How to be a Good Jerk

the-jerk-poster-steve-martin-957x540Periodically we share wisdom from our team with our community. The below letter was sent to the Dartmouth Public Voices fellowship cohort from facilitator Tom Zoellner.

A lot of you of my age (and perhaps juvenile sense of humor) will always associate the actor Steve Martin with banjos and songs about thermoses and the movie “The Jerk.” But he’s also a respected novelist, and an occasional essayist for The New Yorker.

His essays are both wry and inventive, and while I can’t link them here because of the magazine’s paywall, check out the first few chapters of his book “Pure Drivel” for a sense of his voice.

He was once asked in an interview about how people reacted to his short essays, and he described a remarkable outcome. He said he usually got a more thoughtful and engaged reaction from a 600-word article that took him two hours to write than he did from a movie that cost $200 million and six months to make. The difference in the “return on investment” was nothing short of staggering.

And even inherently unfair (more on that in a second).

We see this effect all the time at The Oped Project. Taking a page from our own playbook for News Hijackers, I’m going to call it “The Jerk Effect.”

This is when one scholar can spend five years developing a particular idea, backing it up with reams of careful research, hypothesis-testing and rigorous field work. They agonize over comparative models and data analysis. They rewrite their monograph (or book) multiple times and hedge every conclusion. Then comes the time when they’re finally ready to roll out the zeppelin out of the hangar and set it aloft. And perhaps twelve people actually notice.

And then…some jerk comes along, pounds out 750 smooth words (with no data sets!), gets it into a big newspaper and reaps all the credit and the attention for the same idea.

Is this fair? Absolutely not.

Charles Darwin, who knew a thing or two about unfairness, said as much. “In science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to whom the idea first occurs.”

Our founder, Katie Orenstein, likes to tell the story of laboring in Haiti for years and producing carefully-wrought material that got no attention. Then somebody convinced her to spend half an afternoon writing an opinion piece for a small Latin American publication. That led to an invitation to write a letter to The New York Times, and then the oped page. And then she had the attention of the White House.

We at The Oped Project like to ask: “Who narrates the world?” Which is a way of asking which stories are going to be told, and from which perspective. And by who.

More often than not, that narrator is the jerk who decided to bug the Times or the Post or the Valley News with their idea, which can be phrased simply, powerfully and eloquently. As Steve Martin said, it doesn’t need to be a $200 million movie with a cast of hundreds. It doesn’t need to be overthought or a source of agony. It can be as short as this email and written just as quickly. And if you do it right, it can change your life. And it can change the world, just a little or maybe a lot.

Yes, Dartmouth fellows, this is my way of saying I really want you to be That Jerk. Amy and I will do what we can to aid you in your journey to jerkdom.

And now, let’s take a minute to toast the successes in our midst with an especially deep quaff from our thermos (and not an ordinary thermos; the extra best thermos you can buy).

We can all claim credit — but especially Petra — for the “fifteen-minute oped” with the cool Game of Thrones hook that went live the other week. And then there was Irene’s piece on refugees in Turkey. And Ellen made excellent points in her WBUR essay on women in academia.

Here’s to a summer of productivity, contentment and loving jerkiness.

With admiration,
Tom

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