Too Smart For Own Good

Near the very end of Claire Cain Miller’s New York Times story, “When Wives Earn More than Husbands, Neither Partner Likes to Admit It”, there’s a powerful illustration of why academic writing often sucks.

Consider two of the last few sentences. First Cain Miller’s clear, specific, easily comprehensible one:

“. . . . Women who outearned their husbands were more likely to seek jobs beneath their potential, they found, and to do significantly more housework and child care than their husbands — perhaps to make their husbands feel less threatened.”

Immediately followed by Marianne Bertrand’s, a University of Chicago Business professor, attempting to communicate the exact same idea:

“‘When the gender norm is violated, there is some compensating behavior to try to undo some of the utility loss experienced by the husband.”

That contrast is the problem of academic writing in a nutshell.

Bertrand’s use of more sophisticated vocabulary, “gender norm is violated”, “compensating behavior”, and “utility loss” muddies more than it illuminate’s Cain Miller’s previous point. It would be nice if doctoral economics programs, no make that doctoral programs of all sorts, required a class in journalism.

Academics would be well advised to follow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s advice to her writing students.

“She tells them to avoid inflated language—’never purchase when you can buy.'”

Amen to that.

On Professional Success

For some reason, chauffeuring my daughters to the airport inspires very good conversations.

Recently, I mostly listened as Eldest talked about her work at a humanities library in Chicago. I’m proud of how well she is doing and how independent she has become on her modest salary. Even cooler is her emerging self confidence and ambition to take on more responsibilities to continue learning and growing.

She’s feeling more ambitious than ever before, not for status and money, but for influence at another non-profit or in a political campaign. To make the world a better place.

I emphasized knowing people who are known and liked by the hiring decision makers since that type of recommendation is often a tie-breaker. It has dawned on me though, while using the first few weeks of my sabbatical catching up on The New Yorker, that when it comes to professional success, there’s something much more fundamental than that.

A powerful template for professional success is found in these profiles of two of the more successful writers working today, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and  Otessa Moshfegh. In a few words, singleminded sacrifice, otherworldly discipline, a clear sense of life purpose.

Check this interview with Moshfegh. Specifically, 1 minute in.

Favourite holiday. . . “I don’t know if I’ve ever been on holiday.” If you didn’t write. . . “Trying to be a writer”.

Ngozi Adichie is married and has a daughter. Moshfegh is engaged. But they’re writers first, then partners, mothers, whatever else. If their marriages endure, their partners understand that and are okay with it. Both writers isolate themselves for extended periods and willingly make lots of other sacrifices for their art. Their sense of life purpose precludes any concern for “work-life balance”. Work is life.

Both are naturally talented, but at least equally important, they outwork all the other writers seeking their prestigious awards and book sales.

So when you dream about a challenging, consequential, and rewarding professional life, the best question isn’t who do you know, it’s what are you willing to sacrifice?

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Both daughters looking pretty self-condifent