I recently got to speak with one of America’s most beloved writers, Adam Gopnik. Adam is best known as a staff writer for The New Yorker, and is the author of nearly a dozen books, including his latest, "The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery". In the book, he apprentices himself to an artist, a dancer, a boxer, and even a driving instructor, where he finds that mastering a skill is a process of methodically breaking down and building up, piece by piece—and that true mastery, in any field, requires mastering other people’s minds. In our conversation, we discussed the pursuit of mastery and the learning process and how it pertains to higher education, both from the student perspective as well as from faculty and administration.
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Summary of the Conversation
Adam Gopnik's new book is a collection of stories about his experiences learning new skills over 15 years. Learning involves breaking down complex tasks into smaller, counterintuitive parts and practicing them until they become second nature. This is true for everything from drawing, where learners are taught to estimate the placement of lines and shapes, to boxing, where learners practice a set sequence of punches until it becomes automatic. This process leads to a state of flow and happiness, and is applicable to learning any new skill.
Mastery enriches and empowers our lives, even if we may never become champions in that particular field. Breaking down mastery into small tasks is a known concept, but not always put into practice in education. In education, the focus tends to be on achievement rather than accomplishment. Gopnik believes education should focus on inner-directed accomplishments that compel us to learn, rather than just going through achievement gates. The impulse to learn is mysterious, and teachers can help us get better at those things. Accomplishments like learning to play an instrument, sewing clothes, or performing card magic can be foundational experiences that lead to a meaningful life. The distinction between accomplishment and achievement is important in designing curriculum and activities.
Gopnik, who never intended to become an apostle for late-in-life learning, found that pursuing new interests has made him grow enormously. He believes that having a secondary passion that fuels one's primary passion is important and that universities should effectively communicate the value of fostering intellectual growth, even if it doesn't have a direct return on investment. Gopnik believes that universities should promote the open and pluralistic pursuit of meaning, rather than just being the equivalent of a trade school. To inspire others, educators should embody good habits around lifelong learning and build a sense of path or purpose to what students are most passionate about.
Great teachers have an incredibly high standard that they won't compromise on, but they have infinitely great patience in assisting and supporting students if they're prepared to try and reach that standard. Great teachers can also help us find our voice and feel confident in our abilities, whether it's in singing or writing. While we may not all become masters, pursuing greatness is a worthwhile activity that gives our lives meaning.
Ian Evenstar: So your book “The Real Work”, actually contains a set of stories of the efforts that you undertake in terms of learning new skills and how you develop a set of ideas about learning. So tell us here at the forefront, what inspired you to write a book of this nature?
Adam Gopnik: Well, first of all, just to be clear, it wasn't a kind of high-concept book where I thought I'd go apprentice myself to a lot of distinguished masters and I pitched it to the publisher, what if I did this? These were all things that happened quite organically in the course of about 15 years. So at no point was I saying, now what's next? What's the next checkmark? I got fascinated just by chance as I described in the book with the art of drawing because I happened to sit next to a drawing master at a dinner party once and impulsively, like so many of the best things in life, I said to him, would you teach me to draw? And it was a kind of compensatory activity because I'd spent 40 years of my life as an art critic and couldn't draw a thing. Then I had to learn to drive because I wanted to relieve my wife. In summertime when we go off to the ocean she was the one who had to be rousted out of bed to go get cinnamon buns for the kids. I could go on my bike, but it took an hour and a half for me to get the cinnamon buns and bring them back.
And so I had to learn to drive and my son was just turning 20, wanted to learn to drive, and I thought this was the time to do it. And I was in my mid-fifties before I learned to drive. So all of these things happened quite organically. I wanted to learn to box, get in better shape, and so on. But I realized as I was writing these things and in the nature of my work, turning them into comic essays for The New Yorker, where I've been for so long, I realized that they had a common shape and a common purpose, and even a common point.
And that was exactly as you said, that there's a beautiful commonality between instruction and learning. We learn pretty much everything by breaking it down into its smallest and usually very awkward, counterintuitive parts, if you like, and then slowly and painfully, but through passionate perseverance, bringing them together until they form what seems to us a seamless whole. And that's true about drawing, and it's true about boxing.
When you're learning to draw, you're not told by your drawing master, in my case, a wonderful representational artist named Jacob Collins. You're not told, look at the world, look at it, and draw what you see without prejudice. When you see it's an undoable task. It's an inexplicable instruction. Instead, you're taught a series of little subschemas, and routines. You look at and you say, where on Ian’s face does the smile line on the right side of his face fall? Does it fall at three o’clock? By learning to make those very minute estimations of where lines fall, you begin to break the symbol set that resides inside all of our heads and tell us what's there, even though it's not what we see. That's how you learn to draw when there's a hundred little stunts like that and you begin to put them together and you move underhand instead of stabbing at the paper like Lady Macbeth, as I did when I began, and something over time, over a year in this case, resembling a representation of the world begins to emerge under your hands.
But the same thing is true of boxing. You know, what you're taught in boxing is not to unleash your belligerence. Just as you're not taught in drawing to observe the world. You're taught a very routinized set of blows of punches that you have to throw. You know, jab, jab, cross slip, uppercut. Now you've seen real boxers, professional boxers throw that sequence a million times. Every time a boxer starts, they start with a jab. You never stop to think about it. At least I never had. But you learn that sequence, which is awkward.
Again, a little counterintuitive, and you keep doing it over and over in front of the mirror with your coach or with another boxer until it slips inside you and you begin to do it without thinking about it. You get to reach that state, which some psychologists call the flow. And I think it was just a form of happiness. And so the continuity of that truth about how we learn things was one that I thought was worth emphasizing. Now, in a sense, everybody knows that already. Anybody who who studies learning knows that and anybody who learns knows that it's equally true of learning the guitar or dancing. But I thought it was worth pointing out the universality of that truth.
What's so interesting is all the different ways in which we instantiate that truth in our activity, and also because I think there's something profoundly cheering about absorbing that truth because what it tells us is that some level of mastery is available to all of us, that if we fall in love with some activity. I love boxing and I am the world's most inept boxer, and I'm never gonna have a prize fight unless they find another five-foot-five Jewish intellectual who's on the opposite side ideologically. But I love it. I love it with a passion and I will never be good at it in the external sense, but I am much better at it than I ever was before. And that feeling of getting better at it fuels, enriches, enlarges, and empowers, to use a cheap but effective word. It empowers everything else that I struggle to do in life. It enriches it, it recharges it, it re-energizes it. And I wanted to take that little gospel, that good news out to people and tell them that even if it's too late for us to become middleweight or lightweight champions, we can take enormous pleasure at any moment in life in learning to do new things.
IE: There's a lot in that answer that we can start to unpack a little bit. Thank you for giving us not only the kind of backstory about how these things happened organically. But then the observations that you've been able to make in terms of the common shape and the common purpose behind learning and pursuit of mastery.
I love the fact that you say that pursuit of mastery enriches life. And I believe this is a similar premise from Victor Frankl's work, right? You have to have some larger project, something that is actually driving your learning and driving that pursuit. Because ultimately that's how we derive meaning and purpose out of life.
And then the other thing that struck me is you mentioned that this is somewhat known, all people already know this, that you need to break down mastery into small tasks, subschemas. I love that phrasing. So if we already know this, and maybe it's already evident in higher ed, is there still a way that we can infuse it? This common shape and this common purpose behind learning in higher education? Like is there a place where we can still do a better job of this pursuit of mastery as you've described it?
AG: Yes, absolutely. I believe that passionately, as you may know, I come from an academic family. My mother was a leading linguist. My father was a dean of students at McGill University for many decades. I have four sisters all academics. A brother who's a kind of academic, as is Phil, but he's a biographer rather than a professor. So I know I'm married to the mob, so to speak, or maybe I was the one guy who got out of the mob, outta the fully owned family, and went legit.
And so one of the truths I think, and something I've written about is that our educational system, even though we know this, even though if you talk to any intelligent able psychologist, they will tell you, Yeah, that's how we learn, right? Or any inspired teacher.
And I hope this book makes it entertaining. It's filled with irascible impossible teachers, in the sense in Greek mythology, the difficult mythological animal is the one you can learn from, not the amenable one. But I think we know it, but we don't always put it into practice. We don't put it into practice at all. As I've written and said, we tend to be achievement-directed in education and as a society as a whole, as we want you to get the better grade, we want you to get to the next advanced class above all in our benighted society, we want you to get into the elite university. Let's put a million quotation marks around all that. But we do want you to, as an ambitious kid, go through a series of achievement gates like a rat running through a maze. But my sense from my own experience is that what really matters in our education is accomplishment.
And by accomplishment I mean all of the things that are in a sense, inner-directed, that are things that compel us to learn. Not because someone is making us learn, but because we want to desperately. Now, we may often, in fact, almost invariably turn to a teacher who can help us get better at those things, but the impulse is mysterious and inner.
I used the example when I was 12 years old without any evident musical talent at all. I locked myself in my room, like a generation of 12-year-olds. I might add, hardly original. And learned Beatles chords with a big book of Beatles songs, and I strained to learn a C chord a D chord, and a G chord. Nobody taught me, I wanted to be a Beatle. I wanted to play that music. Now, as you may have noted, I am not a professional guitarist 50-plus years later, but that experience of having something extremely resistant and difficult that I, in some appropriate sense, mastered, is the foundation on which I've been able to build my life and get good at things that I am good at, like writing. And I think everybody who has any kind of contact with happiness or meaning, to use Viktor Frankl's essential word, that's what we're trying to do. Construct means we're trying to make a living, we're trying to provide for our families, but if we have an inner purpose, it's to live meaningfully. Anyone who does that will relay an experience of that kind.
My wife's experience was when she was the same age, instead of picking up a guitar, she wanted to learn to sew her own clothes. She loves fashion and she couldn't afford to go out and shop for things, so she sewed them for herself. Same process, right? All these weird little shapes that you have to cut the fabric into and laboriously with a sewing machine, you put them together into the dress you long to wear. She's not a seamstress and she's not a fashion designer, she's a filmmaker. But that was her foundational experience of accomplishment, and I think almost everybody has that. My son, whom I write about in the book, Luke, became obsessed with at exactly that same crucial adolescent age with card magic. He wanted to leave school and go become a lounge magician, and study with the lounge magicians in Las Vegas. It's one of the places where the book begins. He didn't become a lounge magician. He's a philosopher. He's getting his Ph.D. in philosophy, but the hard resistant, rewarding art of card magic is the foundation on which everything else he's done.
So I believe that accomplishment and pursuing accomplishment is a better model for education than pursuing achievement. And in a certain sense, it doesn't matter what it is that you learn to do. I had a great teacher at McGill University where I went, who sadly died just a couple of months ago named Albert Bregman, a great cognitive psychologist. And I was struggling as you can only do when you're 21 years old and you have to choose your major and it seems like the most important thing in the world. And I was struggling between psychology and art history. And he said very calmly, is this a difficult decision for you? And I said, yeah, really difficult. He said, then it's not important. He said all difficult decisions are unimportant because if they're difficult, it means that there's a lot to be said on both sides. There's something rewarding about both and it doesn't matter which one you choose. Each one will be rewarding in a different way.
He said if you were struggling between art history and dentistry, that wouldn't be a difficult decision for you. You'd know which one you'd wanna do. I always thought that was very profound advice because what he was saying was not only that psychology was interesting and art history are interesting, which is true, but also that you would learn how to learn by pursuing either one. You would expand your mind, and build your learning skills, and you probably wouldn't end up either as a psychologist or as an art historian, but you would end up learning. You would end up knowing more, and I've always thought that that was profound. And I think that's why we learn, right?
Eventually, we find our way to our vocation. That's part of the experience of life. But we find our way to our vocation, in my experience, in the experience of the world, as I've seen it much more frequently by pursuing the passion that we love in front of us, which eventually becomes the fuel that energizes the vocation that we have.
IE: I love this distinction you've made between accomplishment and achievements. I think that there's a lot there to highlight, footnote, and dig into, especially when it comes to the way that we design our curriculum within class, the way we deliver our lessons, and the types of activities that we do in class versus asynchronously in our homes.
But the notion of pursuing accomplishment versus achievement, I think is a really classy distinction and great advice. It's clear that you have your own overwhelming amount of intellectual curiosity and growth. It's clear you're a lifelong learner. I mean, look at all the new skills that you're, that you're interested in pursuing. Is this a learned trait? Do you think that you've always had this lifelong learning compulsion or is this something that was innate or that you had to learn over time?
AG: It's a terrific question Ian and I'd have to reflect on it. I'm one of those people who was always ineducable in the sense that I never liked school. I always hated school, and I had to teach myself things for them to be really meaningful for, me, like learning guitar and piano and so on. I was blessed, like everybody, nobody can truly sort out what's genetic and what's environmental or in nature or nurture. I was blessed to have a wonderful upbringing with five brothers and sisters, all of whom were curious. A mother and father who had the flaws that we all have as parents, I have with my own, but who had inestimable gifts and above all the gift of opening up the world to us on even terms, you know, going to museums not as a chore or to be lectured, but as a part of life going to Shakespeare when I was little, taught us that those things were sources of delight. Not sources of instruction, but sources of fountains of pleasure, not of purpose. And I'm profoundly grateful to them and I'm sure that my own taste for the next thing is fueled by their teaching.
It's funny because when I began this book, I never intended to become an apostle for late-in-life learning, which is a whole thing, right? But I'm not apologizing for having found in the course of presenting this book to the world, that that was one of the frequencies that it vibrated on. Because I think it's true. I think that as we get older we're lucky enough to be healthy and to have the chance to do it.
We grow enormously by doing the next new thing. And even though I love the thing I do, writing passionately, I like doing it more now than I did when I was 25. I like doing it more now than I was 55. I have no impediments to pursuing my own vacation. And I know that it's the thing I do well. It's what I'm here to do.
But I find that the other secondary passions are as important. You know, this isn't in the book, but it's something that came to my mind the other day. I know I shouldn't talk about things that aren't in the book, so I apologize to my publisher. That's not how you sell a book by talking about things that aren't in the book. But in France, there’s a phrase you say viol Ingres, which means literally the violin of Ingres, Ingres being the great neoclassical painter of the 19th century. And Ingres loved to play the violin. He wasn't terribly good at it. He wasn't bad at it, but he was not remotely as good at the violin as he was at drawing and painting, which he was matchless, but he was immensely proud of his violin. He insisted that it be at the museum that he bequeathed all his work he played it whenever he had the chance.
And it became a proverbial expression, right? The secondary passion that fuels your primary passion is the violin.
And I think there's something very profound about that, and I know very few accomplished people in my sense, who don't have their own violin, who don't have a secondary passion that fuels their primary passion. Mine is music, guitar, and piano, and doing those things. I channel that somewhat in my vocation as a songwriter, but I don't write the music, I write the words because that's what I'm good at.
But I think that's an incredibly rich thing and I think that we tend to condescend to later in life learning, even if we officially approve of it. I was at a play the other day where it was sort of an expose that one of the characters in the play wasn't actually a tenured professor but was doing continuing learning, he was in that program and the response was, Oh what a phony. And it infuriated me because that's exactly the person who is playing the most creative role in helping people. As I say, we tend to condescend to people who are pursuing a new hobby like it's a time filler. But I just think that an older person who's doing yoga or learning to write short stories or all of those things may never be an expert at it, but they will achieve a level of mastery at it.
And it is the sense of the flow, the return of happiness, and what is happiness after all, it's simply our capacity to be absorbed in something outside ourselves, in a meaningful system outside ourselves. Think about all the moments you've genuinely been happy, including erotic moments, right? And it comes exactly from losing yourself in another, in something outside yourself. That's what happiness is for human beings, and you can re-access that kind of happiness by pursuing new kinds of mastery at any moment in your life.
IE: So one of the big critiques on higher ed, or at least a lot of pressure on higher ed to show career outcomes, to show the return on investment. So we hover around this topic and this idea quite a bit on this show is, how do you communicate the value of something that maybe doesn't have a direct return on investment, or that return appears in a multitude of different ways? And you're obviously an advocate for the importance of intellectual curiosity, and lifelong learning. So how do you feel higher ed, a university can effectively communicate the value of fostering intellectual growth?
AG: I think about it all the time because as I say, I come from a family of academics. I make a major part of my living by going from college to college, university to university, doing convocation. I went out to Stanford to speak up on behalf of the humanities to the STEM students to tell them there's real value in studying art history and English. I got those kinds of steady, opaque looks, from the kids. But I spend a lot of time doing that. And we can make a lot of points historically, the sciences usually to a surprising degree, get their inspiration, get their spark from the arts. That's not a fantasy or a Pollyanna-ish myth, it's true. You know, the story I always like to tell is Galileo's father was a theorist of tuning of loot tunings and Galileo's taste for the empirical and the practical for putting aside speculation in favor of empirical observation came directly from his father's intense involvement with the specifics of loot playing and also with the idea that there were better ways of loot tuning that weren't part of the inherited tradition.
That's a small, but I think significant story about how the arts feed the sciences, we could replicate those stories endlessly. I wrote a book about Charles Darwin, who's one of my great intellectual heroes, and one of the points I was making was that it was Darwin's skills as a kind of natural novelist. Darwin loved novels. The reason that On the Origin of Species is such a matchless powerful book is because Darwin was such a matchless powerful writer. He knew how to organize his observations, not in an academic dry, or obscure way, but as a popular book. You know, people forget that On the Origin of Species is that there's no technical book by Darwin. And then a popular book by Darwin, the popular book is the technical book. It was published as what we would now call a trade book. If Darwin hadn't been a lover of literature and a maker of literature the history of evolutionary theory would be very, very different. So I believe as a matter of plain fact, that there's an implicit marriage of what we call the humanities of the arts and the sciences.
But beyond that, we come back to exactly Viktor Frankl's question, which is a question of meaning. How do you wanna live your life? There's a beautiful quote from Mary Oliver, the poet, which I use in the book, We only have so many heartbeats and how do you wanna expend your precious and vital heartbeats? It's up to you. I don't wanna put on airs. I really don't. I understand that I sit in a position of good fortune. I like to think to some degree, earned good fortune because I've worked very hard. But that you and I sit and we can contemplate, well, what's the other thing we want to do, and we wanna go out and do this. I understand people experience it differently and I understand that what's driving all those STEM kids is not Philistine indifference to the arts most often, but instead, a sense that they absorb from their parents, they absorb from society that if they're going to make a lot of money, and unfortunately, you have to make a lot of money, so to speak, in our society, to live a recognizably ordinary life, a middle-class life is an expensive life.
Now, there was a time when, when my parents were coming of age when being a university professor allowed you to live a fine middle-class, upper-middle-class life. It's my son who is planning to become a university professor and doesn't have anything like that. The way the world has changed in the past 50 years, and it's a bad way that it's changed. Not that university professors should be overpaid, but someone who chooses the life of the mind should have a reasonable expectation to have an ordinary life. I'm not talking about a hugely elevated life, but not having to, in effect, go into a monastery and hope that your spouse becomes a lawyer.
That's a very bad feature of our increasingly inequitable society. And so I understand what motivates, particularly second-generation immigrants and so on to do that. But you'll be living, leading an impoverished life. And I haven't known anyone in my own personal experience who doesn't testify to that, who doesn't feel that if they narrowly pursue only sciences, economics, whatever, they don't feel that their life is unduly parched. And that's a value judgment, but it's not a value judgment I'm afraid to make. That's what we want to promote, that's what a university should do. A university is not a trade school. It's a place that promotes values. And the most important value it can promote is the open pursuit and pluralistic pursuit of meaning.
IE: I think you struck a chord when you said that the thing that is most at risk is leading an impoverished life. If you don't pursue this intellectual growth and pursue this meaning. Let's turn our focus a little bit to this idea of inspiring others. And you share this story of Galileo's father and how he was inspired through his father's love of music. How might a professor or an educator take a story such as that and kind of em embody that within the classroom? How do we help inspire others? To build good habits around lifelong learning or build a sense of path or purpose to what they're most passionate about? Do you think Galileo's father was intentionally inspiring him? Or do you think it just sort of happened organically and by happenstance? And if so, is there anything to model within the classroom for inspiring students?
AG: I suspect it wasn't by self-conscious intention, but it wasn't by happenstance, it was by practice. I mean, that's how we learn things through practice. One of my many brilliant sisters is my sister Alison, a very well-known psychologist, and she said once, that if we taught kids to play softball the way we teach them to do science they would hate softball as much as they hate science. This means that if we sat them down in the classroom and said that the game of softball is played by swinging a bat at a thrown pitch, you can't play it yet. And the greatest softball players are. There's a debate among softball players about whether you should cut upwards or have a flattened level swing. If you taught it to them that way they'd be as bored as they are too often by science classes. We teach them by sending them out to the softball field where they pick up skills through practice. We have coaches. We hope that they're inspired coaches, but that's how we learn softball. And that's also the healthiest way to learn science or learn art history or anything else. That doesn't make it easy. I mean, and if anything, it raises the degree of difficulty. And as I said, this book is very much a study of teachers. And if learning has something in common, the universal pursuit of breaking it down and building it up. Great teachers all I think have something in common, which is that they have an incredibly high standard that they won't compromise on, but they have infinitely great patience in assisting you and supporting you if you're prepared to try and reach that standard.
I was blessed to have in my own life many wonderful teachers and a single great teacher to whom this book is dedicated to, art historian Kirk Varnedoe, who passed away tragically young 20 years ago this year. One of the reasons I wanted to dedicate the book to him this year, is that I wrote an essay about him in my book Through the Children's Gate, called Last to the Metros. And it was about how he went about coaching kids football and teaching art history in remarkably similar ways. In fact, in exactly the same way, breaking it down into manageable pieces and then building it up. But the motive that he always had was not to instill in you his system. As I wrote once, a guru gives you his system, a teacher gives you yourself, that was his goal always was to liberate you to find out what it is that you could do as an art historian, as a football player, that that's what a great teacher does. And I think that that's vital to the pursuit of it. I don't mean to sound impractical. I make my living by writing and I work extremely hard. I write six hours a day, seven days a week. Industry is everything and we should never belittle it.
What Kirk Varnedoe taught me is that industry is joy. If you're doing something that's meaningful to you, then working on it for six hours isn’t enough time in the day to be doing it. We live in a society in which too few people get to do the things that they passionately love. And too many people are alienated from their work. And it's one of the damning and difficult things about modernity. But those of us who have the opportunity to do meaningful work should be spreading the gospel of meaningful work. That's what counts ultimately. And it's something I think that every psychologist, every study will tell you that what counts finally in life, is our access to the experience of happiness, which exists in our capacity to become absorbed in something outside ourselves.
And anytime people even in social psychology, ask people what, when they look back on life, what made them happy, isn't the things they owned and it isn't the money that they earned. It was a vital experience that they had. That's not a fantasy, that's a fact.
IE: I think you make another great distinction there. When you mentioned the differences between a teacher and a guru, a teacher being someone who helps the other person find themselves, it can be a real transformative experience when you have a teacher like that who can bring out not only the best in you but also help you find your way. Any advice or through your research and your own experiences, any notes on how a teacher might help their students find themselves?
AG: I think the key thing and a great teacher, is to be limitlessly encouraging and not at all delusional. I have a wonderful boxing teacher named Joey Entrata, who I've been studying with for boxing, or what we call stupidly kickboxing. And he took me on in my sixties as a student. And Joey is the most encouraging of teachers, the most demanding, constantly saying, I need you to get back your guard. Back up. I need you to balance. I need you to open up your cross. But he never participates in the delusion that I'm ever going to be a good boxer. That's not what we're trying for.
But he always makes me feel I'm a better boxer this week than I was a week ago, and much better than I was six months ago. And has given me a part of myself that I wouldn't have known was there. That is someone who was actually capable of performing in a coordinated and choreographed way, acting out the ballet of belligerence that is boxing.
And that enriches the way I stand up straight in the world and the way I feel when I walk down the street. That's what a great teacher does, gives us that very specific and practical sense. Great singing teachers do the same thing. We all may never be singers, but feeling confident in your own voice in every sense is vital.
I am not a good writing teacher because I'm too impatient when it comes to my own art form. But good writing teachers do that too. They make the students search for his or her voice. And though again, your voice when you discover it may never be Alice Monroe's voice, it may never be that caliber. It is your voice and there's something that will be a meaningful place for you in the world of words if you pursue it adequately. I know from endless experience of encouraging people to make the commitment. So I really do believe that we can all have that experience.
It's not something that I think is delusional, right? We can't all be masters at things, you know, we can't.
I used to have a friend, a famous director who said if I were running a school, the first thing I'd do was take the kids to a room of Rembrandts at the Metropolitan Museum and tell them, you will never do anything this good in your life. And he meant it, not as discouragement, but exactly as saying value, cherish the highest possible standard that you can. Exactly because it gives your life meaning to know that greatness is possible and we're all gonna pursue it, and we may not get there. You want someone who's gonna tell you, not that you are on top of Everest when you're not, but that scaling Everest is a worthwhile activity. Scaling Everest may not be a worthwhile activity at this point in history, but metaphorically scaling Everest is. I recognize as we talk, many of the truths that I have to tell you are we hold these truths to be self-evident. That's one of the most powerful sentences in English because that was what Franklin and Adams were saying. These things are self-evident. We shouldn’t have to argue about them. And similarly, the things I'm saying ought to be self-evident. We don't have to argue about them. What we have to do is instantiate them in our instruction.
IE: That's all really well said. Do you see part of the mystery of mastery, this balance between skills and the development of skills and the intellectual curiosity or the passion to learn more about these skills, right? Is it purely skills-based, or is there this balance of both intellectual curiosity about the performance or the activity as well as focusing on the skills development?
AG: Obviously the two things are deeply entangled and interlocked. I do think that there are signs, and as I said, I don't set myself up for a moment as an expert on the psychology of education. I'm a quixotic essay as to who pursues learning. But so many people have come to hear me speak in the time I've been out with this book, and I am truly the Willy Loman of American Literature. I've been to 25 cities with my little satchel pushing my books. So many people who've come to hear me speak, come up and say that they're engaged in mastery learning, skills, learning, right? Trying to redo curriculums for kids, especially so that they're focused on mastering things rather than learning to the test. I recognize that's very difficult. I recognize in the end that if I were a better person than I am, I'd shut my mouth and go teach elementary school in an underprivileged environment.
And I recognize the people who have made that saintly decision to go teach underprivileged kids in an environment that has a much higher and steeper path than the one I'm describing. But I don't think it's a different path. I think it's the same path of imbuing in kids, a love of confidence in their own capacity for accomplishment, their own capacity for mastery.
Every teacher I've spoken to nods enthusiastically at that thought, I'm talking now about elementary school teachers for the most part, and they all regard it with great regret that if you're in a public school, you have to teach to the test or even in, I hate the word privileged and never use it, but even in the highly fortunate progressive and independent schools, that I've known, they hate the way in which the kids are being funneled towards college. I remember one of the smartest teachers my kids had saying, I just wish I could shake these parents and tell them, there is no bad outcome for any of these kids. Forget Ivy League schools. Forget all that. There is one of them, as you know, I'm sure, and it's one of the things that those of us who grew up in the university know there's such an abundance of gifted PhDs in the world. Now, an overabundance in some ways.
One of the themes of the book is that mastery in modern times is much more widely disseminated, and much more widely available than we quite know. It's a digression, but I tell the story of the great chess playing and the automaton that worked exactly on that principle. Everybody thought you could never find a genius chess player to put inside this machine. And the guy who invented it, the magician who invented it in the 18th century said, yeah, there are genius chess players in every chess cafe in Europe who need work. In the same way, there are genius PhDs coming out of every university now, some of them work at Yale and some of them work at North Dakota State and they're about equal in terms of energy and and intelligence.
So it doesn't matter where you send your kid to college, they'll be exposed to only one great teacher, and they're just as likely to get it at some school without a spectacular heritage as they are at some school that does. So, all those teachers I admired said if only we could shake the parents out of this focus and get them thinking about having their kids live fulfilling lives.
IE: It's so true too. When I think back and reflect on my educational experience, both going through high school and then into post-grad work, there's always that one great teacher, the one transformative person who really stands out and was really that gateway to the next path.
AG: I was blessed to have one great teacher, Kirk Varnedoe, and many wonderful teachers, one great one in Varnedoe. But my dad came from a simple background. Nobody in his family had ever graduated high school, much less gone to college. And he had a college advisor who said to him, You know, you're a smart kid you should think of going to university. And in those days he recommended Williams, which was out of his experience. But those days, the University of Pennsylvania, he was a Philadelphia kid, was available. It was a good local school. If you were a smart high school kid, you could go and you could work your way through it, and that's what my dad did.
My mom, who was much smarter, got a fellowship to Penn from a similarly undereducated, underprivileged immigrant background. But in both cases, there was one great teacher, a math teacher, or a guidance counselor who said, You're capable of doing this right? And those are the people who are heroic and still, we ought to encourage, obviously.
IE: So I'm gonna tee up what I think is maybe one of the more complex or difficult questions here, but there was an article that you wrote, The Information, and how the internet gets inside us. So you examined the impact of the digital age and how our attention spans continue to get smaller and smaller. So my question is based on that experience and the research that you brought to that article, how might a university strike a balance between, not only speaking the language of young people but also catering to short attention spans, while still preserving that deep, thoughtful learning experience that is so akin to the university experience?
AG: Well, it's funny, as an essayist for over 40 years, there are some things people come up to me and say, you know I love that piece you did about the ghost moths in Sweden. I'd say, oh, I'm so glad. What, when did I write about the postal? And I did. But that piece, the one you mentioned, the information is one that's still, like a satellite is still orbiting the earth.
And I'm conscious that people read it and it's strange how that happens. I said that there are three schools of thought. There are the Never betters the ever was and the negative, I forget what I called them. But anyway, the point was that at any moment in the history of technology, somebody is going tell you the toaster will end breakfast for good and no will never be a good breakfast again. Because of the electric toaster, someone else will tell you that breakfast will never be as delicious because of the electric toaster and someone else will tell you there's no difference between the electric toaster and toasting your bread over an open fire.
It's the same thing, only by slightly different means. And that's always been true about the history of technology. I grew up with television. And it's very funny now because television is a benevolent force in the world now, right? You said to your kid, please get off your damn computer and come watch television with the whole family. We watch long-form series from Sweden and Denmark. Television is the family hearth, and it's the laptop and the phone above all that are the atomizing features. But 50 years ago everybody said television was fragmenting our consciousness and making it impossible for us to have a real sense of community or solidarity.
And strange as it is to think, people were saying the same thing about books during the printing revolution, right? That there was something unnatural about being left alone with a printed book. Ann Blair said the same thing about indexes. The index to a book was regarded as a wildly radical fragmenting thing because instead of experiencing the totality of the book, you went to the index and broke it down into these pieces. And that was terrible. So we should all try and resist the melodrama of thinking that there's been some fundamental fracturing of our consciousness by our phones, right?
At the same time, and you knew there was an at the same time coming here, we all recognized that that digital technology has changed things more than any other force in our lives. Our art in the 1980s and now, and popular art is very similar, but the way we experience it is, is totally unlike. Some things are certainly true even though, even if you're an ever-wasser, as I tend to believe that there’s far more continuity in that. We all overreact to technological change and expertise has largely vanished in education, right?
If you're trying to teach the difference between a eulogy and an elegy, the kids in the back of the class are already checking in. And I have this experience with my daughter who's 22, who's one of the heroines of this book, we learned to dance together when I'm speculating on something and she's on the other side of the table at the rest of them and she's actually checking for the fact and she's like, no, no dad. That happened in 1922. Fitzgerald published Gatsby in 1924, but Hemingway thought that expertise now is kind of meaningless because we all have ultimate expertise in our pockets. That's not gonna be a meaningful part of education anymore. Somebody who imparts information that's unique that nobody else has, but inspiration isn't. I'm regurgitating some of the thoughts from that piece, which I still think are relevant. When people say that our kids have you know, fractured attention spans. The thing I can't get over is they read these 800, 900-page fantasy novels, which I can barely get through because I find them tedious.
Tolkien started a revolution in consciousness every bit as big as Steve Jobs did, right? Because now every kid absorbs these alternative worlds Dune and Aragon and a million others. Some of them are fantastic, some of them quite tedious. They have no difficulty. Harry Potter, above all. And why didn't that come to my lips immediately? Any kid who can get through Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone does not have a fractured consciousness. That's a demanding book to focus on. So I think that's overdrawn as a concern. As I said, things change, expertise now is not as valuable as it once was.
That's not where you're going to get a lot of juice in education. We all know that English as a field is in decline. My dad was an English professor, so it pains me, I'm a reader and I write some form of English literature, so that pains me. But I don't think it's because books are less interesting or print is less interesting. After all the internet, more than anything else is a reading medium. I mean, the ultimate irony of our age is that my kids communicate everything through sentences, through type that is through texting, right? And to get them to make a phone call is almost impossible. You know, it's the weirdest thing, right?
If you can imagine it would make more sense. The other way around that there were, there was texting was the primary, the old technology. And then someone invented a phone call, but it doesn't work that way at all. You can't get them to make a phone call. They rely on reading. So when people say reading is dead in the age of the vision, it's not dead.
And that's all they do is read and write. Now, they may not read and write at a Dante-like level, but they're reading and writing. And I think that that's part of the truth of it. So in that sense, I'm not at all pessimistic. I think that the general truth about technology is that it, on the whole, tends to be in a steady state and that our fears are always the same, right?
And every generation we say whatever the new technology is, is fracturing our kids' consciousness and whatever the popular entertainment is that is produced by the new technology is ruining their morals. And that can be true about comic books and juvenile delinquency in the 1950s. And it's true about video games and, and psychopathic violence in in the 2020s.
IE: And we'll probably add AI to that list as well.
AG: I just did two pieces recently about AI because like everybody, I'm fascinated by one about literary written AI and one about visual AI. The one about written AI I did for the BBC, but the one about visual AI is for the New Yorker. And I found it really interesting, you know, because the truth is we don't want, we don't need pictures to make points and be original. AI is not good at making points and being original. It's excellent at recreating the atmospherics of something. And that's more interesting I think in visual arts than it is in In in literature or in simple literature like test taking,
IE: Recreating the atmosphere of an original idea, I like that phrase. That's really nice. So resist the melodrama. I like that that note. You also point out the irony of technology leading to more reading and writing. That's a really good key idea there. And then, I don't know if this was a direct quote that I heard or not, but you gave me this beautiful idea and inspiration doesn't have an attention span. So when the learner is truly inspired, attention span is like a time warp, you know, and maybe that's that flow state that we, that we covet so much, but inspiration doesn't have an attention span. I love that.
AG: Exactly the point of this book is that once you're into it, you expand endlessly. I use the metaphor in the book The Hummingbird and the Elephant, which was an alternative title for this book. Because of that old myth that hummingbirds and elephants have the same number of heartbeats in their lifetime. The hummingbird has hers, a billion heartbeats in a hundred days in the elephant in a hundred years, turns out to be true. At North Carolina State University there's a heartbeat program where they count heartbeats of mammals and birds. And the point I use it for, metaphorically poetically, is that the experience of the hummingbird and the elephant are remarkably similar.
They go through the same transformations in life. A hummingbird doesn't know, in some sense that her life is shorter than the elephants. And in the same way as we experience our own passionate pursuit of the accomplishment of mastery of absorption it fills our inner selves as the hummingbird heart hummingbird's, heartbeats fill herself.
And so in this very real sense, it doesn't matter how we're judged in the external world of the elephant unless we want the elephant elephant approval and it can fill us. I'm aware that that can sound like a myth of only or so, but I, if this book has a point, is that it can be so even in the life of a dullard like myself.
IE: That's great. So we have time for one more key idea. I’ve always thought in my professional career, and thinking about the education space as well, that there's a high level of performance. There's a performative aspect to your career. There's a performative aspect to when you take the quote-unquote stage as a student, you know, a first-year student in your college program. There's a performative aspect of every time you enter that Zoom room or enter that in-class moment with your students as an educator, right? There's this moment, and I'm paraphrasing here, but you referenced this moment of performance and how the moment of performance is everything and how we need to be able to focus and perform at our best when it matters most. So can you just tell us more about this idea of performance and how it relates to learning?
AG: There are two senses in which I think it's vital. One is that all our interactions are performative. We're acting ourselves, in some way. I had a wonderful driving teacher, and what he was teaching me to do was to perform for the driving inspector of the woman who was going be in the car with me, watching me drive, and I had to learn to perform for her benefit. And it was one way of learning to drive. And he had a wonderful expression. He said, become the noodle, Adam, become the noodle. He meant you wanna be at ease. Do you wanna be upright and paying attention? Yes, but you want to communicate your ease to the driving inspector that'll impress her much more than whether you can parallel a park or not. You look at home in the car. So there's a powerful element of performance in all the mastery that we undertake. And I think that's very true. At the same time, there's another element of it, which is that we perform for others, right? Even if your audience is tiny, you're engaged with an audience.
Magicians don't do magic with their fingers, they do it with their minds. They do it by empathetic anticipation of what the audience expects and then turning their way against it. When you're learning to box, even if you're not actually yet at the stage of sparring with a partner, you're taught to think always about what the other boxer is doing. Your imaginary opponent is the most important person you'll ever meet because everything you do is in relation to what he might do at that moment. So that imaginary opponent is essential. The same thing is true about dancing, right? You're constantly learning, in this case, not an imaginary opponent, but the actual other, in this case, my own wonderful daughter who’s in your arms and you're moving together.
There's no there's solitary dancing, but if you're learning ballroom dancing, what you're learning is to have a conversation with another person. And the conversations we have through actions, dancing with my daughter, a much richer conversation, than talking to my daughter who's a great talker, but that we do all the time. This was something more. So I think that the performative aspect of mastery, not just in the showoff sense, so I can show you, I can do it well, but in the much more internalized sense that we can't learn anything in isolation. One of the simpler aphorisms in the book that I think is true is that everything we do involves everything we are.
You don't learn to bake in isolation. You learn to bake with your mother and your relationship with your mother, your father never is, what’s at stake there? And people who are sadly on the spectrum tend to focus on the task. And that's why we say that they're on the spectrum because they don't understand that the actual task encompasses, involves, and engages other minds.
I tell the story in the book of a wonderful audio engineer whom I shared a stage with once for The Moth, who was a brilliant audio engineer but was someplace on the spectrum and didn't understand that music had emotional content. And as he improved, got better, made more synaptic connections, both by artificial means and by so to speak natural ones. He became aware of the emotional power of music and he had to stop doing engineering because it was so overwhelming for him. That's what music is. It's about the emotional power of its connectivity. It's not about the mathematical precision of its engineering. So yes, in all of those ways.
You perform the role of the teacher as you perform anything else, and it's a crucial part of it. The great teachers we admire most, they're great performers in that sense, whether it's Richard Feynman or Kirk Varnedoe or Carl Sagan. And that's vital to it. And I think in all those ways, performing mastery, is this a vital part of achieving it, or I should say accomplishing it?
IE: Wonderful. Adam, thank you so much. What a great collection of ideas and really, really stimulating discussion. I encourage everyone who's listening or watching to go out, and pick up a copy of “The Real Work: On the Mystery of Mastery.” You're gonna hear a lot of these key ideas echoed again, as well as others. Any final thoughts or kind of parting words?
AG: Parting words, it's very interesting, you write a book, and then the book writes you. I wrote this book out of my passions and my experience. It's essentially, I saw it as a comedy, a series of comic essays, and yeah, I've been out sharing the book with people and they're teaching me what the book contains. And that's in some ways a humbling experience. As I said, I didn't set out to become an apostle of later in-life learning, but I'm proud that's one of the ways that the book is being read and understood. And I think that the degree to which all of us when we take those leaps, I tell the story in the book of catching the bullet quickly. My son went to work as part of his magic obsession with David Blaine the great magician, stuntman, and performer of every kind. And David was working on the bullet catch. That's the thing where you literally catch a bullet in your mouth. Someone fires a rifle, you have a titanium cup in your mouth, and you catch the bullet. Usually, it's done as a gaff. It's a trick. Doesn't actually happen. But back in the day in vaudeville, they did it really. And a lot of magicians got killed and David wanted to do it correctly. And so Luke came home and I said, well, how's David gonna do it? And Luke said, well, it's a very strong cup and it's a small caliber bullet and it's a laser-guided rifle. And I said, oh, so there's no trick to the bullet catch. And Luke said, oh yes Dad, there's a trick to the bullet catch. And I said, well, Luke wants the trick to the bullet catch. And he said, Dad, the trick to the bullet catch is catching the bullet. And I thought that was the most profound piece of wisdom I knew. The trick to the bullet catch is catching the bullet. The trick to everything we do is that moment when we finally face an audience's reality. Rolling the stone up. They help publish the book and deal with all of the surprising reactions that, that ensue. And you hope that the bullet ends up safe in the steel cup in your mouth.
IE: The trick to pursuing mastery is to pursue mastery. Thank you again for your time, Adam. It's been an honor and a pleasure to have you on today, and I look forward to reading more of your thought pieces.
AG: Ian, thank you so much.