One of the most highly literate lawyers I’ve ever known was the late Judge Thomas Gibbs Gee of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. His understated literary flair made his opinions as quotable as those of any other judge on the federal bench. He seemed to have read everything: world history, military history, English literature, Texas history, federal law, and much else. In depth. He knew Quintilian and Shakespeare and Voltaire and Flaubert, and he could bring this knowledge to bear scintillatingly on any conversation.
One day I asked him how he had cultivated his extraordinary skill with words, and his answer surprised me: “I’m really not very well read. In fact, I’ve always been behind the eight ball educationally. So I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make up for what I missed out on in my schooling.”
His words struck me as wise. There is practical wisdom behind them. How could such a truly well-read person consider himself to be ill-read and unknowledgeable? The answer is that he wasn’t comparing himself to other people, but rather to his own absolute standard of excellence. He had adopted a “personal fiction,” a kind of myth that helped him get ahead in life.
Ever since learning this lesson, I’ve thought that there are several personal myths worth adopting. Here are seven I’d recommend.
1. You need to overcome your educational disadvantages. You don’t know nearly as much as you need to know, so you ought to be playing catch-up. It’s not necessarily that your schooling has failed you (though in some sense it has, truth be told). It’s just that your education has only just begun, and you desperately need to deepen it.
In what way? you ask. By learning constantly, day by day. By observing. And by reading the best, most insightful material you can get your hands on. Figure out what interests you most, and focus on that. But for goodness’ sake, cultivate some serious interests and then delve.
2. You’re not nearly the writer you ought to be. You’re just a neophyte. Your vocabulary is impoverished, your knowledge of grammar way too shaky, and your experience in writing much too limited at this point in your life. So you’d better get busy writing: letters, essays, personal journals, and whatever else you might think of writing. And once you’ve done lots of writing, you need to become exceedingly self-critical and realize that much of what you’ve been producing is wretched stuff.
The way to know this is to read attentively. Read excellent newsmagazines and books. And reflect on each article as you finish it. Call to mind what you’ve just read and how the writer made it memorable. Focus on turns of phrase and on sentences—how they’re arranged and how they’re punctuated. Analyze the structure and development of paragraphs, plus how the paragraphs flow together to develop the overall theme. Only in this way can you hope to acquire good technique yourself.
3. You’re not nearly the public speaker that you ought to be. You don’t have nearly enough confidence in public speaking, and you’ve probably tended to avoid it. Everyone does. To whatever extent you may be satisfied with your speaking ability, it’s merely because you’ve gotten smug about your own superficial glibness. So you’d better start working on your speaking abilities immediately. Seize every opportunity to speak in public. Try on every occasion to make your remarks the most penetrating, concise, and persuasive ones that anyone at the event utters. And try to work in some little degree of humor related to the subject, without overt joke-telling. But make a solid point or two. Then sit down.
4. Because life is short, you can’t waste time on fripperies. Your minutes and hours are valuable. You can’t afford to waste them on schlock fiction, slick magazines that rehash the same superficial ideas issue after issue, music that has no enduring value, evanescent trends, and silly fads. There’s hardly enough time in your life to master the things that really matter: whatever is both beautiful and true. Dedicate yourself to these things. And “truth” brings us to the next point.
5. Any lie you ever tell will catch up to you. You’re on your way to entering one of the noblest, most learned of all professions—one that, jokes aside, is absolutely dedicated to truth-telling. Make it a point of honor never to tell a lie. Never. Forswear even “white lies.” (But do learn the art of discretion.) Always tell the truth—on your résumé, in interviews, and in everyday life.
It’s extraordinary just how liberating it is to keep a vow of never telling a lie. You never have to remember what you’ve said to whom. If you make a habit of telling the truth, you can’t get caught in a lie. And you have the stress-free pleasure of living with a clear conscience.
A recent study found that more than two-thirds of 18-year-olds believe that the only way of getting ahead in life is to lie and cheat. That’s one of the most depressing facts I’ve heard in recent years. A British study recently found that men tell an average of three lies a day, and women two. Again, this is very troubling.
We need a culture in which truth-telling is more highly cherished and lying is more vehemently stigmatized. But barring that, you can create your own personal culture—it’s called character—that disallows lying.
6. You have little sense of what “hard work” really means. Lots of people talk about how hard they work. The more they talk about it, the less I believe it. Here’s how you might ponder the idea of hard work: Go to the library and get a copy of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s The Common Law. Read a bit of it, paying special attention to the analysis and the footnotes. Think about how much time must have been devoted to acquiring, arranging, and recording the information you’re taking in. Every page probably took dozens of hours of preparation when you consider the background research that made it possible. Consider that the writer had lots of things going on when preparing the text: family responsibilities, professional responsibilities, errands to be run, and all the other mundane burdens of daily life. Holmes referred to “stealing time from sleep” while preparing his book, all the while maintaining a full-time law practice.
Please don’t take this amiss, but most people have little if any grasp of what hard work really entails. Yet if you want to be happy in life, you must engage in productive work. So play hard when you play, but work hard as well. And pity anyone who complains about working hard, who talks with relief about the weekend’s having arrived, who refers to Wednesday as “hump day,” and who is preoccupied with having the clock strike 5 so that the workday is over. These are common refrains in our society, but they’re incompatible with a personal dedication to excellence.
7. You haven’t been measuring up to your own standards of excellence. I recently heard a U.S. Supreme Court justice answer a high schooler’s question: “What can a young person today do to ensure success?” The eminent justice answered: “Dedicate yourself to excellence. Do things right, no matter how menial the task. Whether you’re stapling papers, filing documents, or making a transcription, get the little things right. Excellence is a habit.” Precisely. Getting things right is a habit. So is logical thinking. So is precise enunciation. So is good grammar. So is refraining from using “like” in every sentence.
We’ve somehow devolved into a culture in which these things aren’t widely cherished. So you’re left to fend for yourself if you want to attain excellence. You’ll find precious little encouragement among your friends. Just a thought: Find a hero worth emulating. It needn’t be someone you know or even someone you’re ever likely to meet. It could be a historical figure. But emulate someone worth emulating.
Has anything I said hurt your feelings? I hope not. You may well have gone through a school system in which “self-esteem” was one of the main values being taught. Two whole American generations have, broadly speaking, become highly self-satisfied. You’d be well-advised, though, to have enough humility to adopt as personal truths the fictions I’ve just enumerated. After all, they’re not really fictions, are they?