157 - Searching for Originality

18-02-2024

personal development

When Thomas P F Hoving, the late celebrated art historian, writer, and Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the fourth largest art museum in the world, was a second-year undergrad art student (the Americans call it sophomore year) at Princeton, one of his classes had him sit weekly around a table with five or six mixed-year students, under the supervision of a professor, and exchange ideas on the assigned material. The class was called Art 301. This type of class at Princeton was called precepts.

This particular precept I’m going to share with you had two seniors (final year undergrad), three juniors (third year undergrad), and two graduate students (sitting in), and one sophomore (second-year Hoving). From John McPhee’s 1967 profile of Hoving in The New Yorker:

_The professor, Frederick Sothlman, set on the table a graceful piece of metalwork that had several flaring curves and was mounted on a base of polished hardwood. Stohlman asked each student, in turn, to say whatever came into his head about the object. _

The others said things like “crosscurrents of influence,” “definitions of space,” “abstract approaches to form,” “latent vitality,” and “mellifluous harmonies.”

In his first year, Hoving had been in the bottom pack in his batch. Now, with the group’s attention on him, he felt like a fish out of water. He had no idea what the rest were saying. And these were all his seniors who were supposed to know a lot more than him.

Finally, he could no longer dither. He spoke.

“I don’t think it is sculpture,” he blurted out. “It’s beautifully tooled, but it’s not sculpture. It’s too mechanical and functional.”

The professor listened to Hoving’s two cents, then looked at the students and warned them of the “dangers of getting caught in their own lecture notes.” He then proceeded to reveal his setup. The object of their attention was an obstetric speculum. It is a device used to widen the vaginal walls to allow gynacs to do a vaginal and a cervical examination.

Hoving was the only one who spoke his mind. He was a wreck but he spoke his mind.

How many times have we got caught up in our own wordsmithery? How many times have we resorted to jargon to obfuscate? How many times we have no clue what the hell we’re talking about but we succumb to the pressure of _appearing _knowledgeable?

So much career advice is about being strategic and about building the right network and so on. Yes, you can work hard at all of that, but you’re working hard at what exactly?

You don’t need to work hard to be yourself. That’s who you are. You’ve only ever been yourself. Or have you? Maybe at some point in adolescence you started mouthing off catchwords to fit in, to signal to whichever group you were desperate to belong to. The result: You were allowed in. The result of that: You continued and perfected that habit. Now you sit in a conference room, on a Teams call and mouth off platitudes that mean nothing and you hear people say “I couldn’t agree more” and you believe them.

In a storytelling course I did earlier this year, our teacher, Matthew Dicks, taught us how to give feedback for stories that the storyteller could actually work on. He grouped that into three kinds:

Head & Heart: “This is how your story made me feel. Was that one of your goals?” OR “This is what I remember best about your story.”

Tactical/Strategic: “I felt suspense here…” OR “The structure of the story worked or didn’t work for me because…”

And finally, Uncertainties: “I could not follow the plot” OR “Why did you include this part in the story?”

Notice how even when responding to a subjective and emotional experience as storytelling, the language is precise. There’s no beating around the bush.

If we can respond to art, to storytelling minus any pussyfooting, why can’t we do the same at our jobs that reward us for precision?

Hoving’s professor told the group that the sophomore was right. The specimen was no marvel of sculpture. It was a piece of medical equipment. I imagine he said any of this with no trivial satisfaction. After all, he had discovered someone with originality.

“From that moment on, I had fantastic confidence,” Hoving says. “I was never again afraid to say, ‘I don’t believe that.’”

Hoving went on to protect and sharpen this integrity all his life. At thirty-five, he became the youngest director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Later, he became a respected museum consultant and writer.

I’ve seen managers become managers of managers, directors and VPs become CXOs. Along that path, the biggest change they’ve faced is decision-making time. The higher they are, the less time they’ve had to to make up their minds about things. People below come to them with the worst of their problems, having tried and failed, and the high-ranking leader has to solve them quickly. I don’t think one can do this very well if all they know is to hitch their wagon to the mainstream view or to serve wishy-washy gibberish.

If you were lucky like Hoving was, you found a mentor or a boss early on in your career who was interested in you being yourself. Such a figure may even have encouraged you to notice things in your own way, to speak your mind, to develop an instinct for important things, and to work on honing it. Or you probably weren’t so lucky.

It doesn’t matter now. You need to stop believing your own mythology. Stop falling for your own misdirections and start listening to your own voice. You had a voice, maybe you still do, but now you need to do the work to pull it out of the rubble of superficialities. Work hard at that, and at nothing else, and yours will be an original voice like none other.


There’s a lesson in Hoving’s story. Don’t get caught up in the jargon. Don’t succumb to the pressure of appearing knowledgeable.

So much career advice is about being strategic and making the right impression and building the right network and so on. Yes, you can work hard at all of that, but you’re working hard at what exactly?

Maybe at some point in adolescence you started mouthing off catchwords to fit into whichever group you were desperate to belong to. The result: You were allowed in. The result of that: You continued and perfected that habit. Now you sit in a conference room, on a Teams call and mouth off platitudes that mean nothing and you hear people say “I couldn’t agree more” and you believe them.

As you move up in your career, people will come to you with the worst of their problems. It will be your job to solve them. If you’ve never learned to be thoughtful, how will you do your job?

Stop falling for your own misdirections and start listening to your own voice. You had a voice, maybe you still do, but now you need to do the work to pull it out of the rubble of superficialities. Work hard at that, and at nothing else, and yours will be an original voice like none other.

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