Show Your Work

“What’s the rule everyone learned in third grade math?”

Mentor and counselor, Doug, asked me that question a few years ago as we sat in his office.  We were discussing what it means to be a curious individual.  By “curious” is meant not simply someone who surfs the internet, looks stuff up on Google, binges on Netflix or scrolls endlessly on Facebook to see what their friends are doing.

“Okay, what was the rule in third grade math?”

I was rusty and decades removed from Sister Siena and third grade math in Bishop Kelley school. Our discussion had to do with authors we read and why.  A curious person, I learned, was one constantly asking questions, seeking to think things through, make connections and, as it were, do the math about life, people, and reality.  Doug pulled a book out of his desk.  I was quite familiar with the book and the author.  He directed me to the endnotes, or lack of them, in the back of the book.

“The rule was ‘show your work’ or you don’t get credit even if you got the right answer.”

“Ah.  Now I remember.” Images of long division appeared in my mind.

Doug then contrasted the book he pulled from his desk (“he doesn’t show his work”) with the works of a scholar we both read and respected, Walter Brueggemann.  A peek at the endnotes and bibliography of any Brueggemann book show that he is 1) curious, having done voluminous research, 2) an author with integrity, giving attribution and not passing off brilliant insights he gleaned in his reading as his own, and 3) humble, realizing that seeking the solitary advice of his own brain was unwise and fraught with danger, if only in the blind spots.  Cave ab homine unius libri (“beware the man of one book”).

What’s my point?

One, question what you hear.  Nobody gets a pass.  Not you, not your parents, not President Trump, not your boss, not mainstream media of the Left or Right, not the Pope, not your minister.  And not the experts.  Review all and do your homework.  Caveat: You will be a pain in the neck to others when you do this, chiefly to the incurious with an agenda.  Be prepared.

Two, give credit when you’ve acquired something, learned something from someone else.  Plagiarism is not sniffed out in schools and print media only.  We are all composites of the people and influences that have touched our minds and lives.  You’re building on the work of others, even if that’s difficult to admit. (Attribution for this insight goes to a friend, Penn.)

Robert Dick Wilson was a biblical scholar of the late 19th and early 20th century.  He mastered forty-five languages and dialects.  (Resume breathing.  I did say forty-five.)  One thing that stirred one of his interviewers was the habit of Professor Wilson giving proof for every statement he made.

He showed his work.


  • Are you able to describe the processes you follow to come up with answers? (In Information Technology, we call these algorithms.)
  • Are you curious or simply bored? A curious individual is known for many things, chiefly not accepting simple solutions and pat answers.
  • Do you give attribution, credit where credit is due?

Suggested Reading:

Show Your Work! (Austin Kleon)

How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day (Michael Gelb)

The Craft of Research, Fourth Edition (Wayne C. Booth et al)


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Empowerment By Vocabulary

Self-development expert Jim Rohn once made the important point that “all of life is sales.”   Throughout each day of our life journey, we are all involved in some form of communication, seeking to win a hearing and persuade others for mutual benefit.

Today I listened to some older success audio by the late Earl Nightingale.  One of the points Earl made was the fact that people in very powerful and influential positions in business are characterized by their expansive vocabularies.  A large and varied command of language carries with it the potential for advancement and increased incomes for its possessor.

I love words.  Just ask my wife.  And I get bored easily with clichés.  Aren’t you tired of hearing things like “awesome,” “been there, done that” and “just sayin’?”  I’m sure others are too.  The use of a cliché often betrays laziness if nothing else.

It’s been said that the difference between a sparse versus a rich vocabulary is a mere 3500 words.  Ponder that for a moment.  By taking time to learn new words and fresh expressions, you can elevate your powers of persuasion, influence and earning.

Here are some tips to grow your vocabulary and your station:

  • Read widely.  One public figure whose stunningly rich vocabulary sets him apart from the rank-and-file is political commentator George Will.  One might not always agree with a position Will espouses but listening to him articulate it is a treat—candy for the ear.  As well, read novelists who’ve done very well with wordcraft.  Ralph McInerny and Daniel Silva are favorites of mine.
  • Read with a dictionary close by.  Corollary to the above bullet point. I have a new Kindle Fire®.  It has the advantage of a built-in dictionary that activates when you highlight a word.  If a word is unfamiliar to you, look it up.  Then begin using it in your own speaking and writing.
  • Use new words in speech as appropriate.  The rule is to prefer the shorter word if it conveys the precision and color you are looking for.  But using just the right word trumps all.  Take a little time before speaking and seek to say something in a new and winsome way.
  • Learn foreign languages.  My own studies of French, Russian, Hebrew and Greek have all helped me to understand my own English and to communicate more vigorously.  President Richard Nixon once commended the study of Latin because 1) it is the most orderly of all languages and 2) it is foundational for much of our own language.

One of the goals we should each strive for is to give those with whom we interact a superior experience to that which they are currently enjoying or loathing.  New words bring color and freshness.  And everyone thrives on that.  Be the source.

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