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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