Category Archives: persistence

Have You Written Anything Today?

just-write-tshirt-1024x323God be praised, I finished the manuscript for my American exceptionalism book, and it’s now off to IVP for review.

This project has been nothing but fun, and it has taught me many valuable lessons about time management, self-discipline, openness to change, overcoming doubts, and many, many other things. Writing a dissertation or a book is a labor of such intensity–sending the manuscript off to the publisher for review was like seeing my kindergartener off at the bus stop for her first day of school. *Sniff, sniff*

The most important thing I learned from this experience is simple: get to work writing! I first considered writing this book back in the late fall, early spring 2011-2012. I posted some of my first thoughts about the project on the blog here. (It didn’t transfer very nicely from the old Blogger site.) I worked on a paper on American exceptionalism during the summer of 2012 for presentation at Conference on Faith and History, held at Gordon College that year. Honestly, I thought it was a disaster (turns out, because it was a disaster!).  I sat on a panel with two other presenters. When I gave the paper, I received no feedback, no questions, and the paper generated no discussion whatsoever. It was as if the thirty minutes of the presentation was a great void in time. I was totally dejected.

I considered giving up on the project. Maybe I’m the only person that thinks this is interesting, I thought. In fact, one of my fellow panelists suggested in his presentation that exceptionalism was not really a worthy topic of study–right after I gave my paper! I returned home with my tail between my legs, and seriously considered scrapping the whole thing.

But then, after a few days and some decent nights’ sleep, I thought I’d try and put together a book proposal on the topic. After all, I had a lot of good friends encourage me to keep plugging away. I wrote a book proposal, made appointments with six or seven publishers at the 2012 ETS meeting, and hoped for the best. InterVarsity expressed sincere interest in it, and a few months later, offered me a contract.

The journey from the dejection I felt at CFH to the moment the email came from IVP with a contract offer was a lesson in getting to work on the writing project despite suffering a setback. I recently looked over that paper I wrote in the summer of 2012, and yeah, it was true. The paper was not all that good. I hadn’t given the topic sufficient thought at that stage, so my ideas were half-baked and one-dimensional. But the experience forced me back to the drawing board, made me reassess my ideas, and motivated me to get it right.

The point of all this is–if you have a writing project you are turning over in your mind, then stop thinking about it and get to work writing! And if you’ve had some setbacks, then go back to the drawing board and re-engage the topic. It doesn’t matter if what you write is just brainstorming. The important thing is that you put your ideas on paper. You also need to be reading articles and books that are on your topic to help you back your idea into a corner. The turning point article for me was James Ceaser’s “Origins and Character of American Exceptionalism” also found here. I read the article about two weeks after the calamitous CFH panel. Ceaser’s insights rang a bell in my head, and it was as a result of reading his article that my ideas began to take shape and establish coherence–a coherence that was lacking in the paper I gave at the conference.

You should also consider reaching out to authors of books or articles you read and ask them questions about their observations and conclusions. In this day and age, all you have to do is Google someone’s name and you can find their email address. I emailed Ceaser (he teaches political science at UVA), and before I knew it, we were talking on the phone and having an enormously helpful conversation. Not only do you get insights from talking to people directly that you never would have had otherwise, you also build up a network, become an interlocutor in a conversation occurring on your topic, and even get other opportunities to write book reviews, blog posts, and conference papers.

Do you have a blog? If not, why not? Blogging is a great way to get to work writing. In this early post on exceptionalism, I asked for feedback on my topic–I got several good ideas from people who read my blog (more than just my mom!). Do you have a Twitter handle? If not, get one and start following people in your field.

Have you been to the library? Have you put together a core collection of books and articles that can serve as the basis for a bibliography? Have you been to Amazon to see what current books have been written on your topic? Have you been looking for calls for papers from conferences that are dialoguing about your topic?

All these things are important, and you should be doing all of them if you have a topic you want to write a book about. But as you do all of these things: write. Are you discouraged? Then, write. Bogged down? Write. Overwhelmed with the amount of work? Write. Stuck in a rut? Write.

Write. Write. Write.


Failure the Secret of Success

Rejection and failure are a painful part of everyone’s life. Every one of us can relate story after story of experiencing some painful rejection, despite having done all the right things: showing up, working hard, meeting the right people, etc. Success and failure are not necessarily paths going in opposite directions, and failure is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle. Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, reflects on failure and rejection in this article. Adams writes a funny and helpful piece in Saturday’s WSJ on how to make failure the road to success, rather than a brick wall blocking the way.

Here is a taste of Adams’ good word:

Nietzsche famously said, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” It sounds clever, but it’s a loser philosophy. I don’t want my failures to simply make me stronger, which I interpret as making me better able to survive future challenges. (To be fair to Nietzsche, he probably meant the word “stronger” to include anything that makes you more capable. I’d ask him to clarify, but ironically he ran out of things that didn’t kill him.)

Becoming stronger is obviously a good thing, but it’s only barely optimistic. I do want my failures to make me stronger, of course, but I also want to become smarter, more talented, better networked, healthier and more energized. If I find a cow turd on my front steps, I’m not satisfied knowing that I’ll be mentally prepared to find some future cow turd. I want to shovel that turd onto my garden and hope the cow returns every week so I never have to buy fertilizer again. Failure is a resource that can be managed.

Before launching Dilbert, and after, I failed at a long series of day jobs and entrepreneurial adventures. Here are just a few of the worst ones. I include them because successful people generally gloss over their most aromatic failures, and it leaves the impression that they have some magic you don’t.

When you’re done reading this list, you won’t have that delusion about me, and that’s the point. Success is entirely accessible, even if you happen to be a huge screw-up 95% of the time.

Dealing with Rejection in an Academic Career

When I was considering applying to the PhD program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the first professors I spoke with was John Hammett, Professor of Systematic Theology. He asked me what I wanted to do with a PhD (at the time I was interested in studying theology). I told him I wanted to teach.

Mercifully, Dr. Hammett did not start laughing.

When I graduated with my shiny new PhD, I thought my days of experiencing major rejection were behind me. After all, hadn’t I gone through the enormously humbling program of study that is a PhD? Hadn’t my work been scrutinized by all my peers, not to mention my professors? Was it so hard to remember the moments of sheer panic, uncontrolled bawling, and hyperventilating, realizing that my deadlines were coming up quickly despite my being woefully unprepared for their unwelcome arrival? How many times did I feel humiliation equal to that of finding myself standing in a crowded mall wearing nothing but my underwear? Too many.

Since that time, I found that dealing with rejection had not really yet begun. After I graduated, I found out fairly quickly that rejection comes with the territory of an academic career. I learned to say to myself, “Self, get used to rejection.”

How many job applications did I complete, thinking that my qualifications would surely get me at least an interview. How many interviews did I endure (they’re awful, by the way) thinking that surely I presented myself well enough to be hired. How many rejection emails from schools did I receive after going through the tedium of filling out applications, and bugging my professors for one reference letter after another? Too many to count.

How many papers have I submitted for publication that were rejected? For the love of Mike, it takes reviewers forever to get back with you once you’ve submitted a draft for an article. Most of the time, their first response acknowledging your mere existence comes weeks and weeks after you’ve submitted your draft. Then, how many times did the email read something like this–“your submission was obviously carefully researched, well articulated, impeccably argued, but unfortunately…”? Too many times.

How many conferences have I submitted proposals–that again, it takes forever to hear back–and the responses are always the same–“we had so many worthy proposals, and we regret we could not accept them all.”

If mine was so great, then why wasn’t it accepted? They never say.

How many publishers have I set up interviews with, sat for meetings with, made the effort to personally appear before, prepare book proposals for–and the waiting, the endless waiting to hear a response–only to be told, “While your proposal is sure to find a market, at this time it does not fit with our line of titles”?

Again, if it’s so great, then why are you making me cry?

If you want to be an academic, you have to learn how to deal with rejection. You have to find a use for all those rejection emails and letters. You can decorate your bathroom walls with them. But you can also use them to motivate you to press ahead with your ideas.

Sometimes a rejection of a proposed paper, article, or book is well placed. Yours might be a lousy idea. I know that has been true for me. I’m glad that some of my article submissions were rejected, because if they hadn’t been, I would be on record saying some pretty stupid things.

But sometimes, your idea might just need to find the right home. I have found that to be true also–and more so than I ever thought possible.

By the grace of God, and some hard work hitting the pavement and putting myself out there, I got a teaching position. My dissertation was published. Some national conferences have made a place for me behind their podiums. Some journals have found my writing to be persuasive and intelligent enough to include alongside other very good articles. And InterVarsity Press put me under contract for a book on the history and theology of American exceptionalism–my dream topic.

So keep at it. Despite the overwhelming number of articles on the Chronicle of Higher Education website that talk about how depressing the prospects are for ABDs and new PhDs, don’t let that discourage you. Despite the incredible number of rejection emails you’ll necessarily receive–some of them will be unbelievably rude and condescending (this is academia, after all)–keep researching, and keep writing. Despite the number of conferences you’ll have to attend after being rejected by them–maybe by even some of your colleagues–keep proposing paper ideas. Rejection humbles you in a healthy way. Rejection sharpens your thinking. Rejection means that you are doing something rather than nothing, and that’s good!

You’ll find, as I have, that it’s a numbers game. Be like old Abe Lincoln, and learn how to take rejection. Right in the face. Because you really won’t be rejected every single time. For every thirty rejections you get, that one acceptance is all the more sweet. And that sweetness makes it all worthwhile.

Hey, I just got an email. Wonder if my paper was accepted. Gotta go!

Valuing Intellectual Struggle

Alix Spiegel of NPR tackled a fascinating topic today in a piece entitled, Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” She identifies some key differences in the value placed on intellectual struggle among schoolchildren in Eastern and Western cultures. Generally speaking, in the West intellectual struggle is viewed as a weakness, while in the East, it is viewed as a strength.

Here is a taste. You can read the article, or listen to it:

Jin Li is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why these two cultures view struggle so differently, it’s good to step back and examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.

For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children. Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children about school.

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess and the American mother responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown ups?
Child: I know… talk about books.
Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.
Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence in believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

But in many Asian cultures, Li says, academic excellence isn’t linked with intelligence in the same way. “It resides in what they do, but not who they are, what they’re born with,” she says.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly effects your actual behavior.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

This piece seems to bear out what many of us have been saying all along: that learning takes place as a result of grappling with the material. A person does not have to be smart to learn, only willing to work hard enough to overcome every obstacle. Some obstacles require more diligence than others. But taken little by little, many seemingly overwhelming obstacles yield themselves up with perseverance.

It is also interesting to consider the premium we Westerners place on feelings. Notice in the piece that Spiegel identifies Westerners as following where their feelings lead when it comes to intellectual struggle. Struggle often “makes you feel bad,” so many of us give up. But intellectual struggle, as is evidenced by Eastern cultures according to Spiegel, is “an ability,” a skill to master.

The piece identifies the embracing of intellectual struggle as primarily an Eastern value. It certainly is, but it is also found in Western culture. Certainly the Puritans valued intellectual struggle, and that tradition has been a uniquely American trait. The question remains, how can it be recovered in Western culture in a healthy, beneficial, and lasting way?