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.


Coincidentally, yesterday's... (Below threshold)

January 8, 2009 6:27 PM | Posted by aaron Davies: | Reply

Coincidentally, yesterday's iGoogle quote of the day was Lynn Johnston's "Never tell anyone that you're writing a book, going on a diet, exercising, taking a course, or quitting smoking. They'll encourage you to death."

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It's obvious that each grou... (Below threshold)

January 8, 2009 8:59 PM | Posted by Ulrich: | Reply

It's obvious that each group of people consists of people matching the selection criteria. However, people tend to use criteria as proxies in unjustifiable ways. You have wrote about "prozac" being used as a proxy for "antidepressant" when it is in fact a particular chemical. Gladwell uses IQ as a proxy for intelligence, when IQ actually means "aptitude at pointless puzzles devised by psychologists." Alone is using Gladwell as a proxy for roots of public opinion, when in fact Gladwell is what is selected from similar authors by the group of people who buy such books.

I disagree with your list of causes of failure. Daydreaming can consist of imagining ways that your pursuit of something can take, or can reinforce your motivation for it. Conversation and blogging let you practice your use of words and see how people react to your explanations. Many people have been more successful at quitting smoking because they told friends they would. Much of the benefit of privilege is a placebo effect, and...are you suggesting that people replicate the effects of attendance of "great" elementary schools? Solvency, though, I would certainly agree with.

I wonder why Alone writes this blog. Was there a post about that? Is it hatred of hypocrisy? Stupidity? Deception? Incompetence? Harm from incompetence? Something else?

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I just bought the Connolly ... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2009 12:56 AM | Posted by Gabe: | Reply

I just bought the Connolly on the strength of what you write here, excellent post, excellent blog.

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And if/since creative art i... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2009 2:58 AM | Posted by Madonna: | Reply

And if/since creative art is so valued, why don't they get paid more then the grinders?

I was about to ask whether you once contemplated of throwing away the grind over a creative vocation, but, probably irrelevant or an ad hominem. In any case, your blog comes close to a creative pursuit.

Yet, I am amazed you would ask such as sophomoric question -- coming from a genius like you.

Creative art is NOT VALUED in the society -- that's why the low demand. Further, creative art is the only way that fundamental values can be changed. That's why artists are in for the hardest job on earth.

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of course creative art is v... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2009 4:17 AM | Posted by Anonymous Pre-Raphaelite: | Reply

of course creative art is valued. two things hide this: it follows a power law (very little room at the top), and low tolerance for crap. academic painters who turn out bad pollock or mondrian knock-offs get no appreciation for the very good reason that their work is worthless.

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Gladwell recognizes not onl... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2009 12:08 PM | Posted, in reply to Ulrich's comment, by AL: | Reply

Gladwell recognizes not only IQ as essential for success in life, but also what he calls 'practical intelligence,' that is, the ability to manage situations to our advantage. Without that, Gladwell clearly illustrates that a high IQ is essentially wasted.

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Our cowboy hat and boots na... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2009 12:57 PM | Posted by ITW: | Reply

Our cowboy hat and boots narcissistic ego obsessive culture values mediocre art over productive work because mediocre art is another form of narcissistic vanity. Artists are praised in our culture not because we are so refined and sophisticated and sensitive, but because our image of ourselves says we are. Because it is an image only rather than a genuine appreciation for meaningful creative work, very little distinction is made between horrible writing/art/music and worthwhile writing/art/music. End result: every narcissistic reality-tv watching myspace page having idiot wants to write a book. Probably about themselves, or something loosely related to their identity.

The ones who do it are the most narcissistic, probably. I’ve never met a wannabe writer who was not a ridiculous egomania. Interest in writing (especially with dreams of being a novelist) is a good barometer of narcissism. Or mania. (That brings me to another point: I think the rampant overdiagnosis of bipolar disorder is partially related to the proliferation of narcissistic personalities; egomania or narcissism is a feature of mania, so too often clinicians diagnose a cut and dry narcissist as a bipolar … every “fake bipolar” I’ve met was also a narcissist).

I think writing is such a popular outlet for narcissism because it is not readily apparent whether or not talent exists. If you attempt to draw, or sing, or dance, it is very obvious if you suck, and even a narcissist would have trouble word-storming up a delusion to detract from it… but writing or poetry talent is a lot more subtle. A terrible writer can go on for a good long time thinking they are an undiscovered genius; it is more difficult to do that when you can’t carry a tune at all or dance without looking like a flailing epileptic.
Plus, narcissists are usually very verbal/linguistically oriented people, since they deal in deceit and trickery, writing is a natural medium.

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You miss my point. You take... (Below threshold)

January 9, 2009 2:11 PM | Posted, in reply to AL's comment, by Ulrich: | Reply

You miss my point. You take IQ as intelligence because it's in the name, and you similarly take Gladwell's practical intelligence at face value. Even if a mind could accurately be described by a pair of numbers, they would still be worth little.

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I'm sorry Mr. Alone, but th... (Below threshold)

January 10, 2009 10:23 PM | Posted by Casual Read: | Reply

I'm sorry Mr. Alone, but this simply has to be brought up.

You seem to be suffering from what appears to be a recent phenomenon, though I might have simply not noticed it, of the then/than confusion.

Under Section labeled II

"more then the grinders?"

And we find it again under the subheading of Day-dreaming and conversation.
"These harmless activities are more insidious [then drink and opium.]
I would give you more credit but I am assuming the [] are your insertion and not the author of whom you refer.

I also found these, which I assume are simple typos.

Admiration and criticism
"I only I was as young as when I frist read Prufrock."

I presume "If only.." was the desired word.

(Not old) Age
The artist has t 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.

And here I presumably "The artist has to decide..."

I hate to see people who are at least claiming to hold professions that require so much education to make these kinds of mistakes. If nothing else it ruins the illusion that you know what you're writing about. Feel free to delete this, I didn't know how else to point them out.

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You seem to be suffering... (Below threshold)

January 11, 2009 4:32 PM | Posted by Matt P: | Reply

You seem to be suffering from what appears to be a recent phenomenon...

The publishers of even the finest essays and literature have traditionally employed copy editors, Casual Read, which suggests to me that what you're seeing is nothing new at all but instead an effect of disintermediation.

f you attempt to draw, or sing, or dance, it is very obvious if you suck...

You'd think, but I've known plenty of lousy singers and artists who're convinced of their greatness. Most amusing was the bad date with a guy who turned out to be a hustler; he thought he was going to win me over with a dance routine that he clearly believed to be irresistibly sexy, but in reality he looked sort of like a chicken being electrocuted.

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points well taken. Matt... (Below threshold)

January 13, 2009 6:02 PM | Posted, in reply to Casual Read's comment, by Alone: | Reply

points well taken. Matt P (below you) pretty much sums it up, but I'll take a moment a reveal something about myself that I think many will find interesting as it relates to different styles of thinking.

first, I can't type. Believe it or not, I type with only four fingers, and thumb for the spacebar. And I look at the keyboard, not the screen. Those quotes were not "cut and paste"-- I had to type them in from the book.

second, I cannot read carefully. I'm not exaggerating. There is a famous optical illusion(?) of words in a triangle:


You'll observe there are two "the" in lines three and four. Well, I don't. If I read it backwards, I see it, but forwards, even though I know it's doubled, still reads correctly to me.

I cannot read poetry or song lyrics because I cannot read each word, I read sentences at a time. By analogy, you see "Casual Reader" and I see "Casl Rdr." Would you believe I wrote and rewrote this post several times? I often don't see the underlining of spell check. So I miss all typos, most grammar, and sometimes don't even notice that a sentence is unfinished. Worse, I am always translating (my own and other people's) writings from their words to their meanings.

However, what I am good at (because of this? In spite of this?) is seeing the "deeper" meaning. I can see where in an article the key content is, biases of writers, etc. And I am good at seeing "padding", e.g. the use of idioms in the absence of content. You mentioned the example of "intensive purposes" which is a great one because that is almost always a signal that the following point is a throwaway. Etc.

Maybe someday if I get grandiose I'll write a book and use a real editor. One might ask why I have chosen a medium that I'm not well suited for. I may as well try to express my ideas through watercolor. But, here it is.

But for now I'm just trying to get some ideas out there, give people some things to talk about. But I am painfully aware that the typos and other mistakes are at least distracting, if not maddening.

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Not sure if you've seen thi... (Below threshold)

January 18, 2009 3:58 PM | Posted by Anon: | Reply

Not sure if you've seen this response to this piece: http://www.philalawyer.net/archives/dont_shoot_the.phtml

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..."typos and other mistake... (Below threshold)

January 22, 2009 12:50 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

..."typos and other mistakes are at least distracting, if not maddening."

Not to everybody.

I scream, occasionally out loud, as I see hours wasted as prototypes are picked to death over surface details. Opportunities are lost and ideas squashed as the grammar and (APA) style guide police swarm over preliminary work, clucking their tongues and shaking their heads. You are writing a blog. I will gladly accept typos and mis-takes [sic] if it allows for more thoughts and ideas to flourish. Your writing is not hard to follow and the typos don’t impact the goal of the posts. I’d prefer you spend your time thinking and writing…not making the grammar police happy. They can have their fun working on my responses instead. There will be more for them to work on anyway.

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Alone,Too me, it i... (Below threshold)

July 12, 2009 2:07 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply


Too me, it is far more maddening that these ideas posted on your blog are not more widely disseminated and debated in a public forum. Conventions be damned, as long as I get your idea on some level, then don't worry about grammar.

I think we'd rather have you focus on delivering what is technically known as "crazy-awesome-brain-fucking-ideas" that stay with us for days at a time than we are about silly conventions and grammar.

Although I am about the furthest from a "grammar nazi" as they come so perhaps I am not one to speak.

tl;dr: You're ideas are what I come for the blog for, I don't care if they're written backwards in pig-latin while high on meth.

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Gladwell is so annoying, bu... (Below threshold)

February 2, 2010 12:19 PM | Posted by noontime ritalin: | Reply

Gladwell is so annoying, but if you are a gritty up from your boostraps aspiring capitalist, you must give him props. He recognized a ripe market: smart people who are narcissistic and have pocket change to spend on books. And then used his talent to expertly exploit it and enrich himself. god damn it , he is a great american.

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Re:> god damn it ,... (Below threshold)

April 5, 2012 12:40 AM | Posted, in reply to noontime ritalin's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply


> god damn it , he is a great american.

Malcolm Gladwell is Canadian. ;-) Really.

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Was reading this one again ... (Below threshold)

March 3, 2014 6:09 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Was reading this one again and:

"A great many writers die between those years... commit suicide; others succumb to pneumonia or drink or have nervous breakdowns..."

Hoping #2 doesn't come out the victor vs. the Book of Porn.
Anyway, back to work for me.

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Oh yes, the elusive book of... (Below threshold)

March 4, 2014 1:42 PM | Posted by Macanon: | Reply

Oh yes, the elusive book of Porn, also known as Macguffin.

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[url=http://www.softassembl... (Below threshold)

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Here's a Web-Archived versi... (Below threshold)

January 28, 2015 5:35 PM | Posted, in reply to Anon's comment, by johnnycoconut: | Reply

Here's a Web-Archived version of that link, in case anyone wants to read it:

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