Life & Culture

From boxing to baking: the joy of learning new things

Adam Gopnik’s new books celebrates the mastery of skills, something that is sadly neglected in the education of children


Adam Gopnik is in demand. Six hours before we meet online, the New Yorker magazine’s long serving staff writer and bestselling author arrived home in New York at 3 am from Austin, Texas, after touring 11 American cities in 11 days to promote his fascinating new book, The Real Work.

His return will be brief as speaking engagements in the UK mean he is due to fly to London the following afternoon.

Seated in front of a wall of books, dressed casually in a grey T-shirt, he says, with an affability that belies his lack of sleep, “It has been a crazy, crazy time.”

Before he left, Gopnik and his family had sat in their living room watching the Oscars, wondering if they would show part of the opening scene of Tar, in which Gopnik, playing himself, interviews the eponymous fictional lead character, portrayed by Cate Blanchett. Instead, he got namechecked in a joke by the host, Jimmy Kimmel.

“It was hilarious,” he says, laughing. “And it reminds you of the permanent asymmetry of entertainment and erudition in American life, because my phone came alive with texts from people I hadn’t seen in 25 years, and yet I can publish, you know, 6000 words on Proust in the New Yorker, and hear from just two retired professors of French. So it was fun.”

In The Real Work, he talks about another kind of asymmetry, where “we overrate masters and underrate mastery”.

Arguing that the latter is widespread and widely achievable in the modern world, in what he describes as a “self-help book that won’t help”, he steps out from behind his desk in a “series of comic essays about the experience and inadequacies of one human narrator”, and explores what it takes to master skills including life drawing, driving, dancing, baking, boxing, and even bladder control.

“None of it was pre-planned,” he says. “It wasn’t a moment when I said, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do the next thing that will fit into the book.’ All of these things happened organically, over 15 years.”

The actual start point was when his son, Luke, who is now a PhD student in philosophy, became “obsessed” with card tricks. His then school dismissed it as a distraction.

Gopnik, however, had become “very conscious” of how the school system drove children “towards relentless achievement: pass the next test, eventually get into the ideal college, and so on”.

“There was something very empty about it,” he says.

Watching Luke doing something he had chosen for himself, “I was impressed by how happy he was, how absorbed he was, and how meaningful it was to him to be mastering these moves in card magic.”

In the book, he describes how he followed Luke and his teacher, the magician Jamy Ian Swiss, to Las Vegas.

There, he says now, he “began to formulate the idea that there was a quality of accomplishment independent of achievement that was more important to the psychic welfare, and ultimately to every other kind of welfare, for kids, because it was so much about building an internal foundation of a feeling that they could take up something [difficult], and do it.”

While this view of an accomplishment-achievement dichotomy sees us as bigger and more filled with possibility than we might realise, Gopnik is still part of the achievement-driven society he critiques, and is not divorced from its pressures and drives.

“I simultaneously plead guilty to it,” he says. “I’m a competitive person and I’m achievement driven. I want to see my kids get into the right university. And I want to sell more books than the next writer. I don’t pretend to be above it.

"But, I do think that it’s striking how little time we spend in most educational contexts encouraging kids to master things, and how much time we spend encouraging them to master taking the test that reflects the things.”

As Gopnik tries different tasks in The Real Work, he shows how mastery is achieved as a series of “small stumbling steps that then turn into a seamless sequence”. He acknowledges that this is not a novel observation — “It’s sort of fatuous and self evident,” he says — and in fact he had already touched on it in the essay Last of the Metrozoids, which appeared in his book, Through the Children’s Gate.

However, what is not self-evident, he believes, and was something that astonished him as he “willy-nilly fell into these inquiries”, is “not that it’s true, it’s always true”.

Boxing, he realised, is “every bit as structured, choreographed, technically exacting, broken down into all of these little gestures, as dancing or as drawing.” This is also not an original discovery, but the “thematic point”, he says, “is that you will never find anything that you struggle to master that doesn’t involve exactly the same process.”

The book may not work as a self-help manual but it is empowering, because it suggests that within the struggle to improve, there is joy. This is the paradox, offers Gopnik.

He is “perpetually discontented” as a writer because he can see the “space between ambition and accomplishment”.

When you are learning something new, though, “even if you’re doing it badly, you’re doing it better than you did it the week before,” he says.

The high that gives, he calls it “the flow”, “is like a cognitive opiate for human beings. As much as we inject Oxycontin into our veins to feel physically better, we inject the flow, we try to induce the flow in our heads, to feel cognitively better.

Being opened up to that emotion again and again is valuable, and the paradox”, and one could say the good news, “is that it’s more available in things we do poorly, than in things we do well.”

As a 5’ 4’’ 66-year-old who has been doing a sedentary occupation for the past 40 years, some of Gopnik’s greatest joy came from learning to box. It evokes memories, too, in the book, of his immigrant paternal grandfather, who idolised a Jewish boxer called Benny Leonard. Both men experienced antisemitism in America.

“My grandfather had to fight his way out of the schoolyard. He had to fight Irish and Italian kids, and all these other kids.” He was drawn to Leonard partly because the boxer “spent his time taunting the Irish and Italian fighters, and used his Jewish loquaciousness as one of his weapons in the ring.”

Gopkin, who jokes that he was raised in “a family that was so secularised that it could only be Jewish”, appears to suggest that he is also using his words in the The Real Work as a weapon against contemporary antisemitism.

When people, from the left and the right, attack the educated elite for being “out of touch”, he feels that they’re using the “classic model and form of European antisemitism”.

While on tour, he read a book by the German author Viktor Ullrich, who wrote a three volume biography of Hitler, in which he saw “scary and astonishing” echoes between past and present.

“Goebbels and Hitler couldn’t talk enough about how much they hated the Jews, and they didn’t cover it up,” he says.

“And it’s always about the Jews are cheating, they get into the elite institutions, they get to be doctors and, in Hitler’s case, they get to be professors of art. They’re good at taking tests but they don’t have the real volk spirit.

“I’m as Jewish as you can be, but I’m not typically a paranoid Jew. But when you hear people who think of themselves as enlightened, talking about how out of touch the educated elite is in America, I hear the same sounds as thirties antisemitism.

"I know that’s a strong view, but I do”

The Real Work is a stand against this. “To the degree that this book is a celebration of expertise, that’s its purpose,” he says.

Does Gopnik worry about a resurgent Trump? “I have daily hysteria.” He warned in 2020 wrote that he would “never surrender office peacefully”. And now Gopnik says: “He’s openly consorting with Nazis.”

Nick Fuentes, the white nationalist with whom Trump had dinner, along with Kanye West, at Mar-a-Lago last year, is “an outright antisemite and a Nazi”, he says.

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had sat down with Louis Farrakhan for dinner and had not apologised for it afterwards? How we’d feel?”

If Trump ever returns to the White House, America, Gopnik suggests, will be in a situation “not unlike where Israel is, where you have just a profound cleavage with the government and where you’re on the brink of civil disorder, and it frightens me all the time.”

The Real Work by Adam Gopnik is published by Riverrun

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