Dear Adam Smith: The Distracted Professor

adam smith "speaking of smith"

Dr. Distracted gets lost in thought, and wants to present himself better.

Can Adam Smith help?
Dear Adam Smith-

I am an academic who is sometimes inclined to forget my manners when I am deeply lost in thought. I would like to learn to be more aware of how I present myself, and also learn how to apologize for my distraction. I really do care about my friends! 


Dr. Distracted

Dear Dr Distracted--

Your letter could not have found a more sympathetic reader. I, too, struggle with a slight tendency to forget about those around me, particularly when I’m involved in deep thought over something I am writing or a question that is engaging my interest. I confess that I am somewhat infamous for behaving terribly at tea parties. Once I ate so much sugar from the sugar bowl that my hostess had to hold it on her lap to get it away from me. Another time, I wadded up small balls of bread and butter, put them into the teapot, and then had the gall to complain that the tea was the worst I’d ever had! 

I had no idea I was doing either thing. My mind was entirely elsewhere.

Our shared problem then, is how to find the time and space for our intellectual endeavors while also leaving room for friendship and socializing. This is much easier, of course, when our friends are those with whom we share intellectual interests. My friend David and I enjoy rigorous intellectual debate and-- as we are both prone to moments of abstraction when we are deep in thought--we easily forgive one another’s eccentricities.

But you may well have other close friends (I know I do) who have more trouble understanding why it is so hard for us to pay attention to the world around us and why we are so prone to be accidentally rude when lost in thought. When taking tea with those friends, you and I would do well to remember that it is important not only to be loved by our friends, but to be lovely--or worthy of their love--as well. “To be amiable and to be meritorious; that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue; and to be odious and punishable, of vice...What so great happiness as to be beloved, and to know that we deserve to be beloved? What so great misery as to be hated, and to know that we deserve to be hated?”

If you and I could remind ourselves of this before we meet with our friends, I think we would do better and be kinder in all our interactions.

And when we do fail, as humans are so prone to do, there is no better way to apologize than to endeavor to change our behavior to be more worthy of the friendship that is given to us and of the person that our impartial spectator urges us to become.

Yours in fellow-feeling,

Adam Smith

Editor's Note: Letters to the "Dear Adam Smith" column are not, of course answered by Adam Smith. He died in 1790. Letters are answered by Sarah Skwire, Caroline Breashears, and Janet Bufton. Advice is for the purposes of amusement and education about Smith's thought. We do our best, but caveat emptor and follow our advice at your own risk.