John Quincy Adams. Portrait by John Singleton Copley, 1796.
“The spark from Heaven is given to few — It is not to be obtained by intreaty or by toil.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
“Those who work much do not work hard,” Henry David Thoreau observed in his prescient meditation on the myth of productivity and the measure of meaningful labor a century before the dawn of the cult of workaholism, which continues to bedevil us with ever-accelerating virulence to this day.
A generation earlier, John Quincy Adams (July 11, 1767–February 23, 1848) — another man of introspective genius and uncommon wisdom — dug at the heart of modernity’s foundational disconnect between efficiency and effectiveness: our tendency to pour tremendous energy into doing things, with little reflection on whether those are the right things to do in the first place.
His journals, now published as John Quincy Adams: Diaries 1779–1821 (public library), offer an exceedingly insightful record of one extraordinary man’s reflections on his own nature, haloed with luminous wisdom on the universals of human nature. Throughout them, the sixth President of the United States examines the paradox of how even the most industrious self-exertion can fail to attain a worthwhile result and why unfocused ambition is a guarantee of frustration rather than fulfillment.
In the spring of 1819, six years before he won the Presidency, 52-year-old Adams anticipates Kierkegaard’s proclamation that “of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous [is] to be busy,” and laments the absurdity of ineffectual busyness that animates his days in office as Secretary of State:
Every day starts new game to me, upon the field of my duties; but the hurry of the hour leaves me no time for the pursuit of it, and at the close of my Career I shall merely have gone helter skelter through the current business of the Office, and leave no permanent trace of my ever having been in it behind.
Years earlier, in observing his own habits of mind in the course of his voracious self-education, Adams had become aware of the meager correlation between effort exerted and results obtained when a clarity of purpose is lacking — even the mightiest discipline, after all, is wasted without a clear direction. In a diary entry penned on the final day of 1804 — a year he considered distinguished by “its barrenness of Events” — the thirty-seven-year-old Adams laments his tendency to lose himself in rabbit holes of what may be interesting but is not relevant to his larger aims:
My studies were assiduous and seldom interrupted. I meant to give them such a direction, as should be useful in its tendency; yet on looking back, and comparing the time consumed with the knowledge acquired, I have no occasion to take pride in the result of my application — I have been a severe Student, all the days of my life — But an immense proportion of the time I have dedicated to the search of knowledge, has been wasted upon subjects which can never be profitable to myself or useful to others — Another source of useless toil, is the want of a method properly comprehensive and minute, in the pursuit of my enquiries — This method has been to me a desideratum for many years; I have found none in books; nor have I been able to contrive one for myself. From these two causes, I have derived so little use from my labours, that it has often brought me to the borders of discouragement, and I have been attempted to abandon my books altogether — This however is impossible — for the habit has so long been fixed in me, as to have become a passion, and when once severed from my books, I find little or nothing in life, to fill the vacancy of time — I must therefore continue to plod, and to lose my labour; contenting myself with the consolation, that even this drudgery of Science, contributes to Virtue, though it lead not to wealth or honour…