The People Who Don’t Get the Joke

In every stand-up comedy routine, there are people in the audience who don’t get the joke. Great comedians don’t get flustered when this happens. They don’t interrupt their routine to explain all the nuances involved in their bit. To do so would ruin the experience for the ones who get it, the ones who don’t need the explanation, the ones who are delighted with the show.

So what do they do? They move on. They keep telling their stories, they keep making their points, and they do it with the conviction that it’ll reach who it needs to reach. They understand that effectiveness at hitting their target, not universal appeal, is the ultimate goal.

In the The 2% who misunderstand you, Seth Goin writes:

If you insist on getting every single person in the room to understand every nuance of your presentation, you’ve just signed up to bore and alienate the very people you needed most.

When you find yourself overwriting, embracing redundancy and overwhelming people with fine print, you’re probably protecting yourself against the 2%, at the expense of everyone else. (And yes, it might be 10% or even 90%…. that’s okay).

When we hold back and dumb down, we are hurting the people who need to hear from us, often in a vain attempt to satisfy a few people who might never choose to actually listen.

It’s quite okay to say, “it’s not for you.”

One of the most ineffective ways to communicate is to write or speak as if it’s necessary for every person to understand you, agree with you, endorse you, or laugh with you.

Yes, it’s true that you can’t communicate effectively if you don’t know who your audience is. You can’t know who your audience is, however, unless you know who your audience is not.

Dreaming in Secret

The dream is private. The pursuit is public. This distinction alone explains why many people never get around to following their dreams.

Being a dreamer is safe. No one criticizes you, or misunderstands you, or gets mad at you, or abandons you, or feels disappointed in you merely for having dreams. We all have creative ideas and as long as they remain safely tucked away in our imaginations, we have hope of maintaining our peace with the world.

Once you give expression to your creative impulses, there’s no going back. Once you put an idea out there, you’ve projected a portion of your personality and philosophy into the physical world. And that makes you vulnerable. For every adventurous personality who dares to diverge from the beaten path, there’s an old classmate or acquaintance somewhere who’s busy trying to figure out why their old buddy went off the deep end. That’s who you’re going to be if you step out  and start creating.

But what’s the alternative? Listen to Jason Fried’s description of a person we’ve all met in some form or another:

“We all have that one friend who says, “I had the idea for eBay. If only I had acted on it, I’d be a billionaire!” That logic is pathetic and delusional. Having the idea for eBay has nothing to do with actually creating eBay. What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan.”

You can be the person who creates something awesome at the risk of being misunderstood. You can also be the person who keeps their ideas hidden from scrutiny at the expense of becoming delusional.

If you really have interesting ideas, you deserve to give yourself the chance to see what would happen if you acted on them. Don’t be content to create the next eBay in your mind alone. Let the world get a taste of your ideas. We’re waiting.

Creativity Needs Fuel

I once heard James Altucher say the following: “I have to read a lot in order to write a little. If I’m going to write 2 hours worth of stuff, it’s almost like I have to read 10 hours worth of books.”

When i spoke with Jeffrey Tucker at ISFLC last year, he said he reads twice as much as he writes. For a man who publishes substantial pieces every single day, that’s a lot of time for him to devote to reading. When I asked him why he reads so much, he said “creativity needs fuel.”

Ray Bradbury agrees:

If you stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music, you automatically explode every morning like Old Faithful. I have never had a dry spell in my life, mainly because I feed myself well, to the point of bursting. I wake early and hear my morning voices leaping around in my head like jumping beans. I get out of bed to trap them before they escape.

Methodological solipsism, it seems, is the death of inspiration. The creative process can’t be approached as if the private content of one’s individual consciousness is sufficient. If you want to have good ideas of your own, you have to step outside of your personal framework and make sure you’re engaging the ideas of others. Other people’s ideas are like matches that light a spark when we strike them against our minds. A single provocative concept can set your entire worldview on fire.

The important thing to remember is this: Reading isn’t about internalizing ideas. It’s about interacting with them. “Stuff yourself full of poems, essays, plays…” not for the purpose of regurgitating preexisting material, but for the purpose of stirring up your soul so deeply that your own stories are eventually aroused from their slumber.


A Pedagogy With Passion

The soul of any worthwhile pedagogy is the teacher’s desire and determination to lead by example. Educators cannot inspire a love for learning in others if their own hearts haven’t been enraptured by that very love. One must know what it means to caress an idea if he or she has is to have any hope of conveying it with conviction.

Before wisdom can be imparted, it must be embodied. We embody wisdom when we cultivate a visceral understanding of what it’s like to be moved and transformed by ideas; when we can say with sincerity that we have tasted the experience of being provoked by literature and enlightened by history; when we can teach art and language because we have been genuinely inspired by art and empowered by language; when we can teach math and music with the empathy of one who has been tortured by math and intoxicated by music; when we can communicate philosophical concepts from a place of having been challenged and comforted by those philosophical concepts for ourselves.

The teacher’s relationship to the mind of the student should be nothing less than an extension of the relationship he or she has to their own sense of wonder, to their own process of wrestling with the great questions of life, to their own life-long practice of coming to grips with the problems, paradoxes, and pleasures of learning.

We are not here to stuff facts into people’s brains. We are here to encourage, by the example of our own affinity, humanity’s innate passion for understanding the world.

Do You Know What Your Epistemology Is?

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that deals with questions about what constitutes knowledge, rationality, justified belief, etc. Your opinions about how we know things, the limits of what we can know, and what constitutes a good standard for evidence are the elements that comprise your epistemology. Everyone has an epistemology whether they consciously reflect on it or not. When people say things like “there is no truth” or “the truth is absolute,” they’re expressing a very specific epistemology. When people say things like “truth can’t be known” or “beliefs are only rational if they’re backed by science” or “science isn’t the only way to know truth,” they’re expressing their epistemology.

It is literally impossible to not have an epistemology. Whenever people argue or make claims about the world, their claims are based on very specific understandings about the nature of truth and knowledge. This is an inescapable aspect of all forms of reasoning. Different people can have different views about what constitutes good evidence. Different people can have different views about what truth is and what it means to know something. A religious person who accepts what the bible says, for example, has different epistemic presuppositions than an atheist who rejects the concept of divinely inspired books. These differences are rooted in their respective epistemologies. That’s largely the basis of their disagreement and debate.

To say that someone is making philosophical presuppositions isn’t an insult or a criticism. It’s just a simple fact that logically follows from the very nature of reasoning and communicating. Philosophy underlies everything we do. That’s not inherently bad. It just is what it is. To say things like “we don’t need philosophy” betrays a misunderstanding of what philosophy actually is. You may not need to declare a major in philosophy at a university. You may not need to read Plato and Aristotle. That’s all fine. But it’s impossible to not do philosophy. We all have fundamental ideas about the nature of reality, the nature of knowledge, the nature of morality, and the meaning of life. Philosophy is nothing less than the investigation, analysis, or application of these fundamental ideas.

Philosophy is inherent in all we say and do. You may not do it consciously, but you’re doing it. You may not like using the word “philosophy,” but a rose by any other name is a rose still the same. Even when you say “philosophy is irrelevant,” you’re making a philosophical statement about what matters in life. We can do philosophy badly or we can do it well. We can do philosophy consciously or we can do it unconsciously. It’s up to us. The important thing to remember is that we have a choice.

We can’t avoid philosophizing, but we can choose to think consciously, critically, and creatively when we do it. When we do philosophy that way, we tend to get more out of it. And when we get more out of our philosophy, we usually get more out of life.

Finding the “I” in “Write”

The blank page functions as a mirror for the relationship you have with yourself. If you’re not reading, meditating, paying attention to life, seeking out adventures, nourishing your soul, loving deeply, dreaming wildly, processing your feelings, playing around with new ideas, meeting people, engaging the world, collecting experiences, or just doing things in general that make you feel more alive or more connected to the essence of who you are, all of this will be made plain to you when you sit down to write.

There’s something about the creative process that demands an honest confrontation with your soul. What have you been filling your heart and mind with? What have you been neglecting and suppressing? How true have you been to what fires you up? How distracted have you been by the things that no longer serve you? Are you learning anything new? Are you falling in love with anything new? Are you still evolving? Are you telling yourself the truth? Are you lying to yourself?

It’s one thing to answer these questions with your mind. It’s another thing to listen to what your heart has to say about these things. Writing is a way of listening to the heart. If you want to know the differences between the story you’re telling yourself and the story you’re actually living, you should write. Writing will not only reveal who you are to others, it will reveal who you are to yourself.

Don’t Hide Behind Practice

Practice is only meaningful when it’s done in a context where the trainee is receiving continual feedback from their participation in the real thing.

To be an effective practitioner, you have to ask yourself, “What are my practice sessions preparing me for?” Then you have to go do the thing you’re preparing for, before you feel prepared to do it, and get your ass kicked. After that, reflect on your experience and use your rehearsal period to work on the areas of incompetence revealed by your performance.

If you’re using practice as a way to protect yourself from having your weaknesses exposed, you’re doing it wrong. My favorite definition of learning is this: “the process of doing something that you don’t know how to do WHILE you don’t know how to do it.” This is where mastery comes from.

Practice doesn’t prepare you for the real thing. The real thing prepares you for the real thing. Practice is just a way of reinforcing and refining what you learn from the experience of real failure and real success.