Un-credentialed & Successful

Call me an optimist, a sucker for hope, advancement, and seeing people succeed. I find stories about a person’s growth and development to be inherently satisfying and consistently interesting. What’s more, when done well they offer insights and lessons.

Christopher Zara‘s book Uneducated has a telling subtitle: A Memoir of Flunking Out, Falling Apart, and Finding My Worth. It is a fascinating account of a man’s troubled childhood and difficulty journey to a professional career – all without a college degree.

Zara was born into a working class family in central New Jersey. His parents were neither particularly supportive nor attentive, and mental health issues compounded the author’s difficulties. Acting out in his teens, Zara was angry and confused. Kicked out of school, he was briefly institutionalized before moving into an un-moored decade of personal drift. Zara’s description of himself, the toxic environments he was drawn to (picture shaved heads and Doc Marten boots), and the underlying lack of direction speak to difficulties many face. Zara is far from unique in his rejection of school. He wanted something and did not know what. While help with addiction was an essential step in Zara’s journey, he was able to earn a high school equivalency, progress, and health came slowly. Overcoming drugs and his eventual addiction to heroin was a further problem he had to confront. Happily, Zara beat his addiction, moved several times with the hope of improving his situation, and began to find himself and his passions. Moving to New York City and using his language skills reshaped his life.

The key turning point, Zara writes, was an unpaid internship for a struggling show business publication with an abusive owner/boss. Eliding his lack of a college degree, Zara talks his way into the position and proves himself as a competent and dedicated employee. He struggles with impostor syndrome. Zara perseveres, gains more contacts, new positions and begins to write a book. There’s an “aw, shucks, I didn’t know ——-” throughout the book as a challenge/opportunity is identified and then overcome. It takes decades, tremendous discipline and an occasional break, but it happens. Zara writes a very successful book, becomes a well-known journalist, marries and finds stability and himself. Uneducated is his coming out, so to speak, about that journey.

Zara’s fears of not getting the interview, not making it past HR without a college degree are well founded. We don’t seem to have a good reasons for it as a society, but it persists nonetheless. Zara’s op ed piece in the NY Times concisely spells out the consequences of bias against those without a college degree. What he does not examine fully, though, is that a degree alone does not necessarily open doors. What institution, what major, what degree are other important parts of the equation. Community college graduates more often than not only list their baccalaureate institution. Public institution degree holders often feel inadequate around Ivy League alumni. Organizations and rules to determine and allocate status is a big part of how societies and cultures operate. Status drives assumptions, opportunities, and much more of our lives that we are comfortable admitting.

What I found most interesting about the memoir was Zara’s terrific smarts – he’s a wildly clever and creative man – and his avoidance of the distinction between learning and credentials. He did not attend college but in no way does that mean he is uneducated. What he lacks formal education and a credential. These are very different things. Most of us in education are well aware of the difference. Had I had a chance to talk about the book with Zara, I would have suggested “Uncredentialed” as a more appropriate title. The man has experienced quite the education indeed.

David Potash

Dreaming of Inns

A musician, poet, writer, collaborator and influencer before there was social media to render the term relevant, Patti Smith is a genius, a unique voice in American culture. She is a creative force and an artist who has collaborated with many other artists across many fields. Just before the pandemic in 2019 she wrote Year of the Monkey. It is a memoir, but not her first. The book is a creative journey into her 70th year. Filled with travel, discovery, loss and reflection. Year of the Monkey is a mature book, and I mean that in the best sense of the term. She writes, draws, takes photos and thinks about her life, her colleagues and her friends.

First are the words and phrases. Smith’s talent is on display throughout. She writes beautifully, turning description and observation into lyrics and word poems. You could read much of the book aloud. I did. You will also want to jot down the phrase here, the clause there. She mixes the general with the particular. The year and the book are both tethered to the specific and comfortable with the abstract, or at least that is how Smith frames it. The language is wonderful.

That given, the story is not for everyone.

Reading Year of the Monkey brought to mind Rembrandt’s many self-portraits. He painted himself differently, yet with integrity, many times over his lifetime. It is his latter works that make sense here, the paintings that contain the lines and consequences of age, the power and weakness of wisdom and experience, and force the viewer to confront more of the complications of Rembrandt’s humanity. It is not necessarily attractive; nor is it meant to be. Rembrandt is not following a particular convention. Nor is trying to appeal to the viewer. It is personal and creative. His portraits sit, accessible and not. There’s an inscrutable quality to them.

Smith’s book functions in a similar manner. She flits, engages, disengages and blurs dream and not dream. Age and the death of friends haunt her. Smith has been famously collaborative throughout her life and the importance of partnerships really hits home in Year of the Monkey. Her long-time collaborator, Sam Shepard, is dying of ALS. She writes of his “affliction” but it’s clear that there is more going on. Smith’s long-term collaborator and producer, Sandy Perlman, dies early in the year. More than events to be recorded and noted, the losses Smith endures are weighty. There’s no escape. The Dream Inn figures prominently as anchor, place and place of mind.

Despite the trauma and loss, Smith, is not sorry for herself. There’s sadness, but it is far from unmitigated. She is far too curious, far too restless, to sink into senescence. This book remains about hope, about creation, and about the future. That is how we think of Smith, an artist who takes her sorrow and keeps working. That tension and her tremendous talent make for a very good read.

David Potash