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John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

“The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil.”

John Quincy Adams on Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, the Proper Aim of Ambition, and His Daily Routine

“Those who work much do not work hard,” Henry David Thoreau observed in his prescient meditation on the myth of productivity and the measure of meaningful labor a century before the dawn of the cult of workaholism, which continues to bedevil us with ever-accelerating virulence to this day.

A generation earlier, John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) — another man of introspective genius and uncommon wisdom — dug at the heart of modernity’s foundational disconnect between efficiency and effectiveness: our tendency to pour tremendous energy into doing things, with little reflection on whether those are the right things to do in the first place.

His journals, now published as John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), offer an exceedingly insightful record of one extraordinary man’s reflections on his own nature, haloed with luminous wisdom on the universals of human nature. Throughout them, the sixth President of the United States examines the paradox of how even the most industrious self-exertion can fail to attain a worthwhile result and why unfocused ambition is a guarantee of frustration rather than fulfillment.

John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.

In the spring of 1819, six years before he won the Presidency, 52-year-old Adams anticipates Kierkegaard’s proclamation that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous [is] to be busy,” and laments the absurdity of ineffectual busyness that animates his days in office as Secretary of State:

Every day starts new game to me, upon the field of my duties; but the hurry of the hour leaves me no time for the pursuit of it, and at the close of my Career I shall merely have gone helter skelter through the current business of the Office, and leave no permanent trace of my ever having been in it behind.

Years earlier, in observing his own habits of mind in the course of his voracious self-education, Adams had become aware of the meager correlation between effort exerted and results obtained when a clarity of purpose is lacking — even the mightiest discipline, after all, is wasted without a clear direction. In a diary entry penned on the final day of 1804 — a year he considered distinguished by “its barrenness of Events” — the thirty-seven-year-old Adams laments his tendency to lose himself in rabbit holes of what may be interesting but is not relevant to his larger aims:

My studies were assiduous and seldom interrupted. I meant to give them such a direction, as should be useful in its tendency; yet on looking back, and comparing the time consumed with the knowledge acquired, I have no occasion to take pride in the result of my application — I have been a severe Student, all the days of my life — But an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge, has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others — Another source of useless toil, is the want of a method properly comprehensive and minute, in the pursuit of my enquiries — This method has been to me a desideratum for many years; I have found none in books; nor have I been able to contrive one for myself. From these two causes, I have derived so little use from my labours, that it has often brought me to the borders of discouragement, and I have been attempted to abandon my books altogether — This however is impossible — for the habit has so long been fixed in me, as to have become a passion, and when once severed from my books, I find little or nothing in life, to fill the vacancy of time — I must therefore continue to plod, and to lose my labour; contenting myself with the consolation, that even this drudgery of Science, contributes to Virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honour.

“Down the Rabbit Hole.” Illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Several years later, finding himself so absorbed in learning logarithmic calculation that a whole day had fled, he chastises himself for an unfocused curiosity that flits from subject to subject, unbridled by poor time-management, lacking focused commitment to deeper study of any one discipline:

I find it easy to engage my attention in scientific pursuits of almost any kind, but difficult to guard against two abuses — the one of being insensibly drawn from one to another, as I now have from Chronology to Astronomy and from Astronomy to Logarithms — the other of misapplying time, which is essential to the business of life; public and private.

And yet life affords Adams a counterpoint to this harsh self-criticism — it is by such kaleidoscopic curiosity that we arrive at what we don’t know we didn’t know and gradually broaden the shorelines of our knowledge amid the ocean of our ignorance. The following November, finding himself confined indoors by inclement weather and short days, his eyes wearied by long hours of reading by candlelight, Adams writes in his diary:

I this day discovered a new particular of my own ignorance of things which I ought to have known these thirty years — One clear morning about a fortnight since I remarked from my bed-chamber windows a certain group of stars forming a Constellation which I had not before observed and of which I knew not the name — I marked down their positions on a slip of paper with a view to remember them hereafter and to ascertain what they were — This day on looking into the Abridgment of La Lande’s Astronomy, one of the first figures that struck my eye in the plates was that identical Constellation — It was Orion — That I should have lived nearly fifty years without knowing him, shews too clearly what sort of an observer I have been… I am ashamed at my age to be thus to seek for the very first Elements of practical Astronomy.

Illustration from Bright Sky, Starry City, a children’s book celebrating citizen astronomy

Two weeks later, Adams records his daily routine and its higher purpose:

I rise on the average about 6 O’Clock, in the morning, and retire to bed between ten and eleven at Night — The interval is filled as it has been nearly two years, more particularly, as since I placed Charles at school — The four or five hours that I previously devoted to him I now employ in reading books of Science — These studies I now pursue, not only as the most delightful of occupations to myself, but with a special reference to the improvement and education of my children.

Alluding to the dying words of the great Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe — “Let me not seem to have lived in vain,” memorably immortalized by Adrienne Rich a century and a half later in her sublime ode to women in astronomy — Adams adds the closest thing to a personal mission statement he would ever commit to words:

I feel the sentiment with which Tycho Brahe died, perhaps as strongly as he did — His “ne frustra vixisse videar” was a noble feeling, and in him had produced its fruits — He had not lived in vain — He was a benefactor to his species — But the desire is not sufficient — The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil — To be profitable to my Children, seems to me within the compass of my powers — To that let me bound my wishes, and my prayers — And may that be granted to them!

John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 is a magnificent read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with Walt Whitman’s advice on living a rewarding life and Bruce Lee’s previously unpublished letters to himself about the measure of success, then revisit education reformer Abraham Flexner on the usefulness of useless knowledge and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck on using the diary as a tool of discipline.


Marcus Aurelius on How to Motivate Yourself to Get Out of Bed in the Morning and Go to Work

“You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.”

“If we design workplaces that permit people to find meaning in their work, we will be designing a human nature that values work,” psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote in his inquiry into what motivates us to work. But human nature itself is a moody beast. “Given the smallest excuse, one will not work at all,” John Steinbeck lamented in his diary of the creative process as he labored over the novel that would soon earn him the Pulitzer Prize and become the cornerstone for his Nobel Prize two decades later. Work, of course, has a profoundly different meaning for the artist than it does for the person punching into and out of a nine-to-five workplace. And yet even those fortunate enough to be animated by a deep sense of purpose in a vocation that ensures their livelihood can succumb to the occasional — or even frequent — spell of paralysis at the prospect of another day of work. What, then, are we to do on such days when we simply can’t muster the motivation to get out of bed?

Nearly two millennia ago, in an era when for the vast majority of people work wasn’t a source of purpose and meaning but the means for basic sustenance gained through hard labor, the great Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius offered an abiding answer in Meditations (public library | free ebook) — his indispensable proto-blog, replete with abiding wisdom on such matters as how to begin each day for optimal sanity and the key to living fully.

Aurelius writes:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

To the mind’s natural protestation that staying under the blankets simply feels nicer, Aurelius retorts:

So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

Our nature, he insists, is to live a life of service — to help others and contribute to the world. Any resistance to this inherent purpose is therefore a negation of our nature and a failure of self-love. He writes:

You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you.

Many centuries before psychologists identified the experience of “flow” in creative work, he considers a key characteristic of people who love what they do:

When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.

Is helping others less valuable to you? Not worth your effort?

He revisits the subject in another meditation:

When you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning, remember that your defining characteristic— what defines a human being — is to work with others. Even animals know how to sleep. And it’s the characteristic activity that’s the more natural one — more innate and more satisfying.

Complement this particular portion of Meditations with Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak and find your purpose and Dostoyevsky on poverty, ambition, success, and creative integrity, then revisit Marcus Aurelius on what his father taught him about honor and humility.


November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

“Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”

November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

In July of 1928, three months before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando — a classic celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of same-sex love — the English novelist and poet Radclyffe Hall (August 12, 1880–October 7, 1943) set into motion a cultural revolution. With the publication of The Well of Loneliness (public library), the way gender and sexual identities are formulated and articulated was forever changed.

Hall, born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall but known to her loved ones as John, was an out lesbian who dressed in men’s clothes in a society and era when same-sex love was considered not only immoral but legally punishable. In the spring of 1928, encouraged by the success of her previous writings, Hall warned her publisher, Jonathan Cape, that her next book would require a high degree of faith on his behalf, for she was taking a great personal and cultural risk. “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world,” she wrote to him in a letter cited in Sally Cline’s biography Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John (public library). “So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction,” she added.

Cape, who also published such literary daredevils as Ian Fleming and James Joyce, was willing to take the risk. Hall delivered. The manuscript she turned in was a pioneering inquiry into gender and sexual identity, part social protest against bigotry and part manifesto for equality.

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall

She made her heroine, Stephen Gordon, both a lesbian and unambiguously likable: loyal, tenderhearted, often mistreated, and endowed with what Descartes called “nobility of soul,” that most admirable of virtues. Stephen was animated by one central question: “Why am I as I am — and what am I?” It echoed what young Leo Tolstoy in his diary nearly a century earlier: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” For queer people, this question has always been acutely alive, but especially in eras and cultures where not all answers have been acceptable. The devastation of that unacceptability is found in the damning words of Stephen’s mother: “This thing that you are is a sin against creation.” — words strikingly similar to those with which Oliver Sacks’s mother broke her son’s heart. Hall’s intention was that her novel would “speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority” — a minority to which she herself belonged, rendering the book both deeply political and deeply personal.

Many initial reviews were favorable. Some lauded Hall’s countercultural bravery. One reviewer, Vera Brittain, wrote that the novel “can only strengthen the belief of all honest and courageous persons that there is no problem which is not better stated frankly than concealed,” and that “persecution and disgusted ostracism have never saved any difficulty in the world.”

Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)
Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)

But the vociferous editor of the Sunday Express, a man named James Douglas, did what critics — especially self-satisfied male critics — do to this day upon encountering art they don’t understand or find personally objectionable: He argued that it was not a work of art but immoral propaganda and wrote that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas launched a concerted campaign to suppress the book, which rose all the way up to Britain’s Home Secretary — a man so conservative that, in addition to attempting to ban alcohol and nightclubs, he had opposed a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer.

Despite an outcry by some of the era’s most venerated writers and intellectuals, Douglas’s tireless bullying pushed matters to court and a trial for obscenity began on November 9, 1928. (Lest we forget the gravity of those charges, a generation earlier Oscar Wilde had been sent to prison for his homosexuality under similar charges of obscenity.)

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)
Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)

Hall’s publisher and his team mailed 160 letters to potential witnesses who would be willing to stand against the censorship. Many never responded. Some gave unimaginative pretexts for why they couldn’t help. H.G. Wells declined, saying he was going abroad; he might as well have claimed to be mounting his time machine. In a letter to her nephew penned eight days before the trial, Virginia Woolf lamented the collective cowardice behind the litany of excuses:

Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins.

Among the courageous were fifty-seven esteemed writers and scientists, many of whom were ready to defend the novel’s social and political function as a call for equality and freedom, despite doubting its literary merit. Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s longtime lover and the inspiration for her own censorship-subverting queer classic — went to the trial ready to testify. The Bloomsbury set were particularly troubled on creative grounds. Lytton Starchey, one of Woolf’s dearest friends and a queer man himself, agreed to take the witness stand, but not without noting in a letter to E.M. Forster — also a willing witness — that “the book itself is pretty frightful.”

Woolf herself was reluctantly willing to be a witness on account of the novel’s political significance and her contempt for censorship, but dreaded defending what she considered to be a “pale tepid vapid book which lay damp & slab all about the court” — writing, in other words, afflicted with the malady of middlebrow. So when the magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ruled that writers couldn’t testify as experts on obscenity, only on art, which wasn’t permitted as evidence, she was immensely relieved to be dismissed from witness duty.

Woolf captured the larger significance of the trial in her diary:

What is obscenity? What is literature? What is the difference between the subject & the treatment?

A week later, Sir Biron ruled that the novel was obscene, ordering that it be destroyed and that the defendants pay court costs. The decision was appealed in a second trial — in which Rudyard Kipling was summoned and never actually used as a witness — but after deliberating for only five minutes, the five new magistrates upheld the original decision. Across the Atlantic, Alfred A. Knopf, who had acquired the American rights, cowered from publishing a book censored by its country of origin.

In a letter Woolf co-wrote with to E.M. Forster, she once again captured the grim enormity of the implications:

Novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention [lesbianism]… Although forbidden as a main theme, may it be alluded to, or ascribed to subsidiary characters? … Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo. A novelist may not wish to treat any of the subjects mentioned above but the sense that they are prohibited or prohibitable, that there is a taboo-list, will work on him and will make him alert and cautious instead of surrendering himself to his creative impulses. And he will tend to cling to subjects that are officially acceptable, such as murder and adultery, and to shun anything original lest it lead him into forbidden areas.

And yet The Well of Loneliness made its way into the body of culture. In America, the publishers Pascal Covici (who would later join Viking and become John Steinbeck’s fairy godfather) and Donald Friede took a $10,000 bank loan — around $137,000 in today’s money — in order to purchase the rights from Cape. They enlisted the help of Morris Ernst, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and set about defending the book against censorship. To protect booksellers from being targeted, Friede reached out to the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and offered to sell him a copy of the book directly. But even before Friede and Covici were taken to court, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year — despite its price point at $5, twofold the average for fiction, proving Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.”

The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned
The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned

Eventually, the NYPD invaded the publisher’s New York offices and confiscated 865 copies of the book. But under U.S. federal law, literary merit was allowed as evidence against changes of obscenity, unlike during the U.K. trial, so Covici and Friede assembled a formidable roster of writers to stick up for the novel — including Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ernst argued for the novel’s value as a protest against intolerance and a tool of social justice. After a series of contentious legal battles, justice prevailed on August 19, 1929: New York’s Court of Special Sessions ruled that Hall dealt with “a delicate social problem,” which in itself didn’t violate the law and therefore merited her novel’s free circulation. All charges were dropped and Radclyffe Hall went on to become a cultural icon.

Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery
Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery

As Lillian Faderman writes in her excellent book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), queer women in America came to call Hall “Our Matron Saint” and one mid-century op-ed proposed that the “inelegant word butch” be replaced with clyffe. Today, Hall’s influence can be traced to lesbian icons like Adrienne Rich, Jeanette Winterson, and Audre Lorde, and the cultural significance of her work finds no greater testament than in Lorde’s assertion the “visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”


May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.”

May Sarton on the Cure for Despair and Solitude as the Seedbed of Self-Discovery

“A great deal of poetic work has arisen from various despairs,” wrote Lou Andreas-Salomé, the first woman psychoanalyst, in a consolatory letter to the poet Rainer Maria Rilke as he was wrestling with depression, nearly a century before psychologists came to study the nonlinear relationship between creativity and mental illness. A generation later, with an eye to what made Goethe a genius, Humphrey Trevelyan argued that great artists must have the courage to despair, that they “must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.”

Few artists have articulated the dance between this “divine discontent” and creative fulfillment more memorably than the poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995). In her Journal of a Solitude (public library), Sarton records and reflects on her interior life in the course of one year, her sixtieth, with remarkable candor and courage. Out of these twelve private months arises the eternity of the human experience with its varied universal capacities for astonishment and sorrow, hollowing despair and creative vitality.

May Sarton

In an entry from September 15, 1972, Sarton writes:

It is raining. I look out on the maple, where a few leaves have turned yellow, and listen to Punch, the parrot, talking to himself and to the rain ticking gently against the windows. I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my “real” life again at last. That is what is strange—that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without the interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone…

She considers solitude as the seedbed of self-discovery:

For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.


My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

Art by Sir Quentin Blake from Michael Rosen’s Sad Book

In another journal entry penned three days later, in the grip of her recurrent struggle with depression, Sarton revisits the question of the difficult, necessary self-confrontations that solitude makes possible:

The value of solitude — one of its values — is, of course, that there is nothing to cushion against attacks from within, just as there is nothing to help balance at times of particular stress or depression. A few moments of desultory conversation … may calm an inner storm. But the storm, painful as it is, might have had some truth in it. So sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands.

In a passage that calls to mind William Styron’s sobering account of living with depression, Sarton adds:

The reasons for depression are not so interesting as the way one handles it, simply to stay alive.

Perhaps Albert Camus was right in asserting that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” but this is a truth hard to take in and even harder to swallow when one is made tongueless by depression. In an entry from October 6, still clawing her way out of the pit of darkness, Sarton considers the only cure for despair she knows:

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

By mid-October, Sarton has begun to emerge from the abyss and marvels at the transformation in a beautiful testament to the finitude and transitoriness of all things, even the deepest-cutting and most all-consuming of states:

I can hardly believe that relief from the anguish of these past months is here to stay, but so far it does feel like a true change of mood — or rather, a change of being where I can stand alone.

Echoing Virginia Woolf’s memorable insight into writing and self-doubt — the same self-doubt with which Steinbeck’s diary is strewn — Sarton considers the measure of success in creative work:

So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.

Complement these particular passages of the wholly exquisite Journal of a Solitude with Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckages of the soul, then revisit Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone needs at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.


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