Monday, March 12, 2012

Awaken the Genius Within?

Something has been bothering me lately. Let me begin by stressing that I strongly believe that what Jonathan, Tanya, and I (and many others besides) are doing to help scholars get the most out of their academic careers is largely for the good. Also, I can't think of a better way to approach research than as a craft skill that you master by training, and that this training gets you (and especially your prose) into "shape". But every now and then I look at myself in the mirror and see something slightly monstrous. The name of that monster is Tony Robbins.

When I was younger and more romantic about my philosophical pursuits, my distaste for self-help and motivational speaking was boundless. To this day, I cringe when I watch those videos, widely available on YouTube, that tell you how you can transform yourself for the better, change your life, etc. Recently, however, I've had to admit to myself that what I am suggesting looks very similar. Robbins, for example, will emphasize that you can't just decide to change, you have to give yourself some "rituals". You have to train your habits, of body and of mind, and the goal has to be a change of "physiological state". You also have to master the ability to "focus". (I'm no expert on this stuff, but I think I'm getting that roughly right.) I've cobbled a version of this advice together for myself, cultivating a strict regimen of mental and physical exercise (reading, writing, jogging, swimming). I used to think I'd write books of philosophy and poetry, and have begun to accept that I'll be penning writing manuals and self-improvement books instead (perhaps even under the same titles).

Some of my friends don't think that's so bad. And my problems with the aesthetics of motivational speaking are not an argument against their efficacy. Readers of this blog know I've had similar worries about whether RSL is a cult, or some kind of therapy like NLP. In that connection I did also admit that I wouldn't mind becoming the Barry Michels of academia. But would I want to become its Tony Robbins?

I'll tell you why I don't want to. I think that Robbins, quite understandably, speaks to the ambition of his audiences. People want to be more successful in an ordinary kind of way; they'd like a bigger house, a better car, a beautiful spouse, a lot of money. They'd like to "take control of their lives". And so Robbins' message has a certain legitimacy in a business context and perhaps also public life more generally. But a university should be a place where people who are less ambitious than curious can also succeed. As David Letterman quips, "There is no off position on the genius switch." By extension, it's also not something you just turn on. There's something not quite right about the idea of "awakening" some inner genius, training it. You can't serve the spirit, I sometimes think, by working hard at it.

T.S. Eliot was on to something when he talked about "the necessary receptivity and necessary laziness" of the poet. So perhaps this is just a call for moderation. You can't will academic success because there is a component of real insight that can't simply be shaped. To resort to a cliché, you have to keep your mind open. Keep your life orderly. But don't be wholly goal-oriented.

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