Question The System, Solve The Symptoms

The world is desperate for a coronavirus cure — we want life to get back to normal, but I can’t help but feel like we haven’t exhausted all options.

Has no one tried leeches?

If you think that sounds absurd, you’re right: leeches would only alleviate the symptoms of COVID, and not address the cause.

Many of the solutions to problems that our government, medical professionals, and workplace leadership propose involve treating symptoms of problems, rather than addressing the causes. This is just as effective as using leeches to cure, well, anything.

Addressing symptoms creates short-term results, and it can serve as a stopgap to solving the actual cause of the problem, but it won’t actually solve the problem.

When I was in college, I smashed the transmission of my Saturn driving over a curb on a night of bad decisions, causing a massive fluid leak. Instead of paying for a whole new transmission, I decided to pay a mechanic to weld it back together, which stopped the leak, but a few months later, the transmission completely blew and I had to get a new car altogether. Because I wasted my resources on a short-term fix, I ended up paying more in the long run.

Now, I don’t know what “getting to the core” of our world’s health crisis is, but I do know the long-term solution to most societal problems is to overhaul our education system. Did that solution come out of left field? Maybe in terms of this post, but our current education system as it stands is hampering our human potential. We can ban guns, offer universal basic income, and elect different representatives all we want, but these are addressing the symptoms of an even greater problem.

Why?

Our education system is designed to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution, a time when humans took on the role of robots in factories to complete specialized tasks, so schools taught students how to be compliant and fit into those roles. Now, we’re entering the automation revolution, where actual robots are taking those jobs and creating a more efficient production process. In the short-term, this may seem like a bad thing: “THEY’RE TAKING OUR JOBS!” But in the long-term, this can be an amazing development in human history because it frees up millions of people from doing repetitive, simple tasks that numbs their brains, allowing them the chance to engage the natural human inclination to do creative work. But if schools keep producing compliant humans, the only solution humans will see is, “WE NEED TO GET OUR JOBS BACK!” This outcome is nothing more than addressing a symptom created by the obsoleteness of our education system.

Humans aren’t meant to work in factories. We operate at our best when we’re working together to find novel ways to solve problems, but today’s education is a one-size-fits-all system that emphasizes output over creativity, and the importance of the individual over the group.

If you work in a factory, and an employee has a creative idea to make work more fun, the manager is bound to shoot that idea down because it means a shift in roles, and perhaps short-term losses. In fact, that employee may be viewed as a troublemaker. Our society questions the innovative individual, rather than the system that stifles their potential.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that works against us in a 21st century economy.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that demeans anyone who dare question that system.

We’ve confined ourselves to a system that steers people away from doing jobs that are mentally and spiritually engaging to jobs that are mentally and spiritually draining.

And this isn’t even an issue in this year’s presidential election.

Image for post
Me when I came to the above realization

Billions of people around the world don’t think they’re talented, intelligent, or creative, not because they aren’t, but because they’ve been shoved into a system that tells them they’re not.

The world is changing so rapidly that, if there isn’t a fundamental revolution in how we educate ourselves over the next decade, problems like climate change, equality, and pandemics will make today’s problems seem like child’s play. This isn’t meant to be foreboding and apocalyptic, it’s meant to be a call to action.

Education reform begins with learning how human beings think and behave, then leaning into our natural inclinations and creativity to address the problem with an actual solution: teach students how to think, howto work together, and how to engage their creativity. Once we do that, there’s no limit to our potential.

Until then, we’re stuck in a system that emphasized job titles, individualism, and output as metrics for success, while we argue over which symptoms to solve by throwing stupid amounts of money at them… we might as well be using leeches.

You’re Being Conditioned Out Of Being Human

Sir Ken Robinson: We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.

What’s the world going to look like in 50 years? Will the entire world, from continent to continent, be connected to free, unlimited wifi? Will formerly barren landscapes burst with lush, sustainably farmed crops, reducing world hunger to zero? Will there be fully green cities, running on renewable energy with carbon emissions at zero? Will there be access to healthcare for anyone who needs it, regardless of socioeconomic status, to lower mortality rates, and nearly eradicate infectious disease? Will a 94-year old Tom Brady break his own record for oldest player to win a Super Bowl MVP?

Many of you are probably thinking, “Those things are impossible,” but before you click out of this article, let me remind you that we’re in the 21st century at the dawn of the Automation Revolution, while the system in which we work and are educated is a 19th century system from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. So, yes, in our current system, those things are impossible, but that isn’t inevitable. Our system is costing us the contribution of millions of people who spend their days driving trucks, making sales, and micromanaging their subordinates, instead of exploring their creativity to discover their true potential.

Rather than lament what isn’t, it’s vital to begin from what is, which is where the work of thinkers such as Sir Ken Robinson come into play. Though Sir Ken unfortunately passed away last week, that doesn’t mean his calls for an education revolution have to pass away with him.

His work is painfully relevant today, because many of the worlds problems stem, not from inequality, systemic racism, or capitalism (though those don’t help), but from receiving an education that doesn’t allow children to explore, play, or embrace their differences. In an industrial world, people are conditioned to be compliant, to memorize facts, and to meet quotas, but human beings are at our best when allowed to explore our creativity. Because we’re taught to not question the way things have always been done, it costs us the opportunity to find ways to make things better.

Remember the embarrassment of answering a question incorrectly in front of the class? Or when you thought you had a great idea, and you were laughed at? Think about how it felt to receive a bad grade on a test or project. In the current system, failure, being wrong, and making mistakes are the worst things a person can do. This conditions the creativity out of children, and we become a world where only 15% of people are engaged at work (Gallup) — a world where over 3 million teens have experienced a depressive episode in the last year (SAMHSA). A world where only 14% of American adults say they’re very happy (University of Chicago).

By conditioning the creativity out of people, people are becoming like the robots that will be taking human jobs, and ironically, to prepare for the incoming wave of automation, people need to be creative. As Sir Ken said in his prophetic first TED Talk from 2007,

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They’ve become frightened of being wrong, and we run our companies like this — we stigmatize mistakes — and we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is that we’re educating people out of their creative capacities.

We don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

Sir Ken Robinson

Most of you reading this aren’t kids (if you are, go outside and play, you psychopath), but that doesn’t mean you can’t take something away from this: it’s okay to be wrong. It’s okay to think outside of the box and get your ideas shot down. It’s okay to be laughed at because you think or do things differently. If we want to leave future generations a world we can be proud of, we’re going make a lot of mistakes, but with each mistake, we’ll be one step closer to a world where children are taught that it’s okay to be themselves, take risks, and make mistakes. If we don’t start taking action now, the world in 50 years won’t feel much different than the world today, and that’s not something we can be proud of.

The Pandemic May Not Be Your Fault, But It’s Your Responsibility Now

You wake up in the middle of the night – something’s not right. As your eyes adjust to the darkness and your brain comes to, you realize that it smells like something is burning.

You lay your head back down onto your pillow and hear the muffled chirps of what sounds like a smoke detector from the apartment next door.

SOMETHING IS BURNING!

You leap out of bed, suddenly completely aware of your surroundings – the stench of burning wood and plaster fills your nostrils.

The second you thrust open your door, smoke pours into your room. The bedroom door across the hall swings open – you lock eyes with your roommate, who is still in his pajamas too. There’s a fire and you have to do something fast.

“Where is the smoke coming from??”

“I don’t know!” You respond in a panic. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

“This isn’t my fault.”

“…What?”

“Don’t blame me for this.”

He crosses his arms and shakes his head, “It’s those stupid neighbors. I knew I didn’t like them, right from the moment they moved in.”

“Who cares? Let’s get out of here!”

“We gotta figure out what to do about those neighbors first.”

“Now??” He can’t be serious.

Your roommate presses a button on his phone and raises it to his ear.

“Oh, you’re calling 9-1-1.”

He raises his finger as if to shush you. You notice more smoke pouring into your apartment. It’s taking an unusually long time for the dispatcher to pick up.

“What’s going-?“

“It went to voicemail.”

“9-1-1 WENT TO-?”

He holds up his finger again.

“Hi, this is your neighbor from next door. I’m just calling to say, ‘How dare you start a fire in the middle of the night like this! My roommate and I were both sleeping, so not only are we both going to be tired tomorrow, now neither of us are going to have a chance to save our stuff! You owe us an explanation and an apology. Also, we’re not leaving until you either put out the fire, or come get us out of here. Good. Bye!”

He hangs up the phone and gives you a nod like he solved the problem. Their smoke detector continues to beep. You look up at your own smoke detector, and see it hanging from the ceiling by its wires.

“Why aren’t there batteries in the smoke detector??”

Your roommate shrugs, “The people who lived here before weren’t ready for a fire.”

“There were batteries in there when we moved in!”

“Yeah, but I didn’t like the last tenants, so I took them out.”

“Wha-?? Come on, let’s get out-“ you make a move for the front door, but he puts a hand to your chest, stopping you in your tracks.

“What are you doing?”

We didn’t start this. This is on the neighbors, so they should have to fix it.”

“THAT’S NOT HOW FIRES WORK!”

You start to cough. The smoke is becoming unbearable, you’re having trouble catching your breath, and you can barely see your roommate from just a few feet away. You get down onto your hands and knees.

“What are you doing?? Humans aren’t meant to crawl on all fours. Are you really giving up your freedom because of some stupid fire you didn’t even start?”

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!? WE NEED TO DO SOMETHING!” You shout back up at him.

He bends down and forcefully lifts you back to your feet.

“Don’t worry,” the wall connecting your two apartments begins to glow orange, “I called the people from the building next door to let them know they can’t come into our building.”

“WHAT GOOD IS THAT GOING TO DO!?”

“Hey! This is the neighbors’ fault – you’re treating me unfairly! Here, put on this hospital mask.”

Your apartment door bursts into flame. At this point, you can’t even make out your roommate. You’re losing consciousness, so you stumble back into your bedroom, desperate to get to the window. Each step becomes more difficult than the last. The thick black smoke fills your lungs while your brain is screaming at you to breathe, but you can’t. You reach for the handle on the window, but don’t have the strength to open it. You fall to your knees, and just as you slip into the warm grasp of unconsciousness, you can hear your roommate gasp out the words, “It is what it is.”

What’s happening in the world may not be your fault, but finding a solution is your responsibility. I’m not saying that you can solve this pandemic, but I am saying that it is up to you to solve the problems that have impacted your life as a result.

Continuing to blame the “culprit,” may make you feel better in the short-term, but in order to really take control of an unfortunate situation, it is vital to ask, “What can I do now?” If the leader you’re working for, or even your elected official continues to ask, “Who’s to blame?” (I’m not naming any presidents’ names), take the initiative and do something – whether that’s approaching the person with ideas, moving on to another company, seeking out those who are actively searching for a solution, or working to elect someone else, you’ll at least feel more empowered. Starting from a state of empowerment and action is much more useful than starting from a state of victimhood. Complaining makes the problem loom larger, which actually perpetuates it, but accountability and action put you in the driver’s seat of your own life, and that’s a simple mental shift we all have the power to make.

When you ask yourself, “Who’s to blame?” What action can you take based off of that, other than blaming?

Now ask yourself, “What’s one step I can take?” or, “What’s one thing I can do?”

That shift has the power to change everything.

Put The ‘Comfort’ In ‘Discomfort’

I don’t mean to brag, but my mask collection is thriving right now. Back in March, I bought a pack of 12 different colored bandanas, and I’ve been able to pair each one of them to complete so many different ensemble combinations. They’re the accessory I never knew I needed (After typing that, I now understand why people regularly ask if I’m gay).

Speaking of an abundance of something, I have about thirty minutes of new stand-up material since the pandemic began. Most of it stems from my experience getting COVID, visiting the hospital, and how others have responded to world events. Sure, I’m still working on honing it onstage in front of socially distanced audiences, and it’s not all great yet, but the more I do it, the more I’m getting comfortable with what’s funny, what connects with people, and what doesn’t.

I haven’t done an in-person speaking presentation since the second week of March, but I have given some virtual presentations. Sure, I wish I could have a live back-and-forth with the audience and really get a feel for the energy in the “room,” but I’m learning to love the live interaction I get with Zoom’s chat feature. The last few months have been spent transitioning my speaking business to a virtual level, and it seems to be picking up some steam.

Nothing is as it was, but everything can be adjusted to. My life has turned upside down (not a breach baby joke), and now that I’ve shifted to looking for opportunities to adjust and grow, I’m finding normalcy in disruption instead of pining for normalcy.

And you can too.

That’s the beauty about us human beings: we’re incredibly resilient to change. If our ecosystem drastically shifts — say a volcano erupts, a drought strikes, or a pandemic rages — we have the ability to course correct faster than any other species. With the advent of the internet and our ease of access to an infinite amount of information, when a pandemic strikes and our way of life is disrupted, there’s an abundance of opportunities to adapt if we so choose. Our way of life is shifting to one with constantly evolving technology based in algorithms far beyond our grasp, and, within the next decade, our lives will be disrupted by this on a regular basis. COVID-19 is just a sample — a test, if you will, and I’m worried because of the amount of resistance to change I’ve witnessed.

But we’ve lived lives of general complacency, which actually works against our very own DNA.

At the dawn of the agricultural revolution some 12,000 years ago, humans were hunters and gatherers, built to adapt to daily uncertainty. “Will the weather shift and bring a great storm? Will I be bitten by a snake or eaten by a tiger? Will the herd of deer we saw yesterday still be in the valley so we can eat for the next few days?” Before humans settled down in fixed locations to farm, they were much happier, much more in-tune with their bodies and the world around them, had healthier diets, fewer instances of disease, and generally lived more rewarding lives. Anthropologists hypothesize that hunter-gatherers in the world’s most inhospitable climates worked only 35–45 hours a week and didn’t have to worry about mundane household chores (How can vacuuming be mundane when there’s the threat of getting mauled by a saber-toothed tiger?). Once humans settled down to farm, they began performing the same tasks on a daily basis, falling into mind-numbing routines. In many locales, the people depended on a limited number of crops, so that their diets actually reduced their lifespans, and they were infected by diseases originating in livestock. In today’s world, we settle down in one locale for many years at a time, enjoy the same foods, interact with the same people, and work the same jobs, sometimes doing the same task ad nauseam every day for the entirety of our adult lives.

We’re meant to explore, learn new things, and deal with daily uncertainty, yet we’ve shoehorned ourselves into a society set on status quo. Because of this, we resist uncertainty, which goes against our biology, instead of embracing who we were meant to be as a species, learning and adapting. Once a volcano erupts, early humans were quick to relocate to a safer place. Today, the volcano is this pandemic, and we’re insisting on staying in the path of a slow-moving lava stream while we choke on volcanic ash and refusing to wear masks. If we want to survive and thrive in the automation era, we can’t pine for the way the world used to be. To be happy, successful, and connected as human beings — since we’re all going through this on some level — it’s time to, not only get comfortable with discomfort, but embrace it.

Also, you too can crush the bandana-mask look.

The Dos And Don’ts Of Maintaining (And Boosting) Mask Morale At Work

Masks are now mandatory at your workplace and not everyone’s happy about it.

Regardless of where you stand on wearing a mask, the reality is that in many cases, you’re legally mandated to wear one in public, unless you’re eating or drinking, or face the consequences. It’s a minuscule disruption of the daily status quo and will have the same impact on someone’s ability to do their job as adding a new coat of paint to the office walls. Somehow, however, it has become a national talking point that has led to verbal altercations, assault, and even murder.

And murder has a tendency to lower morale.

As a leader, you have so much on your plate, and now employees are complaining about having to wear a mask while they work, while others are complaining about their coworkers who refuse to wear one.

What do you do? Here are some dos and don’ts for making sure the people in your organization are compliant while maintaining morale:

Do: Remember Human Behavior

Throughout all of history, when confronted with new ideas policies, or technology, people have a bad habit of resisting change.

You purchase new technology that’ll make their jobs easier: “I don’t want to learn this. I’m doing just fine with the technology I have.” You introduce a new policy that’ll boost morale: “That’s not the way we’ve always done it.” You hire new managers: “I’ve been here longer! They have no idea what they’re doing!” It seems like you can never win.

The goal here is to make them comfortable with the uncomfortable, and in this case, the uncomfortable is wearing a thin piece of cloth over their faces.

Don’t: Judge Or Allow Judgment Thinking

Right, wrong, good, bad, stupid, smart – it doesn’t matter how people judge the mask wearing policies. You’ll have people on all sides of the spectrum, which is a beautiful thing, but that’s not what’s important here. Focusing on people’s opinions on mask wearing and the effects of mask wearing are inconsequential to the results you are looking for.

Do: Emphasize Opportunity Thinking

Let’s just get this out of the way: mask-wearing is going to be a part of our culture for the foreseeable future, so the best option here is to just lean into it. Instead of offering our opinions based on what already is, it’s more engaging and productive to focus on how it’s an opportunity to build your brand, have fun, incorporate the mask into your work, or lean into the creativity of your coworkers. When we see something as an opportunity, there is no limit to its potential. When we see something as good, bad, etc., we create a closed-ended situation.

Don’t: Close Your Door To Complaints

Though judgment thinking isn’t as productive as opportunity thinking, it’s human nature to judge and focus on what’s wrong. If you close your door to complaints, this is a subconscious message that your door will be closed to ideas too. Open up a line of communication and guide the complainers and those who can’t stop thinking about how much this sucks away from their position toward action.

Do: Clearly Communicate That You’re On Their Side

Communicate the fact that you want them to be able to work to the best of their ability and be happy while they’re doing it. Set a hard line by saying something like, “There’s nothing I can do about mask-wearing, but I’m willing to help you find ways to make the most of this situation.” Now listen to them without responding, other than asking clarifying questions when necessary. Through the power of asking questions, guide them to the realization that this is an opportunity for them to creatively contribute to something they care about. If they have ideas, don’t shoot them down. Let them work the idea through, and if it isn’t a solid or actionable idea yet, give them the option to work it out and come back to you. The important thing here is to make sure these people feel heard and that you’re not just smiling and nodding so they leave you alone.

Do: Lean Into The Talent Of Your People To Create A Shared Experience

If you must mask, mask in style. See if you can get the okay from higher-ups to allow a mask-designing contest, where your resident artists, comedians, or fashion designers can create a mask that’s fun, fabulous, fits with the culture, or all three. This creates a shared, collaborative experience that reminds everyone, “We’re in this together.”

Don’t Cancel, Question

If everyone had the same beliefs and the same things made everyone happy, what would the world look like?

It would decidedly not look anything like today’s world — in fact, I would argue that if everyone shared the same perspective, this planet would be painfully boring. No diversity of thought means the first idea would always be the best idea, which, without any form of challenge from others, could actually end up being the idea that kills everyone.

Nowadays, with everyone being so connected through the internet and social media, we have an opportunity to explore the incredibly diverse perspectives of people across the globe. Yet, it seems that whenever someone shares their ideology, those with other ideologies instinctively attack.

I’m guilty of it too.

From comedians making insensitive jokes, to far-right purists, to Black Lives Matter activists, to opinionated lesbian feminists, there is something to learn from each of these ideologies, but the moment we say “I disagree,” we miss out on the opportunity to make a connection. Each of these people experienced their own unique upbringing and have reasons for why they behave the way they do, but our basic human nature requires us to be social and work together with the group.

The way we’re nurtured drives us away from our human nature.

It’s in our nature to explore, try new things, and work together, but we’re conditioned to stay in our lanes, hold steadfast beliefs, and value individuality. It’s like our school system taught us how to be less human.

When I see an opinion that is unlike my own, I ask, “Why?” The other person must have a reason for why they see the world differently, so instead of insulting, disparaging, or ignoring them, I’m more interested in seeing from their point of view. At worst, learning from those who don’t believe like me will expand my worldview and help me build a stronger argument in favor of my ideology. In fact, one of the best ways to make our point is to be able to argue effectively from the opposite perspective. At the very least, it will put us on similar footing, which gives us a starting point upon which we can all agree.

For example, freedom of speech is a value held dearly by most Americans, from BLM protesters to right wing militias. But when BLM protesters are being arrested, gassed, and beaten by law enforcement for exercising their right to free speech, the “Don’t Tread On Me” folks are nowhere to be found. Freedom of speech doesn’t just refer to the opinions you agree with. Perhaps, with a shared agreement that all speech much be protected, these ideologically opposed groups can come together and start a dialogue with one another.

If everyone had the same beliefs, the world would have far less dialogue and way more monologue. We learn way more when we listen to others than when we parrot our own opinions, so if you disagree with this post, feel free to contact me and ask, “Why?” because I’d love to hear your perspective too.

Empathy: The Starting Point To Building A Better World

“You’ve gotta watch Breaking Bad. Watch a few episodes and it’s going to hook you.”

“What’s it about?”

“Walter White, a brilliant scientist turned chemistry teacher, gets diagnosed with cancer and starts cooking meth to pay for his treatment and support his pregnant wife and disabled son.”

“That’s not really my speed.”

My friend Scott recommends shows for me to watch all the time, and they’re usually great, so I decided to give Breaking Bad a go, even though the premise didn’t really appeal to me, but he was right: I sped through the first four seasons in about two weeks, and what really struck me was the fact that I was rooting for a man who would kill someone — even an innocent person — to “protect his family.” Why was I cheering on someone to ruin people’s lives with a drug that led to violence, greed, and the thirst for power? Why was I rooting against a well-intentioned DEA agent driven by justice to save people’s lives and get a dangerous drug off the streets? The answer: I saw myself in Walter White — not because I wanted to cook meth or murder my rivals (I like my rivals) — but because I, too, have had my back against the wall. I, too, have been doubted by even the people closest to me. So when Walter made the decision to end someone else’s life, I found myself conflicted internally because, even though I would never consider murder, I could understand what motivated Walter to do it.

And that’s something the world needs more of — not murder, but empathy. Being able to see the world through the eyes of people unlike yourself is the key to understanding why they do what they do. That’s why we love stories: we get to see the protagonist’s world through his or her eyes while rooting for them to overcome their adversities; and the well-written shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, or Dexter will have us rooting for the protagonist, even though he or she is willing to do some unsavory deeds to get ahead.

Now these are all fictional stories, but our capacity to empathize with the people in these shows and judge them based on why they do what they do, rather than what they do, is a skill we can use with people in the real world who are unlike us. To be able to see through the eyes of another, even if he is a diametric opposite, can help you communicate better, reach agreement, build a relationship, and even make you happier. Though you may not be willing to do what someone else has done, to be able to connect with why he does it is the first step to bringing unlike people together — a must in an increasingly connected world.

Whether you agree with me or not, chances are we both want to live better lives in a better world, and that is a great starting point for coming together and creating it.

Create Your New Normal

The status quo has already been disrupted, so now is the PERFECT time to disrupt YOUR status quo too.

“Crazy times we’re living in.”

At any point in human history, people have uttered those words, but now, that statement seems more real than ever. As news reports continue to pile on the negativity, managers demand increased production from their people, and everyone else has to figure out how to work within the new normal presented by the coronavirus, I have some good news:
This is going to make the world a better place.
More specifically:
This is going to make your world a better place.

Though it may not seem like it at the moment, it’s how we deal with the uncertainty of a crisis like this that defines who we are and what we can accomplish.
During a life-disrupting event such as this, we need each other more than ever. Now is the time to connect with that difficult coworker and offer assistance or support if he or she needs it. Now is the time to reach out to your employees to see if they have any ideas to improve the quality of their work and the quality of the culture in the workplace. Now is the time to reach out to your customers, clients, and communities to learn how you can offer your services to ease some of the burden on their everyday lives. Now is the time to have that conversation with your spouse, children, parents, or friends telling them that you care about them, sharing your gratitude with them, or simply letting them know that you’re there.

Though the media is promoting social distancing, the last thing we can afford to be is socially distant from others. Sure, keep physically distant where you can, but remember that what you do matters in the lives of others.
In a time like this, sometimes remembering that is exactly what you need to put a smile on your face, and more importantly, on the face of someone else.
Though we don’t have control over what’s going on in the world, we do have control over how we respond. Let’s use this as an opportunity to create a new and improved normal; a normal that is more human and less transactional.
A normal where we collaborate to create a better world, better communities, and better workplaces.
This disruption of the status quo is an opportunity for each of us to disrupt our own status quo with something new and positive.
What’s one thing you can do today?

You Can’t Laugh at That Recap: Comedy and the Power of Words

Episode 2 of You Can’t Laugh at That was released yesterday, and it’s a topic that has both inspired and infuriated me for years: the power of words. Growing up, I was confused by the fact that certain words hurt others, but didn’t hurt me, and that other words have hurt me, but didn’t hurt others. Comedy legend George Carlin said it best when communicating his confusion with an arbitrary list of “bad” words: You never know what’s on the list because it’s always somebody else’s list… People’s lists even change day-to-day. 

I’ll never forget discovering my first swear words as I marched into my parents’ kitchen after a rigorous day in kindergarten. They had some friends over and I wanted to share my new vocabulary with an audience, so I put my bag on the floor, proudly proclaimed, “Fart penis!” and was whisked into the bathroom to learn what soap tasted like. Though those words aren’t considered bad by most people, that was the day I discovered there are “curse words” that you can get in trouble for saying, but also that these words aren’t cursed by everyone.

In this episode, fellow comedian Steve Mers and I invite the outspoken Dave Flynt onto the show to ask and answer the questions:

  • What even are words?
  • Why are some words offensive to some and not to others?
  • As artists and entertainers with the ability to influence, do we have a responsibility to avoid offending others?
  • How can we lessen the power of these words so that they don’t hurt anymore?

Words are…

  • Literally just noises out of your mouth that creates emotions and actions in others through their subjective understandings and interpretations of them.  Because the interpretations are subjective, a word doesn’t have the same effect on one person as it would another person hearing or seeing that word. Society is based on shared stories that bring people together, and we’re a social species, so we needed a shared method of communication, so we decided certain sounds would mean certain things, and language was formed. This caused the exponential growth of the human race, but the subjectivity of meanings can also cause disagreements and conflict.
  • Tools you can use to do whatever you want, from asking someone to grab you a beer from the fridge, to starting a movement, it all depends on who’s using the tools and what their intention is.

Some words are offensive to some and not to others because…

  • When it comes to the words we use, we have to remember that others have different life experiences, and that certain words will cause them pain when they mean nothing to the person who uses them. To paraphrase the eloquence of Flynt:”Some people have emotional stuff that makes them feel a certain way. You could be listening to a rap song called “I Fucked Your Bitch,” and if your girl cheated on you 2 weeks ago, that hurts. If you could be the dude who fucked his bitch and you listen to that song, you’re like, “I feel good.”
  • When we have a conversation, tell a joke, or write a tweet, we have to remember that other people’s feelings are at play and that we don’t share the same experiences and aren’t riding the same emotional wave they are.

As artists and entertainers with the ability to influence…

  • We have to realize that a comedy set is a roller coaster ride for the audience. If each line has the audience in stitches, those laughs will diminish as the set progresses – there has to be a natural ebb and flow.
  • We have to realize that the show can be an emotional experience for some. I once did five minutes of funeral jokes and was approached after the show by the woman who booked me that I wasn’t welcome back to present to the group because they had recently lost a member to cancer. At another presentation, I did the funeral bit with rewritten material, and afterwards, an older man who had just lost his wife to cancer shook my hand and thanked me for making it okay for him to laugh. Being wary of the potential sensitivity of the audience pushed me to be more creative in expressing myself.

We can lessen the power of words by…

  • Realizing that much of the offense comes from societal inequalities. Steve hypothesizes that if we treated everyone equally, there’s less of a reason to feel offended about something because they don’t feel like they’re being subjugated.
  • Changing the narrative behind the words to dilute their power. Since language is a manmade concept, changing language to move us forward is also a manmade process. If there’s a word that brings people pain, the question isn’t, “How can we stop using the word?” It’s going to be difficult to convince ignorant people to stop using “retarded” negatively, so changing the meaning of the word or creating a new word to describe someone who is developmentally disabled may be a better option.
  • Stopping the prohibition of certain words. Steve asks an incredibly intriguing question: “Are words like drugs where if you make them legal, they lose their power?” When we dwell on something “offensive,” we give the culprit power over our emotions. It’s not the words that cause the emotion from the listener, it’s the listener’s thoughts about what is said. In eighth grade English class, I used the word “dingus” in a sentence and the teacher and I got two completely meanings out of the word. The word “dingus” is used to refer to something whose name the speaker cannot remember, is unsure of, or is humorously or euphemistically omitting. Even after showing her this definition, she was still furious because she assumed I was referring to a penis and I was given two detentions.
  • I was totally referring to a penis.

As a comedian, your sole job above all else is to make people laugh. If you’re trying to shock, offend, or subjugate, you’re not doing your job. Remember that certain words trigger certain people, and that you can still make your point – and probably in a much more creative way – if you find a better way to communicate your ideas and what’s funny to you. As Steve puts it, “If you’re not an asshole, convince people you’re not an asshole before you say something that makes people think you’re an asshole.”

This goes for comedy and everyday life.

Listen, comment, follow, and share on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/0uivwpcpfokYkTBsOKepz5?si=8CA86iyAST6Nj86Whc5T1g

or Apple Podcasts: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-2-the-power-of-words/id1495600197?i=1000463781993

4 Reasons Why It’s Important to Say “I Don’t Know”

The 2020 presidential election is in full swing and with it, all of the platitudes, cliches, and mudslinging that accompanies it. Watching politicians jockey for position by having answers to every question, even though it’s evident they’re beating around the bush to avoid admitting they don’t have the answer, is one of my favorite parts of elections. Appearing to have the answer when they don’t actually hurts them in the long run as leaders. When was the last time you watched a political leader respond to a question with an “I don’t know. I’ll have to do further research to answer that question.”? I know I don’t remember.

We can learn from this in our everyday lives, whether we’re in a leadership position or we’re looking for relationship advice. In the quest to look like the smartest person in the room, we miss out on opportunities to say “I don’t know” and open ourselves up to new information. Though it seems counterproductive on the surface, the willingness to admit that you don’t know something has some advantages. Here’s 4 of them:

1. NOT KNOWING SPARKS INNOVATION

We’re on the precipice of a new era because of the advances in technology based on automation. This is a technological revolution that will dwarf the industrial revolution, which required more algorithm-based thinking and management. Change is already occurring at rates we’ve never seen, and with people in previously untouched places around the world like Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East logging on, that change is only going to exponentially increase. This means you will be competing with, not only people around the corner, but companies in Manila, Dubai, and Buenos Aires. With so much information being uploaded at any given moment, if you want to inspire innovation within your organization, it is vital for you to admit to not knowing what you don’t know. Even if you’re 100% sure you’re right, being open to the fact that there’s constantly new information that can counter your current position is key to growth. Besides, if your mindset is already fixed, then where is the room to expand?

2. UNCERTAINTY BREEDS CONFIDENCE FROM OTHERS

Though this may seem like a stretch, there is a big difference between “I have all the answers,” then being proven wrong, and saying “I don’t know.” Though our egos want to make us appear at the top of our game, shutting out new information with this “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality lowers the confidence that others have in you. This loss in confidence means that people will be hesitant to approach you with new ideas, limiting your potential as a team. Saying “I don’t know,” makes them more comfortable with their own levels of not knowing, creating an openness to new ideas and collaboration that isn’t present with the barriers that come with having all of the answers.

3. IT EXPANDS PERSPECTIVE

By being unsure about something, it activates our intrinsic human desire to explore and learn. When we are actively trying to solve a problem by trying new things, it activates  our brains in a way that expands our perspective. This opens us up to more pathways to solutions, rather than the limited strategies we can use when we already know “everything.”

4. IT CAN COUNTERACT STRESS

By being steadfast in how sure we are, it closes us off from discovering new things. When we do discover a new solution to an old problem, our brains release dopamine, a neurochemical that limits the stress chemical cortisol.  Less stress means better health, strengthened relationships, and more creativity, and achieving that “Aha!” moment can be a life hack to the creation of excitement while your stress levels dwindle.