Category Archives: work

Want to Publish? Build Relationships

55327_girl-writing_lgElizabeth Covart over at Uncommonplace Book graciously posted an article I wrote on networking. Dr. Covart is an early American historian and her blog is really fascinating. She covers issues in early American history, but she also writes on practical matters of interest for teachers and scholars. Uncommonplace Book is listed in my blogroll (“The Yarn”) on the right side of your screen.

Here is a portion of the article:

“How can I get my ideas published in book form?”

This burning question can sometimes animate a young scholar’s mind, body, and soul for months, sometimes years.

For most new Ph.D.s, the dissertation represents the deepest and widest river of writing and scholarship they have ever crossed.

Therefore, the question of how a new Ph.D. can get their dissertation published is not only natural, it is expected.

In my experience, personal and professional connections go a long way toward getting your revised dissertation published.

Just as significant to these connections are the questions that young scholars should ask themselves:

  • Whom do I know?

  • Do people respect my work?

  • Do others like me on a personal level?

  • Am I willing to ask my connections for help?

  • How willing am I to market myself to people who do not know me?

  • Am I willing to adapt my work, within sensible limits, to see it published?

She will be running two more articles from me in the next month or so. Thanks, Liz!

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.

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?

Russ Bush on Work and Accurately Interpreting Scripture

Dr. Bush wrote this blog post on understanding the biblical dignity of work, and by extension, reading and interpreting the Bible in an informed and accurate manner. Bush first makes the strong point that as we read Scripture, we have to be careful to draw the intended meaning from the text and resist the temptation to read into Scripture what we either want to see in it, or what we assume it is saying. We must think carefully about our interpretations, and question our own assertions about what the text means. Second, Bush underscores the dignity of work, but warns that it is possible to go too far here. There are certain things we can do in our work to glorify God. There are also things we can do in our work that is rebellion toward God. Some work is dignified, but in this fallen and cursed world, a great deal of work is base, depraved, and rebellious.

Here is a taste of Bush’s post:

Reading the Bible gives some people many creative insights, and they often end up with some good conclusions, but their exegetical basis is at times weak, and they mislead people about what the Bible actually says and teaches. Creation is not “organizing chaos.” Creation is bringing designed purpose out of simplicity. There was no life, but God created life (a highly organized arrangement of simple substances, not chaos, is a necessary precondition for the chemical and physical base on which life can ride).