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How Do You Know You’re Any Good?

Alan Jacobs has a good post up [1] with a lengthy quote from a Matt Crawford interview, about the dignity of work. Alan concludes:

 I wonder if it would be possible for some shrewd social scientist to construct a study that would discover the extent to which people are motivated by recognition from peers, when that’s available, versus recognition from “society as a whole” in the form of a salary. The desire to have one’s abilities confirmed by “those who know” is, I suspect, very powerful.

I think he’s right about that. One challenge I’ve had with the book-writing I’ve done is to stay focused on writing for a broader audience, not just for who I imagine my audience to be (that is, my friends, and their relative narrow circle of interests). Editors have been absolutely critical in helping me do this.

Along those lines, here’s a key quote from Crawford:

Let’s say you’re a carpenter, and you have a problem with your boss. If he doesn’t like the work you’ve done, you can say to him: “It’s plumb, it’s level, and it’s square. Go check it yourself.” But in so many professions we don’t have the ability to appeal to concrete standards like that. So everything’s open to interpretation, and you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you. In that situation I think your dignity becomes “manipulable” by social techniques. Whereas when the work does answer to concrete standards, you have solid ground to stand on in your own self-assessment, and it’s the same ground on which others will assess you.

This speaks to a reason I enjoy cooking so much. When I write something, I never know if it’s any good or not. I’m neurotic about it. I re-read something I’ve written, and all I can see are the flaws. It’s not a matter of humility (would that it were!), but of insecurity. Even if it seems good to me, well, how do I know? I’m self-aware enough to know that my judgment can’t be trusted. I could write “As I Lay Dying,” and I wouldn’t have the sense to know if it was any good.

When I cook, though, I know. I have complete confidence in my judgment there. I know if it’s good, bad, or so-so, and if it’s not good, I can usually tell exactly where I erred. There is the satisfaction of a job well done, and on the occasion when the job hasn’t been well done, I have the ability to regard my errors dispassionately, as an opportunity for learning. I don’t know why I can’t do that with my writing, but I haven’t figured out how to separate it from myself as I can do with my cooking. Anyway, I can’t tell you what a comfort it is to be able to know if you’ve succeeded or not, simply by tasting a thing.

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16 Comments To "How Do You Know You’re Any Good?"

#1 Comment By JoeMerl On November 15, 2012 @ 5:21 pm

“I don’t know why I can’t do that with my writing, but I haven’t figured out how to separate it from myself as I can do with my cooking.”

I imagine it’s an issue of self-definition: writing is (pardon the pun) your bread and butter, while cooking is a hobby, albeit one you find a lot of meaning in. If you were a cook who liked to write in your free time then your feelings would likely be reversed.

Anyway, interesting point about non-objective work; don’t worry about this post, it was thought-provoking. 😉

#2 Comment By Charles Cosimano On November 15, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

It really does seem to be a problem of self-definition. If I like something I write, it’s good. If other people like it fine. If they don’t then it is a failing on their part and in no way detracts from the essential goodness of the work.

#3 Comment By Sherry On November 15, 2012 @ 7:18 pm

I understand 100 percent. I am a terrible judge of my own writing, and I have four “trunk novels” because of that self-consciousness. Fun fact: I’m a guidebook writer/editor and former journalist. You would think I’d grow out of this, but no…

I suspect neuroticism comes with the territory.

#4 Comment By GoldHoarder On November 15, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

This was a part of Admiral Hyman G Rickover’s philosophy for getting the best out of a selected group of enlisted workers to operate the reactors for the US naval fleet. Part of it is having a large well thought out work plan and just enough people to get it done. In that manner if someone is slacking everyone else feels it. You don’t want to let your peers down. Everyone will feel it if you do. There is no hiding. I worked for the navy for 6 years in this capacity and have worked for GM, Kimberly Clark, and Goodyear the last 17 years as an engineer. I haven’t worked it or seen anything like it in the private sector. I would say there are kindly 50 percent of the people doing their best in the private sector. In a typical government job is probably 20 percent to be kind. In the USN nuclear field it is 90 percent. There was never more than one guy slacking per 10 people. It just wasn’t possible. It was a select field though. The navy made you pass tests just to try and get through the schooling. You could be kicked out for emotional problems and lack of discipline. The standards weren’t compromised. You would have lawyers crawling down your neck if you tried that in the private sector.

#5 Comment By Public_Defender On November 15, 2012 @ 8:04 pm

I guess you could call my job competitive writing (at least when it comes to appeals), and that gives us a more accurate measure than most writers have. Most lawyers know which cases are harder to win, and if you win more of those than expected, you are a better writer. We also have the benefit of a much smaller audience–only a tiny number of judges and law clerks matter in most cases.

Another measure we have is how many other lawyers call you for advice. We know which colleagues have useful things to say, and that’s who we call in a pinch.

One measure that is only loosely correlated with quality is client satisfaction. That makes our job different than most. The clients who have, ahem, experience in the system often know what makes a lawyer good. But far too many first-timers (and some of the repeat players) have absolutely no clue what makes a lawyer good. Sometimes I hear that a poor family has scrimped all of its assets to pay an ungodly sum of money to a lawyer we all know is terrible. That’s really sad.

#6 Comment By Sam M On November 15, 2012 @ 8:14 pm

“One challenge I’ve had with the book-writing I’ve done is to stay focused on writing for a broader audience, not just for who I imagine my audience to be (that is, my friends, and their relative narrow circle of interests).”

Is this a good thing or a bad thing, you figure? Not for you, who needs to feed kids. But for… the world? We spend a lot of time here talking about how terrible it is that so many professionals cater to the lowest common denominator in food, music, etc. Would the world have better literature if people did write for narrow audiences?

With regard to YOUR food, I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that you charge for writing, but not for you food. Would you be as confident in your personal taste if a beloved neighbor paid you a few grand to cater for 400 at his kid’s wedding?

#7 Comment By Matt On November 15, 2012 @ 9:40 pm

I was listening to the Aaron Rodger’s show (the weekly radio show of the Green Bay Packer’s quarterback, and current MVP). He’s a cogent, insightful person, not just for an athlete, which might be a low threshold to cross, but for anyone. He’s had his fair share of setbacks during his life and hasn’t had the type of positive affirmation that many successfull people have, regardless of the role. Not being highly recruited, he played at a community college before earning his shot at a California. Although drafted in the first round, he ended up going much later than expected because of percieved weaknesses. And once in Green Bay he had to deal with first backing up Brett Farve for years and then having to face the pressure of following a legend.

When he talks about these situations, he talks about how all the slights, whether real or percieved, have fueled him. Unlike the vast majority of people, it was non-recognition that actually fueled his work ethic more than it was positive reinforcement. He’s kept the letters that college football programs sent him during high school telling him, in essence, he’s just not good enough, and remembered the time at Cal were a professor condescendingly told him his chances at the NFL were nil.

That’s an interesting perspective to have. Negitive reinforcement usually has some degree of accuracy. After all, if people generally think you aren’t good enough, you usually aren’t. The fact that Rodgers is now considered the NFL’s best quarterback (ok, I’m biased, I’m a Packer fan, but really, he is) is testament that using slights to fuel your efforts might be one of the best ways to become excellent at something. Of course, an attitude like this could devolve into just thinking you’re great, without putting in the work but if it leads to a gritty determination to improve than that’s a trait that’s incredibly valuable to develop. In fact, some social scientists have taken to calling this “grit”, and have found that it’s really this quality – rather than just, say intelligence – that is the best predictor of who will rise to the top of their field.

I know, I know, it’s a bit off topic (although it does develop the peer recognition idea). But us Packer fans are a bit obsessive.

#8 Comment By Robert On November 15, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

Here’s Chesterton (in his Bernard Shaw biography) on success and failure:

“Irishmen succeed … in such professions as require a certain crystalline realism, especially about results. Such professions are the soldier and the lawyer; these give ample opportunity for crimes but not much for mere illusions. If you have composed a bad opera you may persuade yourself that it is a good one; if you have carved a bad statue you can think yourself better than Michael Angelo. But if you have lost a battle you cannot believe you have won it; if your client is hanged you cannot pretend that you have got him off.

#9 Comment By Gerard On November 16, 2012 @ 7:24 am

I can’t believe that people still get paid for just writing, or opinion writing. This will go the way of newspapers in the near future.

#10 Comment By Floridan On November 16, 2012 @ 8:15 am

I would suggest that insecurity regarding your writing is a sign of competency in your craft, which includes knowledge of the multitude of factors that make up good writing.

Likewise, your confidence in cooking is proably a sign that you are satisfied with your level of proficiency. I doubt you would think the same way if you were a professional chef.

#11 Comment By Lord Karth On November 16, 2012 @ 10:14 am

Mr. Dreher writes: “When I write something, I never know if it’s any good or not. I’m neurotic about it. I re-read something I’ve written, and all I can see are the flaws. It’s not a matter of humility (would that it were!), but of insecurity. Even if it seems good to me, well, how do I know?”

The first way is simple: does the book sell ?

The second way is just as simple, conceptually at least: does your publisher buy your next book ?

In areas like this, it is very difficult to argue with cash.

Your servant,

Lord Karth

#12 Comment By Leapold On November 16, 2012 @ 10:27 am

When I cook something, I know it’s good if I can’t stop myself from wanting to make it all the time. (But I have to restrain myself, or I will ruin the good thing through over-familiarity.)

It is almost the same with writing. If I craft a long letter, I know it’s good just from the sheer satisfaction I get by reading it through, there’s a desire there, an inability to stop myself. This might be different if I were writing for publication, but I’d have to do that with an entirely different mindset, realizing that an equal percentage of readers would love/hate/fail to absorb or be moved and the great majority of the world would be completely unaware.

Matt, thank you for pointing out the motivational force of negative inspiration. Yes, if grit & determination gets one to practice rather than give up, that is the key. The practice itself is what builds up the myelin around the neurons, especially practice to the point of frustration. You should read The Talent Code–an interesting book on ability and motivation.

#13 Comment By Roland de Chanson On November 16, 2012 @ 11:24 am

Gerard: I can’t believe that people still get paid for just writing, or opinion writing.

I can’t either. I am now unburdening myself of a slue of useless books. Good-bye, Montaigne, Chesterton, Sainte-Beuve, Lamb, White, Erskine ….

My essay (opinion piece) entitled On the Pleasures of Perusing an Empty Bookshelf will be unavailable soon because I staunchly refuse to pay myself to write it.

#14 Comment By Floridan On November 16, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

RE: motivational force of negative inspiration.

No one thing works for everyone. The trick is knowing what technique to use with who and when.

As Bear Bryant said, “You must learn how to hold a team together. You must lift some men up, calm others down, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat. Then you’ve got yourself a team.”

Bryant was by no stretch of the imagination a softy, but he recognized the power of positive reinforcement: “You take those little rascals, talk to them good, pat them on the back, let them think they are good, and they will go out and beat the biguns”

#15 Comment By Lewis Grant On November 17, 2012 @ 12:02 am

Likewise, your confidence in cooking is proably a sign that you are satisfied with your level of proficiency. I doubt you would think the same way if you were a professional chef.

Thank goodness we have things where we can be satisfied with our level of proficiency! Otherwise we’d all go crazy.

#16 Comment By Lewis Grant On November 17, 2012 @ 12:13 am

There’s something deeply satisfying about the kind of work that one can actually finish. Working in the world of reason/language/meaning is a lot more psychologically unfulfilling, at least in the short term. We are not solely spiritual creatures. We need to satisfy the creativity of our physical side as well.

In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt talks about the difference between work and action. Work results in a product – something that is completed. On the contrary, the results of action always remains open-ended. She vindicates work on its own terms, while still acknowledging that it points toward action (which transcends it in importance).

It’s a lot easier to see the intrinsic value of work than action, because the value of work is much less socially determined. Furthermore, the use-value of the products of work help to vindicate their value, even if they are not that great. You may not have made the greatest meal ever, but even a half-decent meal satisfies your hunger. On the contrary, a half-decent action (I’m including written work in this category, although Arendt might not) might not have any obvious redeeming value at all.

I haven’t yet read “Shop Class as Soulcraft”, but I’d bet that Matthew Crawford has read Arendt.