Liz: "Thank you for doing the dishes and bringing home all these library books! This is an embarrassment of riches! [Pause] And...I have you!"
Me: [Beat] "Just an embarrassment."
One thing my professors told me early in graduate school: You absolutely must condition yourself to fail. Constantly. For every small success I had in graduate school, I am certain I had at least a dozen failures: rejected articles, brutal conference reviews, unexpected flaws discovered in something I’d just spent days working on, etc.
These iterative failures are, at a very deep level, the essence of creating new knowledge, and are therefore inseparable from the job. If you can’t imagine going to bed at the end of nearly every day with a nagging feeling that you could have done better, academe is not for you.
The very beginnings of both technologies, however, could be found at an institution that had been Einstein’s academic home since 1933: the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. The institute was the brainchild of its first director, Abraham Flexner. Intended to be a “paradise for scholars” with no students or administrative duties, it allowed its academic stars to fully concentrate on deep thoughts, as far removed as possible from everyday matters and practical applications. It was the embodiment of Flexner’s vision of the “unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge,” which would only show its use over many decades, if at all.
James Baldwin’s FBI file contains 1,884 pages of documents, collected from 1960 until the early 1970s. During that era of illegal surveillance of American writers, the FBI accumulated 276 pages on Richard Wright, 110 pages on Truman Capote, and just nine pages on Henry Miller.
If you could give a piece of advice to a young person starting out, what would you say?
I would provide five bits of advice:
Do not be afraid to want a lot.
Things take a long time; practice patience.
Avoid compulsively making things worse.
Finish what you start.
Often people start out by thinking about all the things that they can’t do. Once you take that path, it’s very hard to get off of it. Shoot high and shoot often.