Nicholas Lemann is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and dean emeritus of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of numerous books, including The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. Before moderating a Zócalo event asking “Is There Still Merit in a Merit-Based System?,” Lemann told us about his most meritless quality, why he’s (maybe) Team Pete Davidson, and the reason he prizes reliability over talent.
You grew up in New Orleans. What is your favorite place to go there?
There’s a ferry that runs between the foot of Canal Street and Algiers across the river. I really love doing that. It’s free, and you get a fantastic view of the river and city.
What is your most meritless quality?
Oh, boy, there’s a lot of them! I guess not working out every day.
What is some advice you give to your students?
I’m going to show you a chart that explains everything.
The “T” stands for talent and the “R” stands for reliability. And there is this dotted line. My advice to my students is to be north, not south, of the dotted line. Most students tend to overemphasize the importance of raw talent and underestimate the importance of reliability, especially when they’re starting out. Per this chart, if you’re really, really talented you can be unreliable. But if you’re really, really reliable, you don’t have to be all that talented. Ideally you should be top-ranked in both, but you buy yourself a lot with an employer by being very reliable. Don’t lose sight of that: Don’t miss deadlines because you’re trying to produce work [that’s] genius.
What is your favorite Thanksgiving dish?
I’m going to have to say pecan pie. However, my doctor would say, ‘let’s make that something that used to be your favorite not your current favorite.’ So I’m not sure if I’ll produce one this year, but from childhood memories that’s top of the list.
What are you watching right now?
I do a lot of Criterion Channel. My wife used to run a college film society so she’s seen every classic ever made. I never had that experience so I’ve used the pandemic to “catch up.”
What’s your favorite season and why?
Maybe the fall. Even though I’m from the South I really don’t like hot weather so fall is good—you’re not sweating but it’s still green out.
Who is your dream dinner guest, and what would you serve them?
There were three authors that I really fell in love with during the pandemic that I hadn’t read before. They would all be high on my list. One is alive and the other two are dead: Vasily Grossman, Leonardo Padura (alive), and Walter Kempowski. Depending on which one could make it, I would change up what I would serve. If it was Leonardo Padura, I’d serve up some ropa vieja.
Daylight Savings Time—for or against?
For. I go to bed early and wake up early, so daylight savings time gives me more daylight than I would have if we didn’t have it.
Team Pete Davidson or Kanye West?
These are things I only know about through my children. I don’t think I’ve watched either one do their thing. My daughter tells me that Pete Davidson is the most attractive male on Earth, so I guess I’ll have to go with him.