“For Martin, field work “has never felt like a marathon, more like the ascent of a peak.” This doesn’t mean that the trail is always clearly marked. “For ages, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing or why. I drive my family nuts. Wandering around clueless. But I just have this conviction that if I keep going, something will fall into place.” Often, it’s only when the field work is finished that she sees broader patterns.”
An Anthropologist Investigates How We Think About How We Think
“Some chapters of the manuscript were designated “Zero drafts” or “freewriting,” David’s terms for first tries, and included notes such as “Cut by 50% in next draft.” I made occasional cuts for sense or pace, or to find an end point for a chapter that trailed off unfinished.”
“Reading this material in the months after returning, I found an astonishingly full novel, created with the superabundant originality and humor that were uniquely David’s. As I read these chapters I felt unexpected joy, because while inside this world that David had made I felt as if I were in his presence, and was able to forget awhile the awful fact of his death. Some pieces were neatly typed and revised through numerous versions. Others were drafts in David’s minuscule handwriting. Some—those chapters from the desk among them—had been recently polished. Others were much older and contained abandoned or superseded plotlines. There were notes and false starts, lists of names, plot ideas, instructions to himself. All these materials were gorgeously alive and charged with observations; reading them was the closest thing to seeing his amazing mind at play upon the world. One leather-bound workbook was still closed around a green felt marker with which David had recently written.”
There are practical implications for all this. If you are an intellectual, the sort of person whose work consists of generating and implementing ideas, then understand you are working against time. Figure out the most important intellectual problem you think you can help solve and make sure you spend your thirties doing that. Your fifties and sixties are for teaching, judging, managing, leading, and dispensing with wisdom. Your teens and twenties are for gaining skills and locating the problems that matter to you. Your thirties are for solving them.
Public intellectuals who do not wish to transition in the their forties from the role of thinker to mentor or manager are going to have a harder time of it. Optimizing for long term success means turning away from victory at its most intoxicating. When you have reached the summit, time has come to descend, and start again on a different mountain. There are plenty of examples of this—Francis Fukuyama comes to mind as a contemporary one—but it is the harder path. For some, this will be a path worth taking. For others, wisdom is found in ceding the role of public intellect over to younger upstarts and moving to more rewarding positions guiding the next generation of intellectual lights.
You see this pattern recur again and again in the op-eds of our nation. A once-bold foreign correspondent whose former days of daring-do have already been milked for more than they are worth, a Nobel laureate two decades removed from the economic papers that gave him acclaim, a nationally known historian who has not stepped into an archive since graduate school—the details change but the general pattern is the same. In each case the intellectual in question is years removed from not just the insights that delivered fame, but the activities that delivered insight.
The tricky thing is that it is hard to go back to the rap and scrabble of real research when you have climbed so high above it. Penguin will pay you a hefty advance for your next two hundred pages of banal boilerplate; they will not pay you for two or three years of archival research on some narrow topic no one cares about. No matter that the process of writing on that narrow topic refills the well, imbuing you with the ideas needed to fill out another two decades of productive writing. The world is impatient. They do not have time to wait for you to reinvent yourself.