A friend of mine was having some difficulties imagining the next steps of her career path. So she decided to list a few people in her field that she admires, and to write down those specific things she admires about each person. It helped her think about what she wants to do in her professional life and how she wants to do it.
That would never have occurred to me. I have an atheist’s instinct against the idolization of anyone. I’m much more comfortable thinking in terms of values, ideas, ideals than people. People are so flawed. But then it seemed strange to me that I couldn’t answer a simple question: Whom do I admire and why?
I first realized that Ira Glass is one of those people when I heard Alec Baldwin interview him on Here’s The Thing. Ira Glass is the most engaged listener and conversationalist I’ve ever encountered. He takes everyone seriously, their feelings, their opinions, their fears. This comes across most clearly when he interviews children, who tend to be more honest than the rest of us. Ira is able to pull out a deeper meaning from the words he is told. He’s able to hold up a mirror to those he interviews, a mirror that says: here’s what you’re saying, but I think this is how you’re feeling, this is the deeper meaning.
I used to be a great listener, a truly engaged conversatioanalist. I would meditate reflectively on something I’ve been told and connect threads across conversations. Sadly, I’ve lost this ability. I’ve become more careless. I’ll catch myself distracted, thinking about something else when someone is speaking to me. Or I’ll have a conversation with someone only to realize that we’ve already had this conversation before. Rather than connecting threads over conversations, I’m on groundhog-day-repeat.
Ira Glass is a prolific creator, willing to do the hard work of repetition, yet also willing to break out and try new things — like a TV show and live theater. He’s proud of how bad he once was at his job because he knows that he’s gotten so much better. Unlike most of us, he’s willing to turn down money for more creative independence.
I also like his identification as a “noisy introvert”:
I am a noisy introvert. My sister Randi made up that phrase and it describes lots of people I know. Lots of writers seem to be introverts who love to now and then be on stage. Lots of radio people too. I covet large amounts of time alone, and I’m most comfortable and very happy when I’m alone, but obviously there’s another side to me because true introverts don’t end up with their own national radio shows.
I’ve always enjoyed studying politics, the way power and ideas play out in public, but never as a participant. That has become especially clear to me over the past year in my current job, which requires more political sophistication than any other job I’ve had. Good ideas aren’t enough; you’ve got to sell them. And bad ideas routinely beat out good ideas because of the way they are sold. I don’t like selling anything, especially ideas. In a perfect world, well reasoned argumentation would be enough.
Barack Obama reminds me that we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where we’re scared of what’s unfamiliar and we hold onto our established views because they make up part of our identity. Barack Obama is willing to play the game. He’s damn good at playing the game. Yet, he’s able to consistently take the high road and maintain a code of intellectual honesty and ethical integrity. Despite his limited success in advancing transformational policies, I think historians 100 years from now will look back and consider him one of the best national leaders of history. It is an extremely exceptional person who can rouse an entire nation, like he does with every State of the Union address, but also speak so intimately and frankly in a one-on-one conversation, like his recent heart-to-heart with Marc Maron.
I don’t aspire to be exceptional. But I do hope that as time goes on I get better at selling ideas with the same kind of disarming confidence that comes so naturally to Obama.
Alain de Botton
Much like I read everything of Milan Kundera in my late teens and early 20s, I read just about everything that Alain de Botton writes today. It’s not that we see the world in the same light; he’s able to see the world in ways that never occurred to me.
Though I’ve read almost everything he’s written, I hadn’t read an interview with de Botton until Iris handed me a recent issue of Kinfolk. His natural talent for distilling essence and insight into so few words comes out in his every answer. He says his passion is understanding. I love that. Few people would describe “understanding” as a passion, as something so proactive and intentional.
Often I waver between a desire to think and a desire to do. Sometimes I think I’d be happier in academia where I can read and write and study and contemplate all day long. Then I’ll attend an academic conference and realize how distant most academics are from the real world, from doing actual things. Alain de Botton’s research and writing is always applicable. He co-founded The School of Life to teach us something that is left out of education: how to be happy and good. He’s a reminder that I don’t have to swing on this pendulum between thinking and doing. Indeed, the two can become a virtuous circle.
Oliver Sacks is dying. You may know this because he has become an extremely prolific writer ever since discovering that he has terminal cancer earlier this year. Today he published a piece in the New York Sunday Review describing his eager anticipation for every new issue of Nature and Science, and the new discoveries they herald. He has a relationship with science and with knowledge that has developed over the past six or seven decades. A neurologist by training, his curiosity goes much further.
My curiosity used to go so much further. The horizons of the ideas I wanted to explore were longer. Big questions to be broken down into reading lists of dozens of books and journal articles and conversations with interesting people. What is the future of democracy? India or China by 2100? How do we benefit from the joys of globalization without losing the uniqueness of our differences? How to best promote prosperity while addressing inequality? How do we simultaneously pursue transparency and privacy? How do we address the prejudices of the past without imposing new prejudices today? Is the singularity upon us?
It’s not that I’ve stopped asking these questions, but the horizon of my curiosity has shortened. I’ve become more concerned with the immediacy of what I must prepare for next week than the long road of what I’d like to study over a lifetime. I’ve become more accustomed to reading what my friends are reading than following a reading list that adds up to something more meaningful than its parts.
Oliver Sacks is a reminder that life is long, but never long enough.