John Quincy Adams is one of the most distinguished politicians in American history (son of a president, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, President, Congressman) who spoke four languages and who somehow found time to make four children, which for a man is arguably more difficult than for a woman. When he died in 1848 no national American politician had spent more time in public service, roughly 35 years in total.
Historians rank John Quincy Adams as one of America’s all-time greatest Secretaries of State, but even while holding that office he felt most of his days were wasted hustling to-and-fro…
“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.”
John Quincy Adams recognized substantial effort doesn’t equal substantial outcomes. When he was 37-years-old he wrote about how he often lost himself in materials he found interesting, but were irrelevant to his larger goals…
“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.”
On certain days he’d look up from his desk to see the fading sun only to realize he “wasted” it on studying logarithmic calculation (I guess we can think of this as the 18th century equivalent of playing Call of Duty). He would then scold himself for poor time management and for not focusing deeper on a subject more relevant to his work…
“I find it easy to engage my attention in scientific pursuits of almost any kind, but difficult to guard against two abuses — the one of being insensibly drawn from one to another, as I now have from Chronology to Astronomy and from Astronomy to Logarithms — the other of misapplying time, which is essential to the business of life; public and private.”
From reading John Quincy Adams diary we can see that he was exceptionally harsh on himself, perhaps because he lived in the shadow of John Adams who some historians rank as the smartest American president with an estimated I.Q. of 173 (Donald Trump not counted as a historian).
But then again, John Quincy Adams was no schlup himself where some historians rank him as the smartest American president with an estimated I.Q. of 165. J.Q.A. also suffered from depression, which he attributed to his parents’ high expectations.
We see though that it’s because of John Quincy Adams intellectual insecurity and curiosity that he uncovered more about the nature of reality than nearly all of his contemporaries…
“I this day discovered a new particular of my own ignorance of things which I ought to have known these thirty years — One clear morning about a fortnight since I remarked from my bed-chamber windows a certain group of stars forming a Constellation which I had not before observed and of which I knew not the name — I marked down their positions on a slip of paper with a view to remember them hereafter and to ascertain what they were — This day on looking into the Abridgment of La Lande’s Astronomy, one of the first figures that struck my eye in the plates was that identical Constellation — It was Orion — That I should have lived nearly fifty years without knowing him, shews too clearly what sort of an observer I have been… I am ashamed at my age to be thus to seek for the very first Elements of practical Astronomy.”
John Quincy Adams also wrote in his diary about how his daily routine consisted mostly of reading (he was very much an introvert despite being a public official) with a particular eye toward knowledge he could teach his children…
“I rise on the average about 6 o’clock, in the morning, and retire to bed between ten and eleven at Night — The interval is filled as it has been nearly two years, more particularly, as since I placed Charles at school — The four or five hours that I previously devoted to him I now employ in reading books of Science — These studies I now pursue, not only as the most delightful of occupations to myself, but with a special reference to the improvement and education of my children.”
(B.T.W. keep your powdered wig on! I was joking before about you-know-what.)
John Quincy Adam’s ultimate daily goal was to acquire knowledge so his mind could be of use to his “fellow creatures.”
“To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is … the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.”
“It is my wish to fill every moment of my time with some action of the mind which may contribute to the pleasure or the improvement of my fellow creatures.”
From John Quincy Adam’s great example we can see the benefit of letting our curiosity run wild, which could end up bearing fruit long-term in a way we might not have predicted, such as how John Quincy Adam’s interest in mathematics and astronomy later translated, among many other things, into him becoming Congress’s primary supporter for the creation of the Smithsonian Institution.
But then as John Quincy Adam’s self-admonishments reveal, we need to occasionally reign in our curiosity so we can focus on the most pressing matters at hand.
Each day there should be a time for maintenance (routines, meetings, duties), a time for meandering (exploring random interests), and a time for meaning (mastering a subject, working on a long-term project, spending time with family).
“Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.” — John Quincy Adams