January 8, 2009

The Enemies Of Promise Guard The Road To Success

Those enemies would be you yourself.


This is how Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Damn Right I Only Use A Mac,  opens his The New Yorker piece on the different types of genius:

Ben Fountain was an associate in the real-estate practice at the Dallas offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, just a few years out of law school, when he decided he wanted to write fiction....He decided to quit his job....He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours...
In this fashion, this young talent wrote a book which got a great review in the Times, won awards, etc.  But as inspirational as this "quit your job and become a writer" story sounds, for Gladwell, the punchline is this:

But Ben Fountain's success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections...His breakthrough with "Brief Encounters" came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The "young" writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

Gladwell goes on to describe the two kinds of genius or creativity.  The first, in the young, is conceptual.  These people have a nearly fully formed vision in their minds that simply needs to be transformed into material reality.  The other, in late-bloomers, is experimental.  They're not sure what they're getting at, they have multiple iterations, and then suddenly/finally they're onto something.

He uses many such pairs of  examples (e.g. Cezanne and Picasso.) The anecdote he tells at the beginning, the "quit your job as a lawyer and become a writer" depends on the latter type of genius/creativity.


Right off the bat, I have a question. How come no one ever thinks a person a genius if they quit their job as a writer to become a lawyer?  In fact, that's always considered selling out.  Before you laugh, consider that it is actually harder to do this then to go in the other direction.  "The world doesn't need another lawyer" is probably a popular answer, but I submit the world doesn't need another Ben Fountain, let alone the thousands of Ben Fountains who have quit their jobs and never finished their novels.  Why does our culture place a higher value on mediocre art that will never survive ten years then on a lifetime of grinding out the parts of the engine of society?  And if/since creative art is so valued, why don't they get paid more then the grinders?


Gladwell is perfect for those who want still to believe they can be anything they want, even as they drive 45 minutes each way to the place of their slow suicide. 

I'm a fan of Gladwell too-- how can you not be? He is compelling, fascinating, every sentence seems to have an implied exclamation mark, and for anyone under 50 who still has hope they'll "do something" with their lives his books read like revelations, they make you feel as if he's figured out the essential ingredients to success.  Wanna be CEO of a major corporation?  Knuckle pushups.  It's all so obvious, so easy.  And yet, here I sit...

An example here is illustrative.  He compares Bill Gates of Microsoft to Bill Joy (who looks like Gladwell) of Sun Corporation to show how they achieved their success.  You'll notice they are both Bills.  That's not incidental to the comparison, it's the entire pretext for the comparison: "These two Bills are similar because..."  The "Bill" becomes a shorthand for the other similarities (10000 hours of work, etc).  But just as the "Bill" itself gives you nothing useful to work with, neither do any of Gladwell's conclusions.  "One of the reasons Heidi Montag and Heidi Klum are so attractive to men is that they have big boobs."  Ok, so now what?  Will either a name change or plastic surgery really make me look like them?

Essentially-- and I mean this with no disrespect or ill will, again, please remember that I do very much enjoy his books-- they are a waste of time.  You walk away thinking you learned something, thinking you have a new perspective, but you don't.  If you doubt this, try to summarize one of his books in a sentence and see what you get.  Here's The Economist:

Mr Gladwell finds that being in the right place at the right time, having the right antecedents (affluent, caring parents are a big help) and seizing the chance to get in lots of practice (he calls it the 10,000-hour rule) are all as critical to success as raw talent.

Outstanding.  Do you want fries with that?

In contrast to this, to this approach "what makes a man succeed?" which is answered with  "lots of things you have very little ability to replicate, so just get to work" it may be better to ask, "what makes a man fail?" and at least avoid those things. 

Enemies of Promise is a book in two parts (one third and the other two thirds).  Part 2 can be appropriately called: I, Cyril Connolly, a man of considerable education and insight, have been unable to write the literary masterpiece that was assumed to be in me, so instead I am writing a book about why I was unable to write such a book.    Anyone who hopes to accomplish anything artistic, or anything of merit, would do well to stop everything else they are doing-- or not doing-- and read Part 2.

No summary does it justice.   I am only going to mention key reasons I think immediately applicable-- and changeable, in the hope it inspires you to read it yourself.

Day-dreaming and conversation:  "These harmless activities are more insidious [than drink and opium.].... Daydreaming bears a specious resemblance to the workings of the creative imagination.  It is in fact a substitute for it... This is even more true of conversation; a good talker can talk away the substance of twenty books in as many evenings... He will describe the central idea of the book he means to write until it revolts him."

Less talk, more write.  No one should ever know you are writing a book, and it's content should not be able to be inferred from past conversations.

Journalism: For want of money and immediate gratification, the talented author may turn to... blogging.   "By degrees the flippancy of journalism will become a habit and the pleasure of being paid on the nail and more especially being praised on the nail, grow indispensable....

"...the burden of the oath under which we grew up becomes the burden of expectation we can never fulfill....Occasionally they win and the load of other people's wish-fulfillments is cast off; they produce a book; more often after a struggle for breath they are stifled forever."

Admiration and criticism: "Butler said an author should write only for people between 20 and 30 as nobody read or changed their opinion after that.  Those are the years when the artists are promising and the admirers full of admiration; by the time the artist has ceased to be promising and become a good writer, the admirer is a critic whose judgments are flavoured by his own self-hatred or who, taking the author as a symbol of his own youth, refers all his later books back to his earliest.  When an admirer says, "Ah, yes! But if only he would write another Prufrock!" he means, "If only I was as young as when I first read Prufrock."  The sour smell of the early thirties hangs over most literary controversy."

(Not old) Age:  "The shock, for an intelligent writer, of discovering for the first time that there are people younger than himself who think him stupid is severe...  It would seem that genius is of two kinds, one which blazes up in youth and dies down, while the other matures, through long choosing, putting out new branches every seven years.  The artist has to decide on the nature of his own or he may find himself exhausted by the sprint of youth and unfitted for the marathon of middle age.  A great many writers die between those years... commit suicide; others succumb to pneumonia or drink or have nervous breakdowns...

"Solvency is an essential."  "...otherwise he must become a popular success or be miserable."

Privilege:  "It is the theory that the experiences undergone by boys at the great public schools, their glories and disappointments, are so intense as to dominate their lives and to arrest their development. From these it results that the greater part of the ruling class remains adolescent, school-minded, self-conscious, cowardly... Early laurels weigh like lead and of many of the boys whom I knew at Eton, I can say that their lives are over."

Etc.  Now get back to work.