Don’t Believe The Hype

Conversation is the true medium of innovation, not technology, says Cornelius McGrath.


Of all the essays I have had to write, this one may pose the most difficulties. I have tackled the age of revolution, the nature of migration across the Atlantic, and the American Revolution, but these are simple—and easy to write—compared to considering myself. Talking about “me” does not come to me naturally.  It also does not come easily, given how I arrived at where I find myself today. I don’t do “me” very well.

I should, as our culture suggests, celebrate “me.”  I have just won, maybe, the plum award for my field in history, the Harmsworth professorship at Oxford. I am a chaired professor at a prestigious American university. I have been named a member of an honor society that includes about a dozen U.S. presidents for my contribution to American letters.  But the lessons I can impart about “making it” don’t comport well with the conventional stories we are told of achievement. Here then begins a counterintuitive exploration of how I got where I am.

“Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now.” How much better off I would be? You will be tempted to say this, as a lament, over and over again as you get older. I am here to tell you to forgo the temptation. You are advised and encouraged to master your own life and to do so early on.  Don’t. You are encouraged to develop a roadmap for self-actualization and to make it happen. Forget about it. When we think about these phrases, we usually use them in a way that validates us as actors, as beings in complete control of our destiny: me, me, and another dollop of me. My life suggests a different read on these well-worn phrases. Things are more complicated. You only become who and what you are meant to be by not having a clue and by not trying to curate a life.  

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My story is a perfect example.  I have what could be regarded as lofty status.  I have arrived and then some. But that is not how I have seen or now see things. I made it where I am despite myself, my failings, my weaknesses, my mistakes.  Or perhaps through them.  I did not choose to become a chaired professor at a place like Notre Dame or to win a position at Oxford.  I only got here through my many missteps and the journey of discovery they entailed. 

Mine was not a privileged upbringing. Not a bad one, but not one that a scholarly career starts from. I was born to working-class immigrants in a city turning into a dystopia of deindustrialization.  Jersey City sat in the shadow of New York City in every way.  So close—yet so far.  My parents gave me the best they could.  But they had no idea of the life-of-the-mind.  Nor did I! When I set off to college, I was clueless.  I did not know what I wanted to do.  I had no notion of all of the possibilities.  I probably would have withered had I known them. I came from a world where you did not proclaim your greatness. You did not think of yourself for your talents. You just got on with it. And you kept your mouth shut, especially about yourself.

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So, I kept quiet. And I remained clueless for a long time. However, by sheer dumb luck, I attended Notre Dame. I had never seen the place when I first arrived. But I knew it was culturally part of the New York, Irish-American urban world I came from. I had no idea how good of a place it was. Coming from the working-class world of my upbringing, I did not seem to fit with the people who seemed to glide across campus, unconcerned with the world and comfortable in their own skin, so seemingly full of themselves.  I was different, though I could not articulate how or why.  

Other people knew I did not fit in.  While at Notre Dame, several people suggested that I should pursue a PhD in something. I refused to listen. Who would want to do that? How could I be cut out for such an ambition?  Impossible.  Unfortunately, I thought only of the possible. I went into banking. I hated it. I did not know why. I just couldn’t fit myself into it.  I gave up and applied to graduate school. Again, ever aimless, I made the wrong call. At first, I attended Columbia to pursue a degree in Political Science—the last prof I had at Notre Dame told me that Political Science was the one. So without exploring, I jumped in. It was not the one, but it put me on the track to knowing that this was part of what I should do. Then, I just sort of slipped into things.  Again, someone told me that history was my bag. I was good at it, and my mind seemed to work like a historian’s. Flailing, for that, was my state of mind, I applied to PhD programs in history.  And I found my fit.

I did not make my fit. I found it. Whenever I tried to force a fit, it failed. But not this time.  True, I had talents. But it took me years of working in the profession to admit what they were and admit as much to myself.  The old neighborhood ways would not let me think I was “talented.”  Only then did things turn; however, the turning occurred in unexpected ways. I began spending as much time on other people’s ideas as I did on my own. I worked to help people to see the things I could so quickly and effortlessly. I had a knack for thinking in terms of narrative—or story—and framing questions in compelling ways. I could stand above a question at altitude and see all the possibilities and choose a route through complicated interpretive terrain.  It was just the way my mind worked. It was just what I could do. I thought everyone could do it. I now know that all cannot.  I then worked to help others see with altitude. I still do.  I find joy in doing so.  The greatest joy, in fact.

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Don’t get me wrong. I was not a fool.  I cultivated projects that gave me options. I tried to make my work resonate with others in my field. I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves to me. I did come from working-class Jersey City, after all! No one could out-street-smart me. But most of these opportunities came from the connections I fostered, from helping others and not trying to look out for number one. Not the sort of connections that were designed to get me ahead, but when I tried to help others get ahead. My missteps had taught me to empathize with the struggles of others.  

I still have a problem saying I am talented. I guess I am, but generally, I don’t see myself that way. This is the only way I can construe it: believe it or not, in finding my talent and honoring it, I have developed a much better sense of humility.  No longer do I have to be good at everything.  I can see the true abilities in others, recognize them for it, knowing that mine are different. 

Life’s rich pageant is understanding that all develop their gifts in relation to one another. This has been the lesson that my career has taught me. I followed where the talents led, once I got out of the way and once I saw the vulnerabilities of others through my humility.

My good fortune has always been the product of humility. It has only been realized when I tried to help others climbing the greasy pole, be it, friends or students. When I have become full of myself, I have fallen. But then, as soon as I learned my lessons, I rose once more. Funny that.  I also make my choices, if I am fortunate, with a sense of purpose and perhaps even Providence.  When I am open to possibilities, and when I open myself to the possibility that I can also shape the choices of others, good things tend to happen.

It took a long time for me, perhaps even too long, to recognize what my talents were. That is one of the minuses of refusing to live the self-actualized existence. Nonetheless, I only got where I managed to get once I used my talents—intentionally—to benefit others. I am at my best when I do so.  I steer clear of envy and bitterness and resentments.  These are poisons, toxins that strip a soul. And, somewhat ironically, I move ahead when I think of others and approach things with a humble attitude of my limitations.  I only learned how to do so as I struggled.

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Am I great? The world seems to say I am.  I am in a profession where people want to crow about themselves, a domain in which all want the world to worship at the altar of “me.”  I can’t do so, and I don’t believe that I might be great for even a second.  I know how the proverbial sausage of my life was made. I see the idea of self-actualization as a comforting myth we tell ourselves, especially when we peer in the mirror and feel like an imposter. When I tell the truth and shame the devil, as my father was wont to say, I know that my achievement did not come by design or by trying to convince myself how wonderful I am.

I reckon this will not change.  My career, and my life, are almost set in amber.  I will do things, and I will do more ambitious things.  I will get better at my craft.  I will face new challenges.  I have new books to write. I will still work to be a better husband and father.  What I mean is that my basic approach to things will not change; in fact, it will intensify. I hope for the remaining decades of my career and my life—God willing—to try to empty myself more of me.  Mistakes, missteps, wrong turns revealed what I could do. I only realized the potential of my gifts when I turned to help others. There’s a story there, I think, but not one our world is comfortable telling.

I care about the award from Oxford.  I care about my status in the profession.  I am proud of my achievements. But when I am alone, when I still my inner voice, I hear whispers of Chuck D. and Flavor Flav that say, “don’t believe the hype,” They are usually right.

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