I recently came across an essay by Tanner Greer about the rise and decline of public intellectuals. Many appear as geniuses for a time, before later becoming a punch line. Why does this happen?
Greer starts with an obvious explanation—genius peaks. As we age, our raw talents decline and we can no longer sustain brilliance. I’d add to this regression to the mean. Chance will allow some the right idea at the right time to make them seem prophetic. But luck fades.
However, toward the end of the essay, Greer offers another explanation. Using Thomas Friedman, the veteran New York Times reporter and author of The World is Flat, as an example, Greer writes:
And this bring my second, sociological explanation into play. There are things that a mind past its optimum can do to optimize what analytic and creative power it still has. But once a great writer has reached the top of their world, they face few incentives to do any of these things.
Consider: Thomas Friedman’s career began as a beat reporter in a war-zone. He spent his time on Lebanese streets talking to real people in the thick of civil war. He was thrown into the deep and forced to swim. The experiences and insights he gained doing so led directly to many of the ideas that would make him famous a decade later.
In what deeps does Friedman now swim?
This suggests an altogether different explanation than simply declining abilities or luck. Creative success is akin to digging a well. There’s much sweat and strain before you can drink a drop. But after, it’s hard to start digging again once the comforts of success start flowing.
Work and Well-Digging
When I first read Greer’s piece, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own life. I’m hardly a public intellectual—just a blogger who likes to doodle. But I see distinct parallels in my own career.
Ten years ago, I was in my peak well-digging years. I embarked on year-long projects with little expectation for a payoff. I was single and childless. My only limit was personal endurance and boldness. Despite not being pursued for money, these projects ended up forming the foundation of my later writing success.
Now I run a business with employees, I have a wife and son. The idea of spending sixty-hours a week on any project, never mind one with uncertain rewards, is a fantasy.
I’ve also grown soft. I’m long from my college days when taking the bus was a splurge (I had a bicycle, after all). I could afford to see my income contract during speculative projects. But I’ve become less daring with a family to support.
Seeing myself mirrored in Greer’s critique, I wonder when my well might run dry (or whether it already has) and what I ought to do to keep digging.
Has the Well Run Dry?
Two objections immediately come to mind. The first is simply that there is more to life than being at the bleeding edge. Maybe Thomas Friedman would be a better journalist if he continued to throw himself into war zones, but his life would likely be worse. There’s nothing inherently wrong from shifting from youthful ambition to middle-aged comfort.
The second is that we can’t actually look backward. Comfort breeds complacency, yes. But it offers resources as well. In my own career, trying to repeat earlier adventures would be a mistake. If I attempted the MIT Challenge now, I’d probably only be able to do it half as well for twice the effort. Rather than digging in the old well, it’s time to find new waters.
None of this, however, avoids the conclusion of Greer’s essay: creative accomplishment requires digging deep. The well you dig may change, but there’s no escaping the effort.
What wells did you have to dig to get where you are now? Which of them have already started running dry? What is the unglamorous activity you’d need to do to dig new ones?