In Which I Introduce a New Feature: the Assay.

During my parents’ last visit to New York City, my mother pointed out a limitation of my blog. “On your blog, it’s easy to find certain things, like tips and quotations,” she began. “They’re set off and labeled, so you know exactly where they are.”

“Right,” I said. “I try to make it easy.”

“I like those, but the posts I like best don’t have a label. My favorites are the ones where you talk about a big idea, or have a really thoughtful discussion.”

“Often I put those posts on Mondays,” I said. “That’s when I post a ‘big idea.’ I don’t always manage to express a big idea, but when I’m trying, I usually write it for a Monday.”

“Well, I didn’t know that. I wish it were possible to go back to find just those most thoughtful pieces. They aren’t identified for the reader.”

I realized that she’d put her finger on something that had bothered me for a long time. “You are so right,” I told her. “The posts that I consider my best aren’t tagged or grouped together in any way. But what should I call them? What’s the term for what they are?”

We brainstormed for a while with different ways to identify these pieces. Nothing seemed right. Then, as we were standing by the elevator, ready to put the discussion aside until later, my mother said, “What about an ‘assay’?”

“That sounds good. Though I’d better make sure I’m right about the definition of ‘assay.’”

We looked up the word. “Assay” turned out to be a brilliant suggestion. An “assay” is “an examination and determination as to characteristics” or “an analysis or examination,” in particular “an analysis (as of an ore or drug) to determine the presence, absence, or quantity of one or more components.” Yes!

I particularly like this term for two reasons.

First, an assay is often done in a scientific context: an assay of a metal. My study of human nature often feels that way. Particularly when I wrote my first book, Power Money Fame Sex, I seemed to be writing the Periodic Table of the Elements of Human Nature. (And of course, I often do study the scientific underpinnings of human behavior.)

Second, and more important to me, the word “assay” is a tie to the great writers about character and the conduct of life. While my work is sometimes described as self-help (and I certainly do try to be self-helpful), I aim to write in the tradition of figures like Thoreau, Tolstoy, la Rochefoulcauld, Francis Bacon, Aristotle, St. Therese of Lisieux, and of course, my favorite, Samuel Johnson.

One of the towering masters in this line is Montaigne, who wrote short meditations about human nature, using himself as the chief point of study.

Around 1578, in the first use of the term, Montaigne called his attempts his “essais,” to indicate that his writings were a series of trials, attempts, or tests of his judgment. Now, of course, these are called his Essays.

So I love using a similar word, “assay,” to identify my own best attempts to understand human nature by understanding myself. (As Thoreau remarked, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.”) By identifying and labeling these posts, I’ll make it possible for them to be found more easily.

So from now on, I’ll identify such pieces as “assays.” What might be an assay?
A problem in happiness: drift.
Are you annoyed by excessively cheery people? Or extremely gloomy people?
The sadness of a happiness project.
The movie “Twilight” inspires me to do a better job with some of my resolutions.
Ten myths about happiness — which do you believe?.
Be happier: embrace the paradoxes of a happiness project.

Now I feel a lot of pressure to come up with a very big idea, so I can call it an assay. Of course my mind is going blank.

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  • There’s your “big idea” topic right there: The brain freeze you get when you set out to create a “big idea”.

    • gretchenrubin


  • Great idea Gretchen.

  • Great thinking! It helps when we can put our writings into little boxes! Or big ones, lol!

  • I love your Mom’s role in all of this. She knows your work well enough to identify a gap and she came up with the name. Yay for Mom! If she’s interested in expanding her blog consulting practice, I’d welcome her advice on mine.

  • Cool idea – I love the definition (and had no idea what it meant before reading this article). You could also use tags, like “big idea” or something of that nature…

  • I didn’t know that was a word until today!

    • gretchenrubin

      Has anyone read the wonderful children’s book THE TALKING PARCEL? One
      character in the book tries to use all the under-used words in the
      dictionary, so they get a chance to be out in the world. I’m doing my part
      for assay!

  • Thank you for such a concise and accurate history of my favorite literary genre, the essay. I think your new label is a wonderful idea. But remember, the best essays always start small, close, and personal. They explore that thoroughly, and if they are lucky they grow up to be big ideas. You’ve been doing fine, so don’t think you have to go looking for the big ideas for us. Just keep on the path you’ve been traveling.

  • Eileen

    Way to go. I started following you recently and now look forward to the Moment of Happiness and other great finds. I drafted my own list of Commandments and your book will be my first of 2011. I also love it that you list in the sidebar theories of happiness that you reject, and that you repeatedly acknowledge that everyone’s happiness project will look different. Thank you.

  • LivewithFlair

    I think I love the interviews best of all. I have learned so much from all the interesting folks you bring to this blog. Thank you! I also like some of the tips.

  • Peninith1

    What I love, Gretchen, is that every entry in your blog gets its chance to become an assay, but the storm of responses and creative thought some posts provoke are what seems to prove certain topics are ‘big ideas.’ I could have guessed that something as provocative as the sadness of a happiness project might be a big idea; but who’d have thought that tiggers and eyores would provoke deep thought from anyone? I am still wrangling with the in-the-moment and long-term planning dichotomies of how to live well.

  • Ellavanw

    The Restatement of Love is definitely an assay!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! I’m always drawn to that structure.

      I’m so thrilled to hear that you’ve read the Restatement of Love. (Here’s
      the link if anyone is curious:

      I wrote it with one of my law-school roommates in our last year in law
      school. It was so much fun to work on it!

  • Assay it is, though my Inner Pedant (just underneath the surface, LOL) feels duty-bound to point out that both essay and assay are basically the same word.

    ‘Assay’ is simply comes from the Middle French ‘assai’, which became ‘essai’ in modern French. And ‘essai’ is today is the translation for both ‘essay’ and ‘assay’.

    I went to Montaigne’s tower in France a couple of years back. Pics here: The tower the first photo on the third row, with a statue Michel himself next, then the chateau behind the tower.

    • gretchenrubin

      Hmmmm….I’m not sure your pedant has that right, about how the words are
      used in English today. An assay about summer vacation? An essay of gold?

      • Very interesting. The two words are, I think, very similar – but not identical – in meaning as verbs. When we assay, we analyze or test. When we essay, we examine or attempt. As nouns, they are quite a bit different.

        I have seen both used in their noun forms. However, they can both be a bit awkward as verbs, in modern usage.

        “He essayed the dance class for the sake of his girlfriend.”

        “She assayed his reaction to determine if he really enjoyed the class.”

        Words make me happy. 😉

  • I love it! I was not familiar with the word Assay, but did some research on Essay a few years ago and find the origin and potential of the form fascinating. I might explore it on my blog in the future, when I feel like getting more literary (right now it’s all about babies, and mom brain rules). I look forward to seeing what you do with your new form!

  • oh so that’s what those are called ASSAYS…I also feel a bit self-centered when writing one, but as you mention in Thoreau’s quote: who else can be the guinea pig of my analysis if not me, right?! thank you… always looking forward to a post from you- all so thought provoking and personal-blog-post inspiring!

  • Molly

    Wow, I just read this piece about how you and your mother came up with a term ‘assay’ for your Monday posts. I didn’t realize this was what you devoted Mondays to posting, and what a thoughtful discussion of how you came up with the term and why it is the perfect term to use. I think it is these bits about your discussions/blog posts/books, along with your use of some of the great thinkers, that really raises your material above what a happiness blog might end up being in the wrong hands.

  • Msconduct

    Another perspective on this you might find interesting: essai is French for “try”. And trying, it seems to me, is what you’re doing when you’re attempting to get a handle on and put over a big idea, which is often not straightforward to formulate. So it’s even more suitable!

  • Allison

    I like your mother’s organizational idea for your “big idea” posts! I have thought of them as “Rubinations,” a play on ruminations!

    • ResearchAddict

      Allison, your contribution seems far more accurate and interesting to me. When I saw an essay labeled “Assay” I couldn’t figure it out. Typo? Essay about assays? Just didn’t make sense. Having now read her reasoning I get it, but to my mind it is too esoteric even though it is technically accurate. RUBINATIONS is perfect. Creative. Stirs my curiosity. Reinforces her brand by using her name. Allison wins!

  • iannicholson2000

    Oh dear. More American corruption of the English language. Well, for the past few hundred years, assay has meant to value something. Hence we have Assay offices who may legally hallmark gold and silver. Essays are writings on a specific subject.

    Why can’t you just avoid the confusion and not think you’ve made up a new meaning for a word where one previously existed? It makes you look ignorant of the English language, and even more silly for writing a piece to justify it.

    • Sarah

      I just saw this reference to “assay.” I have spent a lot of time trying to not confuse the two words essay and assay. I usually have to stop and think to make sure I am saying the right one. I just think this adds more confusion and I surely don’t need that. As a medical technologist, I run assays at work. At home, my school age children write essays for homework. They look at me funny if I ask them if they have finished their assay.

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