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How Do You Know You’re Any Good?

Alan Jacobs has a good post up 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.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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