President elect Trump’s pick for Secretary of Defense. Jim Mattis on important principles about leadership, always improving, and being a voracious reader.
Wonderful advice that economist Steven Levitt received from his dad:
I remember this one time–I must have been like seven or eight years old–my dad took me to Gibby’s Diner. This was in the closest village called Quaker Street. And Quaker Street is just like one stoplight, a general store and the diner. And all my brothers and sisters had at one point worked at Gibby’s Diner either cooking or as a waitress or whatnot. And for my dad to bring me there alone, the two of us to sit at the counter, to this kind of sacred place. It was surreal to be there. And I remember we sat at the counter, and I don’t remember what I got to eat, but I remember my dad got a cup of coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it, which looking back I realized–he could have been a Starbucks imaginer. And I was having whatever I was having, and he introduced me to this game he called Powers of Observation.
And the way Powers of Observation worked was he would say, “All right, Stevie. I just want you to look around and take it in. Just really look around, pay attention, see what you’re looking at, take it in, and get attuned–and listen hard to, OK?” Like I said, I was probably just eight or seven years old, and he said “I’m going to give you five minutes to just take it all in.”
So I sat there and I looked around; and I take it all in. And I don’t really know where he’s going with this. And then after a few minutes, he told me to close my eyes.
He’d say, “OK the waitress, Ann”–you know, we knew her, “Ann–what color is her apron?”
And I said, “White?” And he said, “Ahh, you’re just guessing.” And I said, “White!” And he said, “That’s right, that’s right. OK. The lady behind us, what did she just order?”
“Nope. Chili. OK, how many people have come in since we started playing Powers of Observation?”
And on it went, just like that. And he’d grill me on these facts large and small, any kind of site, smell, sound–anything like that. And the first couple rounds we did this, I was terrible. I couldn’t get anything right at all. I just didn’t have any powers of observation. And then as we kept doing it, I got better. And then about after 20 minutes, I felt that I could take these little snapshots with my mind. And then repeat what I’d seen. My father, that one day, at Gibby’s Diner in Quaker Street, New York, he taught me that memory–or at least observation–is a muscle that you can build. And I’ve been flexing that muscle every day since then. Or at least trying to. So we were a family with practically no money, and without really that much time with each parent, but I will never forget that one day, that incredibly great thing, an incredibly valuable thing, that my father gave me.
The rest is here:
Professor Alan Taylor teaches at the University of Virginia. He has won the Pulitzer prize…twice! Look for a review or interview on his latest book in the months ahead.
Taylor has written a terrific piece on the need for an educated electorate (HT to www.thewayofimprovement.com). I spent some good time marking up and pondering Taylor’s critical assessment and prescription. Here’s a taste:
“Here then was the rub. Visionary leaders insisted that preserving a republic required improving the common people by an increased investment in education. But a republic depended on common voters who lacked schooling and often balked at paying for it, preferring to spend their money on consumer goods. As farmers, they also wanted to keep their children at work on the farm. To justify their preferences, they invoked a populist distrust of the educated. A rustic republican from North Carolina insisted, ‘College learned persons give themselves great airs, are proud, and the fewer of them we have amongst us the better.’ Preferring ‘the plain, simple, honest matter-of-fact republicanism,’ he asked, ‘Who wants Latin and Greek and abstruse mathematics at these times and in a country like this?’ Distrustful of all aristocrats, natural and artificial, he insisted that they should pay to educate themselves, and the poor could make do without book learning; thus, he would vote for candidates who kept taxes low. Common voters in the southern states often did not regard education as essential to preserving their republic.”
From Ryan Holiday (www.ryanholiday.net):
“The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mindset required in the lifelong study of music: ‘Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’ No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.”
If you are following the debate swirling about the trinity, I think it is quite clear that one side has the better of the argument. My brief reflection on this, and by way of extension, all such challenges:
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. He’s been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. Some of the research for this new book was conducted while a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.
This interview revolves around Larsen’s latest book, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith http://www.amazon.com/Slain-God-Anthropologists-Christian-Faith/dp/0199657874
Moore: This is a rather unusual area of study. What led you to write an entire book on it?
Larsen: My whole scholarly life I have been interested in the collision between modern thought and historic, orthodox, Christian beliefs. A lot of these tensions have been explored over and over and over again by scholars: Christianity and Darwinism, Christianity and Marxism, Christianity and Freudian theories, Christianity and modern biblical criticism, and so on and on. When I read the letters and self-reflections of people in the second half of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century, however, what I noticed repeatedly was them mentioning the writings of anthropologists as unsettling to faith. This was a major theme in the primary sources, in the historical record. What had anthropologists discovered or theorized that seemed incompatible with Christian thought? I wondered. When I tried to find a written explanation for this, I instead learned that no scholar had made a sustained attempt to try to map this terrain as of yet, so I decided I would have a go at it myself.
Moore: When does the discipline of anthropology as we think of it today begin?
Larsen: In the second half of the nineteenth century. E. B. Tylor, who is often considered the founder of the discipline, published an early seminal work, Primitive Culture, in 1871, and was appointed to the first university position in anthropology (at the University of Oxford) in 1884. Franz Boaz, who is considered the founder of the discipline in the United States, received his first university appointment in 1899 (at Columbia University). During the World War I era, Bronislaw Malinowski pioneered the expectation of intensive fieldwork.
Moore: You write that Edward Tylor “could not find a way to think anthropologically and as a Christian at the same time.” Why is that? What would you have told him if you had the chance?
Larsen: He was in the grip of a pretty smug, self-flattering, stadial way of thinking – with the three stages of human development being: savages, then barbarians, and then civilized people. He thought because “primitive” peoples were religious this somehow discredited faith as incompatible with being modern and civilized and scientific and so on.
I wish I could have explained to him that there is a lot more continuity in the human condition over time than he ever imagined – that so-called “savage” people were actually quite logical, scientific, and rational in ways he could not see, and that so-called modern people have other needs and thoughts and experiences and insights that do not fit into his procrustean assumptions about what is means to be a rationalistic, scientific, modern person.
Moore: The Christians at the college in Didsbury had a wonderful confidence that made them more than willing to engage skeptics like James George Frazer. How common was that among the Christian population during the late nineteenth century?
Larsen: What a great question!
This is one of the major misconceptions of evangelical and orthodox Christians in the nineteenth century – that they were somehow fearful of modern ideas and rejecting scientific and theoretical advances, that they were hostile and obscurantist. Some of that stereotype is just erroneous secularist propaganda and urban legends that have been transmuted into the public consciousness as “fact”. For example, you can read in major, premier, authoritative venues (a recent book by Yale University Press, for example, and articles in papers of record such as the New York Times) that Christians in the nineteenth century opposed the introduction of anesthetics for women in childbirth because Genesis supposedly dictates that this experience must be painful. Yet this is a completely false urban legend.
I defy anyone to find a single sermon by any minster of any denomination anywhere saying any such thing, let alone an article in a Christian magazine or other publication, let alone an official pronouncement by a denomination. There are many examples of this kind of thing.
Some of this misunderstanding comes from back-dating things that happened in the Fundamentalist movement beginning in the 1920s (which did have anti-intellectual, fearful, and obscurantist elements to it).
Late Victorian Christianity was actually quite open to and welcoming of new knowledge and scientific theories—even ones that were surprising given traditional Christian assumptions—and very confident that faith and science would cohere together in one, integrated worldview.
Moore: Mary Douglas is an utterly fascinating person. She was shrewd in the best sense of that word. Unpack her observation that “Debates which originate in quite mundane issues tend to become religious if they go on long enough.”
Larsen: Yes, yes, I feel like I have been inspired to become a better, braver scholar by reading about her life and work. She was so comfortable in her own skin as a leading intellectual who was also a conservative Christian! That particular quote has been picked up on by several anthropologists since I wrote the book and it haunts me as well.
What she means is that people who imagine that theology can be set aside, marginalized, or ignored in modern academic discussions are actually the ones being intellectually naïve. What intellectuals really care about are issues which go to the heart of the question of the nature of reality, of meaning, of ethics, of values – and these are all debates that are inherently bound up with theological content and reflections. Whenever you discuss anything (“Is it important to recycle plastics?” let’s say, “Or should I buy this new suit of clothes that I want?”), the more you discuss it without coming to a quick conclusion, the two sides of the question inevitably lead you back to a more fundamental value or sense of meaning or conviction or principle or proposition and this is heading you into the territory of religion.
Moore: What has been the response to your book from those within the academic world of anthropology?
Larsen: I am unbelievably, joyfully, relieved to say that it has been received very well. I say this because for at least a couple years while I was researching it I felt like an incompetent interloper, if not a complete fraud. I have never even taken an Anthropology 101 course! I had to learn the whole discipline from scratch just by reading, and reading, and reading. I was quite ready to be rebuked by professional anthropologists for not understanding the key theories in the discipline correctly and just not “getting it”. Instead, the contemporary anthropologists that I most admired, not least the ones who do not self-identify as Christians – including Tanya Luhrmann at Stanford University and Joel Robbins at Cambridge University, as well as the former Director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Jonathan Benthall (in the Times Literary Supplement! – I would count it a triumph to have my work abused in the TLS) – have received it so wonderfully warmly and appreciatively. There was a whole panel on the book at the annual meeting the American Anthropological Association, and I have been invited to speak on it at the major anthropology seminar at Oxford, at the London School of Economics (the very storied seminar that Malinowski founded), at Cambridge, at Northwestern University, and so on. It feels like dumb luck that I wrote this book at a time when the Anthropology of Christianity has suddenly become a hot subfield in the discipline. I am very, very grateful for how anthropologists have welcomed and received my work.
Moore: What kind of non-academic would profit from reading your book?
Larsen: Another surprisingly wonderful question. These things are a matter of taste, so I am willing to accept humbly if others see it differently, but I see myself as a narrative historian who works very hard to have a literary quality in my work akin to an author of fiction. Just like a short story writer uses a lot of details in description to build up a vivid, compelling portrait of an imagined character, so I have tried to do that with these historical characters. In other words, I think the lives I present in the book do work for the ordinary, intellectually curious reader who cares about the human condition and experience as lived up-close and in-detail. Buy it for your grandmother for Christmas!
Nicholas Kristof is a self-described “progressive” who goes where the evidence takes him. With a son who is headed into a lifetime of scholarship, this got my attention:
Cal Newport is the best-selling author of such books as So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for the Work you Love and How to Become a Straight-A Student: the Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less.
Cal teaches computer science at Georgetown University in Washington DC. The following interview is over Newport’s latest book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (http://www.amazon.com/Deep-Work-Focused-Success-Distracted/dp/1455586692/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8).
Moore: Give our readers a feel for the impetus behind writing this book.
Newport: We spend so much time wringing our hands over distraction that we’ve forgotten what’s so valuable about its opposite. If you hone your ability to work deeply, and prioritize this activity, you’ll become much more successful, and your professional life will become more satisfying. This seemed like a message worth sharing.
Moore: You provide some wonderful examples (including your own) of those who have been able to accomplish considerable work-related goals without being stressed workaholics. Why do most of us equate productivity with long hours and significant stress?
Newport: Not all work is created equal. If you spend all day answering emails between jumping on calls and attending meetings, you might feel busy, but you should not feel proud. You did very little that created new value or made you better at your craft. Once you recognize the value that true deep work creates, it becomes easier to treat the shallow alternative with suspicion – a nuance at best, a serious obstacle at worst, in your quest to make an impact on the world.
Moore: A computer scientist can’t be a Luddite, but you find Facebook and Twitter a waste of time. However, you do regularly blog. Personally, I am in the same boat: regular blogging, but no Facebook and Twitter. Preach to the non-choir who think Facebook and Twitter are the best things since sliced bread.
Newport: There’s a difference between being a Luddite and being picky about which technologies you allow to lay claim to your time and attention. There are a lot of technologies I love. But there are also a lot that I think are nonsense. I include most social media in the latter category. These commercial services are cleverly designed to prey on your quest for social approval and craving for lightweight distraction so that your eyeballs and personal data can be harvested then sold to advertisers. I have a hard job and two young kids at home. I want to preserve the small amount of free time that remains in my life for more meaningful pursuits.
Moore: During my time in radio I had the opportunity to interview Neil Postman for the hour. He was insightful in writing about the tradeoffs which come with new technology. Unpack that a bit for us.
Newport: Neil was a gifted and influential media critic. Among the many things he wrote about, an idea of his that stuck with me is the danger of the “technopoly.” In short, he warned that we have a tendency to deify new technologies as being intrinsically good and a prophetic source of wisdom regarding how best to run our governments, companies, and personal lives. I think we’re definitely seeing this play out today. When I say, for example, that Facebook is stupid, even if not everyone agrees with this claim, this really shouldn’t be that controversial—but I find instead that it throws people into a tizzy. This is the mark of a technopoly: dissent is seen as desecration not debate.
Moore: You have to do a lot of “deep work” for your role as college professor and writer. Should the rest of us be concerned about setting up our schedules in such a way that we can also do deep work?
Newport: Yes. Deep work is like a super power for many, many different knowledge work professions. To quote The Economist: “Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy.” There are three reasons to embrace deep work. First, if hone your ability to concentrate, you can produce significantly better output in significantly shorter time. Second, deep work allows you to learn complicated things quickly. And third, it makes your life more meaningful and satisfying. We were created to create things of value—not send emails.
Moore: I found your book a great encouragement for what I am doing right and a further motivation to tweak my schedule so as to allow for increased deep work. Two book projects are propelling me forward! What would you say are a few reasons why people ought to consider buying your book?
Newport: The book has two parts. The first part makes the case for deep work. If you’re on the fence, or if you’re a believer but want more ammunition to convince others, you’ll find what you need in part one. The second part provides detailed practical instructions for how to better cultivate and apply deep work in your own life. So if you’re looking to improve your ability to work deeply, this part will provide exactly what you’re looking for.
A history teacher during my sophomore year of high school introduced me to tricks for how to memorize (commonly called mnemonic devices). He gave us the example of the word HOMES for the five great lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Though I learned that list over forty years ago, and though I don’t have to review it, I can call it up just as easily today.
More on memory can be found in this TED talk:
Seven and a half years of study. No breaks whatsoever. How are we Christians doing?