What does it mean to be an intellectual? What does it involve, and how do we become one?
These are the questions explored by Paul J. Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at North Carolina’s Duke Divinity School, in his Letter to an Aspiring Intellectual.
Griffiths’ writing is thoughtful and precise. The advice it offers transcends the writer’s experience in his field to address both philosophical and real-world concerns that define the life of those who pursue intellectual careers in a culture that respects action over thought.
As I was reading it, I noticed that many of the characteristics and lessons Griffiths discusses are synonymous not just with intellectualism, but with the very ideal of greatness in all things.
With that in mind, I decided to highlight a few key points for readers who have neither the time nor inclination to read the letter in full (which I suggest you do), and look at how they apply to all who strive for excellence.
It Starts With Provocation
“From your letter…I think that at the moment you’re in love with the idea of being an intellectual rather than with some topic for thought.”
It’s not uncommon for people to say that they pursue a particular career or lifestyle because it’s what they love.
Here’s the thing though: love is blind and, by its very nature, not driven by considered thought. Love can make us believe we desire something in our lives when, in truth, we actually just desire the image it represents. People who become entrepreneurs like the image of freedom and control entrepreneurship represents, but collapse under the staggering amount of work it takes to start a business. Aspiring novelists might sit at their softly-lit desk with a glass of whiskey for a night, but when the words don’t come how they want them to, they don’t return for a second.
Love is not the foundation for sustained greatness. It doesn’t have to be, at least.
What ultimately never fails to inspire excellence, however, is provocation.
The two might not seem all that dissimilar, but they differ greatly. When we love an idea, we explore it within the realm of our understanding. We focus exclusively on the good elements. And then, one day, it starts to fade. We recognise the bad elements that were there all along, and our interest starts to wain.
When we are provoked by an idea, we seek to challenge it. We acknowledge the good in it, confront the bad in it, and seek to make it better because it interests us to do so. We may never succeed in our goal – and whether we do or not, there will be many obstacles on our journey – but it is in the attempt that we become who we are meant to be.
It Takes Sacrifice
“Undistracted time is the space in which intellectual work is done: It’s the space for that work in the same way that the factory floor is the space for the assembly line.”
Great work requires dedication, and dedication often means sacrifice.
The greatest sacrifice is the sacrifice of time. Griffiths suggests three distraction-free hours a day should be spent entirely focused on the work. For some, it will be an impossibility, and that is the way it must be. For most, however, it simply means prioritising ambition over pleasure when not at their day job.
I say simply, but the majority will not make such sacrifices. They will resist. They will make up excuses. They will search for the courage to commit to such monumental, lonely tasks, and be found wanting.
That doesn’t matter. All that matters is what you choose to do with your time.
It Requires Attention
“Perhaps what you think about is camels…Camels are surprising enough on the face of it, but so, really, is everything. That there is anything at all to think about, and that we can think about it: These are the first surprises, and those who think about those curious states of affairs are, I suppose, metaphysicians and theologians. They need to attend to their topic no more and no less than do camel-fanciers.”
Ideation and creation are lonely, often frustrating acts, and even the most dedicated seeker of excellence will sometimes find themselves struggling to remain concentrated on the work.
To remain attentive and surprised by the ideas we explore in our work is one of the most important, and yet most difficult aspects of the process. We are creatures of habit. When we do something once or twice, we immediately develop biases and expectations that tell us what to expect the next time we do it, and every time after that.
How do we overcome this?
By committing ourselves to attentiveness, knowing that our creative ability can never be exhausted. We can’t let ourselves feel comfortable about what we think we know, in case we overlook something we didn’t know as a result. We can’t content ourselves with our work, for there is always the chance it can be improved.
Often, we won’t recognise new potential until we have considered the work, and ideas behind it, several times over. Like most things, we only get better at doing so with time.
Those that fail are those who allow themselves to be distracted and bored, and deliver mediocre work as a result.
It’s Never Easy
“Don’t do any of the things I’ve recommended unless it seems to you that you must…Undertake it if, and only if, nothing else seems possible.”
It’s easy to romanticise. It’s easy to think that, through perseverance and experience, excellence becomes second-nature.
Whatever you choose to do with your life, do it only because you have no other choice. Because you can’t imagine living your life any other way.
Prepare for challenges, great and small. Prepare for frustration. Prepare for disappointment. Prepare for sleepless nights. Prepare for loneliness. Prepare to make sacrifices.
And get to work.