Category Archives: inspiration

On Academic Bios

Be proud of doing it your own way

Branko Milanovic reads the bios of “several contemporary economists” and is struck by their “bareness”: “The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).”

He continues:

The lives (i.e. CVs) typically went like this. He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was W. Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on. You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, and the titles of the papers, and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.

Surely there are some generic conventions at play here — indeed, Milanovic could be describing his own academic bio in the paragraph above — but is the boringness of so many academic bios indicative of some special paucity of life among the contemporary professoriate?

If so, Milanovic wonders about the implications:

[H]ow can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).

I think Milanovic has point, but again, part of this is genre. Academic bios elide all kinds of interesting stuff. That’s what makes them academic bios. Remember, too, that Milanovic is talking about economists. Yet I also wonder if the template he skewers has a normative function. There is a danger, it seems to me, of trying to live a life that might lead to one of these conventional bios, rather than a life that flows from other concerns. If you’ve ever warily asked yourself, “How would X look on my CV?,” where X is something that’s maybe just slightly unusual, and which is a question academics (particularly junior academics) are encouraged to ask themselves, you’ve submitted to the subtle tyranny of the boring academic bio.

I imagine such self-disciplining happens in other professions, too.

One school of thought says, as per Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But another school of thought — the school I increasingly find myself admiring, if not fully a part of — wonders if something about Flaubert’s formula doesn’t add up, or is at least a kind of privilege. “Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies,” asserts Milanovic.

Recents events have exposed the fact — if it was ever really hidden — that maybe we aren’t living in as rich or as orderly a society as we might have once liked to think we were. Paths that once seemed straight have become more obviously crooked. If the perfectly neat and tidy academic bio was always a sort of humblebrag by those who made it to the top, the résuméic equivalent of a millionaire wearing jeans, now it seems fanciful in its lifelessness.

Let us turn instead to unconventional, unacademic bios and advice for inspiration, as I have long found myself doing.

For example…

Sinclair Lewis argues that aspiring writers should “become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator” in addition to seeking to become a writer. Decades later, Werner Herzog would proffer advice to aspiring filmmakers, encouraging them to “work as a bouncer in a sex-club, a warden in a lunatic asylum or in a slaughterhouse. Walk on foot, learn languages, learn a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema.” This, needless to say, isn’t the advice given to aspiring academics. If, for example, you’re an academic who dabbles as a dominatrix, you might be blackballed.

Writer Charles Bukowski famously worked a number of odd jobs while cranking out poems and stories. Composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver, plumber, gallery assistant, and furniture mover until he was 41. Before becoming a bestselling author, Louis L’Amour was “a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and had won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.” Compare these biographical sketches, which I draw energy from, to the one Milanovic puts forward above, which puts me to sleep.

Similarly, before he was an actor, James Garner worked as “telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant.” Kris Kristofferson was a “Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, [and] a professional helicopter pilot” before becoming a songwriter and actor. Viggo Mortensen’s “previous careers included driving a truck, delivering flowers, and loading ships in Denmark. For years he lived from gig to gig, check to check, mostly broke. It probably didn’t help that, on a whim, he left L. A. and moved to Idaho. He supported his acting career for years by bartending and waiting tables.” These were jobs these guys did before they made it big, yes, but they weren’t merely that; they were constitutive of who they were/are later as people and artists.

Even if an academic once worked as, say, a bartender, and I imagine a lot of academics have done some bartending, it’s not something you expect to see listed in their bio, which is a shame. Something like bartending, as Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner write in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), “can be taken as evidence … that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.” “One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers,” they continue, “can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as ‘teachers’) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.” Putting aside the eternal debate over whether the classroom is part of the “real world,” I’ll simply say this: rather than omit bartending stints from their bios, academics should be encouraged to include them.

The above are all examples taken from this blog, and admittedly white and masculinist ones at that. But there are many more such cases. And there has never been a better time to draw inspiration from them, whatever your career. Don’t worry if your story is messy, I say. Shun the boilerplate bio, and the conformity it hints at. Embrace the idiosyncratic and vibrant path you surely are already on, and let your bio be a testament to as much. In the end, those are the ones people like to read, not CVs.

A Mark of Sanity

“Teach classes that are meaningful to you and that engage that portion of your students that are reachable. Ignore, in other words, the very idea of professional wisdom. Only write what you want to write. Once you have job security (which I know is a huge barrier) don’t write if you don’t want to. Write for media directed at non-historians, whether that be the local newspaper or fancy national magazines. Write for other academic disciplines. Explore other media than the printed word. Ignoring what the profession rewards might very well be a mark of sanity at the close of the 20th century.”

Ken Cmiel, “History Against Itself” (1994)

Ricky Jay

Ricky Jay, who died last November, was one of my favorite people in the world, not so much because I was into his magic or his acting or his books — though there were things about all three of those things that I loved — but because he found such a great niche for himself. He was, of course, one of the best sleight-of-hand artists in the world, maybe among the best ever. But he was also a serious scholar outside of academe who wrote elegant, impressively-researched books and gave lectures. Oh yeah, and he also racked up nearly 40 acting credits, which is how most people know him. I admire this sort of range tremendously. Dude just seemed to have it figured out.

After his death, Mark Singer’s 1993 New Yorker profile of Jay re-circulated online. It’s great, and you should read it, but I also liked this bit from his friend David Mamet’s reminiscence:

He spent five or six hours a day practicing. He did it for 60 years. And, like all great preceptors, he was, primarily, a student. His study was the metaphysical idea of Magic, which found expression not only in performance, but in practice, commentary, design and contemplation. They were all, and equally to him, but expressions of an ideal.

The image of Jay this conjures, of him alone in a book-lined study, practicing his craft for hours, resonates with me as well. At heart I feel like Jay was an academic who happened to be a magician and an actor, suggesting to me that the lines between those things, between all things maybe, aren’t as clear cut as most people pretend they are.

Here, via Terry Teachout, is Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants from 1996.


Fall In

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Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash.

I’m writing this on the first day of fall in the Northern Hemisphere.

Depending upon where you are, it might not feel like fall yet. Right now, for instance, it’s 92°F outside where I live. And humid. More summer than fall. Yet, at the same time, school’s back in session, football is being played, and Halloween paraphernalia is appearing in stores.

The leaves on one of the trees outside my window are starting to change color. Some leaves have even started to fall. It’s getting darker earlier and lighter later. And even though it’s still hot out during the day, it’s cooling down more at night.

Change is in the air.

This leads to a question: Should one also change in conjunction with the seasons? By this I mean more than donning a natty scarf when the temperature drops below a certain level—I mean changing things about the way you eat, sleep, live, and work.

Conventional productivity advice doesn’t really take up this question. One of the things, in fact, that irks me about such advice is that it tends to frame things in terms of daily routines, routines that are ostensibly the same regardless of the season. In other words, most productivity advice is seasonless. Here I’m thinking of things like Mason Currey’s engrossing 2013 book Daily Rituals and Tim Ferriss’s more tech bro-y late-2016 knockoff Tools for Titans.

Now, I’m as interested in famous people’s daily routines as anyone. But at the same time, I feel it’s important to resist the tyranny of “the day.”

What do I mean by that?

Well, we live in a world of seasons—and increasingly more variable and violent seasons at that—but productivity advice seems to always think in terms of the day, the week, the year, or five years, never the season, the sun, and the shadow.

In Lewis Mumford’s endlessly-rich 1937 book Technics and Civilization, he explains how the clock altered human relations by organizing everything around twenty-four little hours instead of, say, the rhythm of the seasons.

The consequences of this, Mumford argues, are profound:

When one thinks of the day as an abstract span of time, one does not go to bed with the chickens on a winter’s night: one invents wicks, chimneys, lamps, gaslights, electric lamps, so as to use all the hours belonging to the day. When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours, minutes, and seconds, the habits of adding time and saving time come into existence.

Because of the clock, Mumford continues, “Abstract time became the new medium of existence. Organic functions themselves were regulated by it: one ate, not upon feeling hungry, but when prompted by the clock: one slept, not when one was tired, but when the clock sanctioned it. A generalized time-consciousness accompanied the wider use of clocks: dissociating time from organic sequences….”

Since we all pretty much live according to “clock time” now, the autumnal equinox presents us with an opportunity to cast off our Apple Watches and reflect on some of the benefits of living according to what might be called “seasonal time.” To that end, I encourage you to step out of “clock time” and into “seasonal time.”

This will, no doubt, strike some as unappealing. Many people see nature as something to overcome or counteract, not as something to flow with or submit to. For others, it will be impossible. “Clock time” is simply imposed on them too strongly. But if you can do it, even just a little bit, I strongly recommend it, if only for the perspective it brings.

To quote Ecclesiastes 3:1, “To every thing there is a season.” What if we took that adage seriously, not just by buying pumpkin spice lattes but by doing key things in a more fall-like way? Fall-like might take different forms. The point is to embrace fall in particular and seasonal change in general. I’m definitely not recommending becoming “Mr. Autumn Man”. I’m talking about something else, something deeper.

One example I like is how novelist Lee Child sits down every September and begins work on a new Jack Reacher novel. He finishes up sometime the following spring and then spends the rest of the year doing other stuff—stuff like spending the entire month of August on vacation. (I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty nice.) Note, too, that this routine produces a book a year. (As someone who writes much more slowly, this sounds pretty nice to me as well.) And Child has been doing things this way since the late 1990s. (For more on Child’s process, see Andy Martin’s Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me.)

Fall is a time to write for me as well, but it also means welcoming—rather than fighting against—the shorter days, the football games, the decorative gourds. Productivity writer Nicholas Bate’s seven fall basics are more sleep, more reading, more hiking, more reflection, more soup, more movies, and more night sky. I like those too. The winter will bring with it new things, new adjustments. Hygge not hay rides. Ditto the spring. Come summer, I’ll feel less stress about stopping work early to go to a barbecue or movie because I know, come autumn, I’ll be hunkering down. More and more, I try to live in harmony with the seasons, not the clock. The result has been I’m able to prioritize better.

And yes, fall for me also means some of the stereotypical stuff: apple picking, leafy walks, we’re even trying to go to a corn maze this year.

In sum, as the Earth wobbles around the Sun, don’t be afraid to switch things up. I can’t promise an uptick in productivity, but when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.

Some People Are Cohens, Some People Are Dylans

One of the many amazing tidbits from David Remnick’s New Yorker profile of Leonard Cohen:

In the early eighties, Cohen went to see Dylan perform in Paris, and the next morning in a café they talked about their latest work. Dylan was especially interested in “Hallelujah.” Even before three hundred other performers made “Hallelujah” famous with their cover versions, long before the song was included on the soundtrack for “Shrek” and as a staple on “American Idol,” Dylan recognized the beauty of its marriage of the sacred and the profane. He asked Cohen how long it took him to write.

“Two years,” Cohen lied.

Actually, “Hallelujah” had taken him five years. He drafted dozens of verses and then it was years more before he settled on a final version. In several writing sessions, he found himself in his underwear, banging his head against a hotel-room floor.

Cohen told Dylan, “I really like ‘I and I,’ ” a song that appeared on Dylan’s album “Infidels.” “How long did it take you to write that?”

“About fifteen minutes,” Dylan said.

This resonates with me because I too am a slow worker, often, like Cohen, laboring on and fussing with little things for years, though nothing quite at the level of “Hallelujah,” it’s true. It’s more like some people are Cohens, some people are Dylans. Speed-wise, I wanted to be more like Dylan for years, but now I’m more okay with my Cohen-like process, though the Dylan style has its advantages.

Here’s another great tidbit from the piece:

Cohen lived in a tiny cabin that he outfitted with a coffeemaker, a menorah, a keyboard, and a laptop. Like the other adepts, he cleaned toilets. He had the honor of cooking for Roshi and eventually lived in a cabin that was linked to his teacher’s by a covered walkway. For many hours a day, he sat in half lotus, meditating. If he, or anyone else, nodded off during meditation or lost the proper position, one of the monks would come by and rap him smartly on the shoulder with a wooden stick.

And here’s Cohen’s latest single:

May we all be as cool at 82.

UPDATE: There’s an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast that covers fast vs. slow creativity and Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Whatever you think of Malcolm Gladwell or podcasts, I think it’s worth listening to.

(Hat tip: @GenerationMeh.)

Early Success Will Spoil You

“When you’re young, and things come super easily to you, and you have success right out of the gate, you’re liable to think that’s how it actually works. You start to think you don’t need to be fully prepared or committed to have these things meet you.”

—actress Sarah Paulson on success later in lifeGQ, October 2016

Keep Going

“Think of Darwin, working for decades on his theory of evolution, refraining from publishing it because it wasn’t yet perfect. Hardly anyone knew what he was working on. No one said, Hey Charles, it’s okay that you’re taking so long, because what you’re working on is just so important. They didn’t know. He couldn’t have known. He just knew that it wasn’t done yet, that it could be better, and that that was enough to keep him going.”

—Ryan Holiday, Ego Is the Enemy