll never, ever reach the finish line? Dunno.

All I do know is, I can have the best of intentions and the most iron-clad of routines and still end up a puddle on the couch because I’ve reached a goal that my brain tells me is “enough.” As my wife, Samantha, points out, habits are a crucial part of becoming productive, but if the work becomes habitual, it risks becoming rote. It’s the difference between a drive and a commute.

Great, now I looked at my post count. This is the 198th Maven Game. I could have sworn I was still safely on the cliff, but now that I look down…

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