the little round button

I was off my rhythm this week. The kids were home from school for winter break and it was more than the usual life-and-death struggle to stay productive. To be fair, they are remarkably self-sufficient for their ages. I’m just a delicate little flower when it comes to my writing routine, I guess. One pea under my mattresses and I’m ready to pack it in and head to law school. (It must be nice to just show up to court and argue with people as your job. In contrast to writing, anyway.)

Here’s some New York City trivia: According to certain obscure 18th-century bylaws, our public school system is classified as a “Hobbyist Civic Enterprise,” meaning the schools themselves are only required to be open “Here ye and There ye.” True fact. “A Liberal Peppering of Schooldays for Ye Haphazard Education of Ye City’s Downtrodden Youthe,” is the exact wording, as I recall. (Ye New York City “mayor,” Bill DeBlasio, is likewise only in his office here ye and there ye. That’s also when ye subways run during rush hour.) Despite my work backlog, I can’t pull the “period of contemplation” excuse for at least another few months, so here ye go with this ye essay.

Back near its start in 2015, I called my newsletter the Maven Game because I wanted to help the helpers. Maven (noun, from the Yiddish meyvn): “one who is experienced or knowledgeable, teacher.” Looking back on nearly five years of fairly regular output here, I realize “panjandrum” might have been closer to the crux of my message: nowadays, we all want to become a “powerful personage.” To wield influence. To command attention and respect. From Merriam-Webster:

[A] nonsense word coined by British actor and playwright Samuel Foote around 1755…[He] made up a line of gibberish to “test the memory of his fellow actor Charles Macklin, who had asserted that he could repeat anything after hearing it once.”

Foote’s made-up line was, “And there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies and the Grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at the top.”

Becoming a maven is a beautiful, uncomplicated, four-step process: learn, learn, learn, teach. Becoming a panjandrum, on the other hand, is fraught: Scary. Painful. Unpredictable. You’re going to have to put yourself out there in the worst possible way. It’s not about becoming a maven but rather the maven. Becoming influential and respected certainly isn’t an actionable goal in any meaningful way—how does one set about becoming one? What’s the first step? The second? Most aspiring panjandrums end up as picninnies, or even joblillies. Only a rare handful become true grand panjandrums with the little round button at the top, and I’m not sure a majority of those ever set out to become one deliberately.

How to avoid the garyulie trap? Stop chasing influence, for one. Let it come to you instead. Build your expertise and authority slowly and deliberately. Above all, beware sudden enthusiasms. They tend to crop up right when things are getting interesting—or, at least, useful.

As a kid, I’d go through these phases. A handful of synapses would fire in strange conjunction and all of a sudden I’d be scouring the local library for everything I could find about knights and medieval times. For weeks or months, I’d think of nothing but pauldrons and pommels, heraldry and holy paladins. Then, abruptly, I’d be done. Sated. I’d wake from my trance and go back to life as usual. Before long, however, I’d be off on a Greco-Roman kick: Homer, Ovid, Clash of the Titans. During one of these inexplicable and often prolonged episodes, I’d pay little or no attention to anything outside my area of interest, outside my own head, at home or school. My obsession might be a geographic region or historical period, a particular author or genre, a new skill: juggling, yo-yos. Any area of exploration both narrow and deep. I was a rabbit forever in search of a hole.

In retrospect, none of this ceaseless scavenging and compulsive thinking culminated in anything intellectually significant. I acquired some miscellaneous knowledge, sure, but I never built up a true body of understanding in any of these areas. My enthusiasm and curiosity flared and died, flared and died, with very little to show for any of it but overdue book fines.

The broad strokes of any subject are usually interesting, at first; it’s in the details that the challenge grows. Going beyond the gist is where that initial burst of enthusiasm tends to fade. It’s also where the value to others in all your exploration begins to accrue. That discomfort—I didn’t sign up for this!—is a sign that you’re actually getting somewhere. Now it’s time to dig in, to hold your attention fixed on your objective: set external milestones for growth, establish sources of mental, physical, and emotional support to carry you through by finding peers and building a community. And so on. As a kid, I didn’t know how to do any of that. The successful panjandrum must be patient and, yes, professional. There must be a plan of action, a purpose, behind all learning and any teaching.

Authority and influence are scarce resources. We admire our polymaths but we listen to those who are dogged in their pursuit of substantial, hard-won comprehension in a single area. You’ve got to go further than mere enthusiasm can take you if you want that little round button at the top.