Working with Words: Adam Alter

Adam Alter is the author of Drunk Tank Pink: The Subconscious Forces that Shape How We Think, Feel and Behave (Bloomsbury). An assistant professor of marketing and psychology at NYU, his research focuses on the intersection of behavioral economics, marketing, and the psychology of judgment and decision-making. Adam’s publications include the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, Psychology Today and the Atlantic.

Adam will be giving a Lunchbox/Soapbox at the Wheeler Centre on Thursday 1 May. In the lead-up, we spoke to him about loving academia, why it’s powerful to get feedback from children on your work, and his advice for aspiring writers: write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explaining your aspirations and asking for advice.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece I had published was an academic paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, U.S.A.. My grad school advisor and I found that you could predict the performance of shares on the stock market based on their names: companies with simpler names do better than those with complex names, particularly when they first enter the markets. My first piece in print in a mainstream outlet was an op-ed in the New York Times. I summarised some of the ideas from my book to argue that people become different versions of themselves in different locations: walk through a messy place and you become a litterbug; walk through an area filled with people and you become misanthropic. Basically, there are hundreds — thousands? — of versions of each of us, each version reflecting the world around us at any moment in time.

What’s the best part of your job?

The variety in what I do. I conduct academic research, write academic papers, teach students, advice Ph.D. candidates, write books and articles, consult companies and government agencies, speak at conferences, non-profits, company events, college ceremonies, and so on. Academia is terrific, because you can study exactly what interests you. You carve out a path that combines all the elements that you enjoy while minimising the ones you don’t enjoy.

What’s the worst part of your job?

This is a much harder question — which is good news! The worst part, I think, is that people move around so much in academia that your close friends and family members end up scattered across the globe. I left Sydney to study in the US, and I’m now married and settled in New York City. I love living in New York, but my parents and brother are in Sydney, and most of the friends I made at grad school and as a professor are in Europe or Australia or Asia or Africa or South America or other parts of North America — and very few of them are still in New York. If I could bring together everyone who was special to me (and move New York to a warmer part of the country!), I’d consider my job close to perfect.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Last week one of my colleagues told me that his ten-year-old son is studying a chapter from my book, Drunk Tank Pink, at his school in Brooklyn. In the chapter I talk about the power of labels — how important it is to be careful when we describe people by their race, ethnicity, religion, physical size, and so on. The students are working on projects based on the chapter, and they’re presenting their findings to the entire school. I’m visiting the class in May to talk to them about the book, and more importantly, to hear what they found interesting, important, and puzzling. It’s always flattering to hear that an adult enjoys something you’ve written, but for me it’s much more powerful to get the same feedback from a child.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice was to turn everything into a story. Humans transmit information across the ages as narratives, and the bits of information that endure are embedded in stories. One reason why people remember religious texts for thousands of years is that they’re packed with great stories. This year, Darren Aronofsky is releasing Noah, a film about Noah and the Ark. Growing up, I watched Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments over and over and over again. I’m not religious, and you don’t have to be observant to appreciate those stories. In the end, any piece of information can be fashioned into a story. The best writers sell their ideas by puffing them up with details, anecdotes, and tangents that turn dry information into something digestible, transmissible, and memorable.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Nothing specific pops out, but much of what I’ve written has been published in places where readers offer comments. It’s always interesting to hear what people like, what they dislike, and how they connect your writing to ideas that hadn’t entered your mind till they explained the relationship.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Life would be different, but I’d still teach and advise and consult and speak.

There’s much debate on whether writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Absolutely. I’m not sure there’s any skill that fundamentally can’t be taught. Some people are naturally stronger than others — at writing and everything else — but teaching brings you closer to your potential. I’ve been taught so much by so many excellent writers, much of it in the form of specific approaches or concrete tips. Either you know about those techniques, or you don’t, and the difference is a matter of education.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Write a letter or an email to 20 of your favourite writers, explain your writing aspirations as specifically as you can, and ask them for the single best piece of advice they have to offer. Most won’t reply, but some will, and when you hit the wall as you begin to pursue your aspirations, you’ll be able to reread the advice of someone who hit and managed to climb the same wall years earlier.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I try to buy my books from small, local bookstores, but they’re disappearing in New York City and everywhere else. When I can’t find books at the store, or need them in a hurry, I’ll order them online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

When you write fiction you can take any personality characteristic and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. I’d pick a character that reflects that approach — a fictional genius (like Sherlock Holmes or Dr. Gregory House), or someone with otherworldly street smarts (like House of Cards’ Francis Urquhart). There’s plenty of time for fun and good food later; I’d try to learn as much as possible about what makes this fictional genius tick.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Philip Roth’s novella, Goodbye, Columbus. It’s an impeccably told story, and Roth’s protagonist, Neil Klugman, seems so real that you see aspects of him in almost everyone you know. But the main reason why the book had such an effect on me is that it tells the story of transience and change better than any other piece of writing I’ve read. It tells of one mostly glorious summer in Klugman’s life, which, as all summers do, eventually ends. That concept really speaks to me, because I’ve lived on three continents, in large cities and in small towns, sometimes surrounded by close friends and family, but at other times relatively isolated. When things change — for the better or for the worse — I always think about (and sometimes reread for the thousandth time) Goodbye, Columbus.

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