I have kept a journal since early 1962. I was an internal medicine resident at what is now Rush Medical Center in Chicago. After two years as a house officer there, my interest in an academic career grew from nothing to something. I was still ignorant of what that meant except that it included research. So I began asking questions of the faculty there, many of whom were engaged in research. They offered advice, some of it surprisingly specific and ultimately useful. They knew I was a greenhorn so they made it simple.
The first advice relevant to this column came as a surprise; it had nothing to do with research or where to train.
“You must learn to write well and speak well in public if you want a successful academic career,” was the advice. I asked how I should go about that task and the response was, “You must practice writing and speaking taking every opportunity to do so.”
And he added valuable tips. He said reading the classics by esteemed authors would help me recognize good writing and expand my vocabulary. He also recommended that I begin keeping a journal—“that will encourage you to write your thoughts.”
He also suggested I get a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White (who was the editor of The New Yorker for many years). A copy of this iconic little book sits on my desk and is loaded with advice for writing with a clean, straightforward style that is grammatically correct. Eventually, I accepted all his advice, and I am eternally grateful for such wise counsel.
Which brings me to my journal. I have kept a journal (not a diary) for nearly 53 years. I use it in several ways. First, I write about problems or life changes or successes or failures of mine and of colleagues or family. So, in effect, I am writing to talk to myself as I try to sort out the issues and options ahead. The journal consists of 32 volumes that started out as blank lined pages. Some are thin and others are thick depending on what kind of journal book was available at the time and easy to carry in my briefcase.
I do a lot of writing on airplanes and in my office when I want to record an important professional or family event—for example, the birth of child or consideration of a job offer both generate many entries. I seldom go back and review earlier journals unless I am looking for a forgotten name or date. So it largely functions, as I said above, as a robust conversation with myself that is of value at the time, but less so afterward.
There is another important function of the journal. Some years after I began the journal I became interested in saving notable quotes from books and magazines and the press that might also come from poems and biographical texts. I made it a habit to clip the quotes (or copy the text) and tape them in the front or back covers or pages.
It is these clips that I often return to for inspiration, wisdom, beautiful writing, and for a sense of grounding myself in these little gems. I cannot accurately explain why this attracts me, but it is a way of assuring myself that in this crazy world of materialism and self-importance there are those who treasure wisdom over knowledge, kindness over competition, and the importance of the intangible parts of all our lives.
I copied some of the clips below, but keep in mind that these are my clips that reflect my values or desires and they may not be clips that you would value or save. Some are very brief and others are longer; some may be familiar to you, most probably are not.
Blaise Pascal From The Pensées:
- “Can anything be stupider than that a man has the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of a river and his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have not quarreled with him?
- The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.
- Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”
“A man is like a fraction whose numerator is what he is and whose denominator is what he thinks of himself. The larger the denominator, the smaller the fraction.”
“Whenever two people meet there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.”
“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Adam Smith from The Wealth of Nations:
“It is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers to pretend to watch over the economy of private people and to restrain their expense... they are themselves, and without exception, the greatest spendthrifts in society.”
Mahatma Gandhi: Seven Social Sins:
- Politics without Principle
- Wealth without Work
- Commerce without Morality
- Pleasure without Conscience
- Education without Character
- Science without Humanity
- Worship without Sacrifice
Dumbledore from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire:
“The time is coming when we will be forced to choose between what is right and what is easy.”
And finally, here is my favorite—and I don't remember the source and haven't since been able to find it:
Age 22: Failed in business
Age 23: Defeated in a run for the legislature
Age 24: Again failed in business
Age 25: Elected to legislature
Age 26: Sweetheart died
Age 27: Had a nervous breakdown
Age 29: Defeated for Speaker of the House
Age 34: Defeated for a Senate seat
Age 37: Elected to Congress
Age 39: Defeated for Congress
Age 46: Defeated for Senate
Age 47: Defeated for Vice President
Age 49: Defeated for Senate
Age 51: Elected President of the United States
The man is Abraham Lincoln.