On Vanity; or How Grunt Work Can Make You Virtuous

Part I

I have always been aware that I am a vain person. As a child, I refused to attempt new sports or hobbies for fear of not being good at them. I even went so far as to make up an elaborate story in my head that my parents’ couldn’t afford for me to continue participating in ballet competitions, when in reality the fear of not winning, of not being praised for a skill I just didn’t have, led eight-year old me to throw up in the bathroom before every competition until my mother gently suggested that I may want to just go back to dancing for fun.

Vanity for me has always meant knowing my skills, abilities, and aptitudes, knowing what a given community praises, and capitalizing on them all. I quickly learned that in the academic community, rigorousness and dedication could only get you so far. If you really wanted to succeed (and acquire praise), then what you needed was creative ability. You needed to be able to produce “novel, valuable behaviour that is agential in being guided by and directed toward fulfilling [your] intention or purpose.” Without fully realizing it, I had found a (creative and intellectual) use for my vanity. Vanity had become a virtue.

Or so I thought. In August of this year, I took up a position as a research fellow at a public university in my home country. I had only recently returned as a newly minted Ph.D. after an unsuccessful round on the US academic job market. Through a combination of networking and fortuitousness, I was generously offered a position working as a research assistant for a highly respected professor on her next book project. “Much of it will be grunt work…” she warned me. “Oh of course,” I replied distractedly as the monster of creative vanity already began murmuring the praises she would grant me once I had started producing the work. But within a month, I had quickly become disillusioned. From the distant land of New Zealand, I watched my US colleagues take up their postdocs, start revising their dissertations as books, and enter into the classroom with a new found sense of confidence that only the awarding of a doctorate can bring. And here I was, back where I started, working forty hours a week doing the “grunt work” for someone else’s book. All the while the vanity monster grumbled: “You’re too good for this,” “that should be you,” “why won’t they see what you can do?” And like Krapp at the end of his life, sitting in the darkness with only the memories of a mistaken epiphany, a magnum opus that never was, and the memory of a love lost, I realized slowly that vanity had failed me.

As Mathew Kieran argues, in “Creativity, Vanity and Narcissism,” we are often tricked into believing that vanity is a “creative strength.” Tolstoy claimed his masterpieces came from a motivation driven by “vanity, self-interest and pride”; George Orwell said that he wrote out of “sheer egotism”; and Kanye West’s egregious behaviour is excused by our society as the by-product of creative genius. As Kieran points out, “we admire people’s creative courage and curiosity” and “we often regret (and sometimes condemn) creative cowardice, timidity and incurious acceptance of current orthodoxy.” But, as he goes on to argue, “while vanity may appear to be a creative strength, in reality it turns out to be a creative vice” (74).

For Kieran, “a person is vain” when “someone’s judgements, responses or actions are driven by […] the desire for gratification” via “elicited or solicited appreciation or esteem of an actual or implied audience.” This gratification must also allow the vain to apprehend themselves as glorified and to believe in the conception of themselves as “deserving of appreciation,” in line with their own “high self-estimation” (80). Creative vanity might at first glance appear to be a strength: when thought of as a personal vice, “a degree of vanity, at least where relevant to the implied audience and self-glorifying self-image, can seem to give rise to higher, more ambitious task setting, higher self-set creative expectations, creative risk taking, perseverance and the discriminate seeking out or anticipation of creative projects likely to be well received” (82).

But vanity also “corrode[s] co-operation and collaborative activity” and this leads to “creative alienation and impudence” (84, 87). Vanity leads to the overestimation of achievement, which means that it “will tend to be blind to certain risks” and will “have a tendency to set people up to fail.” Due to the need for self-glorification, vain people “tend to put in hard work only where this is either visible to the relevant implied audience or devoted toward something that it is assumed will eventually be visible to (and esteemed by) them.” Furthermore, vanity tends toward creative cowardice in seeking conformity toward the values and interests of the implied audience […]. The vain will be averse to trying out genuinely new, radical, potentially transformative possibilities, relative to the implied audience” (87). As Kieran sums up,

Vanity might be thought of as analogous to a particularly fickle kind of stimulant that can on occasion boost performance likely to be recognized by an implied audience as creative on particular kinds of occasion but – at least over time – will tend toward fundamental creative misjudgment and misdirection. Furthermore, vanity brings with it natural tendencies toward certain other creative vices. The vain seek something, via being creative, which is at best orthogonal to creativity and at worst a problematic rival. Now, seeking praise is far from a bad thing. The trouble is that vanity seeks praise as self-glorifying […]. The fundamental error is that the vain value attitudes of praise or admiration as ends in themselves rather than as, at best, indicators of creative progress or achievement and this, in turn, explains tendencies toward error and misdirection”. (89)

Part II

“This is Not on the Exam,” the final essay of Notes to Self by Irish academic, Emilie Pine, is a personal narrative on misogyny, institutional pressure, and mental health in academic institutions. It is, first and foremost, an essay about the emotionally and intellectually exploitative culture of the neoliberal university and the individual lives of those who try to survive it. But it is also a story of the dangers of vanity. “I have always wanted to be liked,” Pine begins this essay, before going on to point out that “The way things are now though, everyone needs to be likeable, because these days, the career ladder—for men as well as women—is indistinguishable from the esteem ladder, the how-much-your-employer-likes-you ladder.” For Pine, this led her to take on more and more work—more funded projects, more teaching and supervision, more conferences, more service—in the pursuit of institutional praise, gratification, and promotion. In a scene that is tragically all too familiar for a number of academics, Pine describes the moment in which she hit her mental breaking point, quite literally, as she mindlessly drove her car into a gate post.

Thankfully, it didn’t take me driving my car into a post in order to figure out that the creative vanity game was not a strength, but a vice learned over my years of academic affiliation. What I did hit, face first and with much force, was the wall of grunt work. Sitting in my office, feeling sorry for myself because no one seemed to realize the creative potential of my work, I stumbled across Kieran’s argument. “The creatively virtuous aim to do something new and worthwhile, so concern for garnering esteem as such does not figure directly in their reasoning about what they do.” That day, I decided to start this blog. I can’t promise it will do anything new, or even anything particularly worthwhile. But I will embrace my grunt work as a potential path to creativity, aim for the new and worthwhile without concern for garnering esteem. In the past, the small bit of creativity I possessed might have come “at the cost of personal vice but,” as Kieran reminds us, “vanity itself can be turned toward creative virtue.” And that’s what I will try to do here. The vanity monster can starve, for all I care.

Works Cited

Kieran, Mathew. “Creativity, Vanity and Narcissism.” Creativity and Philosophy. Routledge, 2018.

Pine, Emilie. Notes to Self. Penguin, 2019.

Up next, “On Distaste; or Why I find Marketing Myself So Hard.”

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