6 Lessons You Can Learn From Ellen’s Apology

Pictured: Ellen in what I like to call her “Sorry Suit”

Toxic workplaces: we’ve all worked somewhere that seemed to drain our happiness, but when the place is a nationally televised talk show featuring a personality with a message of “Be kind,” it hits different.

For those who weren’t aware of the workplace toxicity reports on Ellen, here’s a quick refresher:

One current employee and 10 former staffers claimed they endured a culture of racism, fear and intimidation. They blamed senior managers on the show for allowing the behavior.

The allegations in the Buzzfeed report included former employees saying they were fired for taking time off for medical leave or bereavement. — Source: Today.com

36 former employees of the show reported “handsy” behavior, asking for sexual favors, and groping by multiple producers and higher-ups at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” — Source: Insider.com

This coupled with comedian Kevin T. Porter’s viral tweet thread requesting stories about Ellen being mean, it seemed as though the world was piling on Ellen DeGeneres, and rightfully so. It’s one thing to run a toxic workplace environment, it’s quite another to run a toxic workplace environment while asking your audience to be kind, which is why the stories got so much traction and #cancelellen was trending.

Here are six (plus one) lessons I learned while watching Ellen apologize.

Lesson 1: When confronted with reports of a toxic work environment, address it immediately

When Ellen returned today, she was expected to address the elephant in the room, and she did, but the Buzzfeed report was released in July, it’s now two months later. Imagine your workplace’s environment being so negative that employees reported it to your local news organization, then you disappear into your office for two months before addressing it publicly. Whether you’re the culprit of the mistreatment of others or not, it’s your job to address criticisms and complaints as though you’re the perpetrator. You set the tone. Even if you don’t have all of the answers, other people are counting on you to say admit that, and assure them with your words and actions that you’re actively pursuing a solution. I live by the quote, “This wasn’t my fault, but it’s my responsibility now,” and if you’re a leader, you should too. It gives you power, shows you’re willing to shoulder the burden of responsibility, and gives people the courage to come to you if something is stopping them from doing their jobs to their best of their abilities. During her statement, Ellen admitted to fumbling the responsibility that comes with her power — a step in the right direction.

Lesson 2: Be open to vulnerability

“Being known as ‘The Be Kind Lady’ is a tricky position to be in. So let me give you some advice out there: if anybody’s thinking of changing their title or giving yourself a nickname, do not go with ‘The Be Kind Lady.’” — Ellen DeGeneres

In a position of power, it is easy to take ourselves too seriously in order to maintain an air of confidence and control. If you make a mistake and you’re looking for forgiveness from your team, your customers, or your community, it is incredibly helpful to show your human side. We all make mistakes, and admitting that is a huge step in winning back the trust of others. By admitting that she’s not always kind, that she gets sad, mad, anxious, frustrated, and impatient, and that she’s a work in progress, Ellen delivers the message that at least she has some self-awareness — a fantastic starting point.

Lesson 3: Use humor without minimizing the situation

To open her monologue, Ellen broke the ice with a little bit of humor:

“How was everybody’s summer? Good? Mine was great!”

Then, when accepting responsibility, she did it again:

“This is the Ellen DeGeneres show, I am Ellen DeGeneres. My name is there. My name is there. My name is… on underwear.”

Some may assert that this is minimizing some of these serious allegations, but the humor is well-placed, and is mostly targeted toward herself. Though not all apologies and course corrections need a dose of humor, be sure to use it to point out your own flaws, mistakes, and vulnerabilities, but also be sure to use it as a springboard or stepping stone toward making changes.

Lesson 4: Offer gratitude openly

Though I wish she would’ve spent more time showing gratitude toward her employees, Ellen at least made mention of the people who allow her to do what she does best: make people laugh. As a leader, we need to do this every day and as much as possible, hence the italics for emphasis. We cannot reach our full potential without the contributions of others, and to help them reach their potential, be vocal about pointing out the positive impacts they have on your day, whether in public, or 1-on-1.

Lesson 5: Communicate a vision

When offering regret, admitting to mistakes, and asking for forgiveness, be sure to communicate that you’re committed to your original why. If you are mistreating employees, putting profits over people, and allowing hate in your workplace, you’ve lost your vision. When you ask yourself why your organization exists, the answer is always to serve people, and those people especially include your employees.

Lesson 6: Commit to change

“I still want to be the one hour a day that people can go to escape and laugh. I want to continue to help all the people that we help every day.” — Ellen DeGeneres

From this quote, for example, Ellen and her employees will know if she is actually committed to her vision because if they don’t feel going to work is an escape. If they don’t laugh while they’re at work, then it’s much harder to bring those things to their viewers. If your vision at your organization is to help your community, that should be the first thing on your mind when an employee is falling short of your expectations. If your actions don’t match your words, then your apology means nothing and you’ve learned nothing. We all make mistakes, but the only way to regain trust and show that you’ve grown is to act on your words.

Bonus Lesson: Follow up

I would love to see Ellen deliver a follow-up monologue stating all of the ways the working conditions have improved. Transparency is key here. If you want to mean what you say, push yourself to give updates on all of the changes you’ve made and ask for honest feedback. When people come to you with ideas, even if it seems like they’re attacking or complaining, keep in mind that they’re doing it because they want you to be better, which makes them better too. Be open to asking for help if you need it and you feel you aren’t keeping your word. Ellen’s latest stand-up special is called Relatable, and one of the most relatable things she, and you, can do as a leader is to be a vulnerable and flawed human being who needs reminders to “be kind.”

We could all use that reminder nowadays.

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.

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.

7 Ways To Raise Your Happiness Levels In The Middle Of A Pandemic

Happiness is a lot like baseball: you remember it from last year, you’re waiting for it to happen this year, and the further into 2020 we get, you start thinking that maybe it isn’t going to happen at all. But unlike baseball, you have the power to determine when your happiness season begins.

When you see a genuinely happy person, they make it look easy, but just like baseball, this perceived ease actually takes a lot of work. You can’t pick up a bat and glove and expect to be great at baseball on your first try. Also, why are you holding a bat and a glove at the same time? I’m starting to think you don’t even know what baseball is.

Happiness is a muscle, and with all that’s going on in the world, it doesn’t take an umpire to see why it would atrophy. With consistent daily practice of simple actions, you can finally get the hang of swinging that happiness bat without shying away from the curveballs life continually throws. (Sorry, but not sorry for all the baseball references. I miss it.) Some of these actions aren’t for you, and that’s fine. Just like it wouldn’t make sense for a pitcher to practice being a catcher, you know which actions will work in making yourself happy.

Here are 7 things you can do every day to improve your happiness levels and your mood:

1. Meditate

If you’re not good at meditation or if you’re like me when I first started doing it, (I fell asleep EVERY time and my mind would start to wander like, “Argh, baseball is on. I wonder who’s winning? It doesn’t matter – you can watch baseball any time you want,  it’s time to meditate.”

Meditation grows your left prefrontal cortex; the part of the brain responsible for making you happy. So if you meditate, you give yourself a little brain boner and you start feeling good. If you’re not sure how to meditate, there are guided meditations on Spotify and YouTube or meditation apps that’ll guide you through. Put in some earbuds undisturbed for around 20 minutes tops – you don’t want to do much longer than that, otherwise, it’s a nap.

2. Find something to look forward to

Granted, this is a little more difficult… now… but get creative with it!

Look forward to your birthday.

Look forward to the next Marvel movie.

Look forward to the next time you’re going to get laid.

Look forward to the 4th of July… 2021.

Look forward to Halloween.

Look forward to getting laid.

Just find things to look forward to!

Schedule a phone call with some friends that you haven’t talked to in a long time, and be sure to put whatever it is on your calendar as a reminder. Sometimes, the anticipation is as good as – if not better than – the actual event.

3. Commit conscious acts of kindness

Altruism decreases your stress levels and contributes to enhanced mental health. If you want to reap the psychological benefits from committing kindnesses for other people, do it deliberately and consciously; not to make yourself feel better. Do it because you ACTUALLY want to help other people. There’s a reason I’m doing this blog post, and it’s not just to entertain myself (it’s just to entertain myself). It has nothing to do with entertaining myself (it has everything to do with entertaining myself). It’s 100% not – I’m FINE. EVERYTHING’S FINE! (It’s not).

4. Infuse positivity into your surroundings

Okay, we don’t necessarily have control over ALL of our surroundings, but we can infuse them with a little positivity and some elements that make us happy. Make your desk at work more fun – whatever that means for you. Pictures of your family? Pictures of someone else’s family? Pictures of your favorite porn star? (When people come to your desk and say, “Oh, I recognize her. Why do you have HER on your desk?” You can respond, “That’s my SISTER! …My STEPsister.” That’s fun, right?) Put lots of plants in your house – make it feel like the Rainforest Café and install misters and strobe lights so it feels like a thunderstorm a few times an hour. Put “Live, laugh, love” on the wall, just so you can remind yourself to do those things. Remember what you do have control over, and adapt those things to your liking.

5. Exercise

Run, walk – I dunno – climb a tree? Do some physical activity to get your heart pumping and get endorphins flowing through your body. Are you familiar with the feeling of runner’s high? Those are endorphins, which are a great momentum booster for your day… or so I’m told (I vowed never to work out until baseball comes back).

6. Spend money (but not on stuff)

Spend money on experiences for yourself, or if you want to magnify the effect, use that money to share experiences with people that you care about.

7. Practice signature strengths

Visit viacharacter.org/character-strengths, figure out what YOUR strengths are, and think about all of the ways you’ve used them recently. Think about all of the ways you CAN use them right now. Humor is one of mine, for example. I find the funny in EVERYTHING – almost too many things. I have a podcast (You Can’t Laugh At That) based around it, I perform stand-up, so I’m always writing new jokes, and I do a keynote speaking program based around the power of humor in the workplace. Find ways to use YOUR signature strength.

Just like with baseball, continued practice at happiness makes us better at being happy, so pick just one of the seven things from above and find a way to infuse that into your day. Once you do it with one, do it with a second, and a third, and so on, until you’re so happy that you forget that it’s July and the baseball season still hasn’t started.

Play Ball!

I mean be happy!

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.

6 Ways To Make The Most Of Your Quarantine

Fun fact: each second, your brain receives 11 million bits of information. Out of that, it processes 40 to 50 bits, so it chooses what it takes in. That’s great news because that means each of us is consciously choosing what bits of information to take in.

During this coronavirus crisis, it’s easy to find the negatives because we’re being constantly bombarded by bad news on TV, on social media, or from our friends and family giving us “helpful” updates on the most recent closings. Personally, I’ve been forced out of my service industry job, I’ve had speaking gigs cancelled, and I have no outlet to get on stage and make people laugh. Suddenly, I have all of this free time to swipe, scroll, and get sucked into a vortex of negativity.

NOT SO FAST

Instead, I’ve made it a goal to do my part in making other people smile when there doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to smile about. It gives my days meaning, distracts me from the negative news that I literally can do nothing about, and hopefully creates a different narrative for others, as we experience the same uncertainty.

I want you to know that you have options, no matter how limited they seem. Here are 6 ways to make the most of the coronavirus quarantine.

1. Maintain the Losada Ratio

Psychologist Marcial Losada specializes in using human behavior to develop high performance teams. In his years of hands-on study, he discovered that people perform best when they balance every negative interaction with 3-6 positive ones. Negative moments weigh heavier on our brains because our survival depends on focusing on potential dangers vs. the positives in our environments, hence the 3-6:1 ratio instead of a 1:1 ratio. If we want to outweigh the negatives, we must find 3-6 positives in our lives. Every time you read a negative news story, or are bombarded with a “the end is near” mentality of a loved one, find 3 uplifting news stories, funny memes, cuddle with a pet, send someone an email thanking them, etc. The more you do this, the more you train your brain to find what’s good.

2. Be a positive broadcaster

While the rest of the world is filling the airwaves to the brim with negative, stress-inducing stories. Instead of complaining about this, do your part and share the stories that are going to bring smiles to the faces of others. If it makes you smile, don’t hesitate – SHARE IT! Through all the negative, there’s a lot of people doing good out there. I just got a free oil change and tire rotation as a service offered by Automotive Specialty Services to ease the mental tension of their customers. Last month, after being laid off from my last job, my barber offered me a haircut, calling it a “Getting-Back-On-Your-Feet Cut.” My current workplace is preparing pre-cooked meals for any service industry employees who were laid off due to the quarantine, regardless of where they work. If you find a story like this, don’t keep it to yourself, SHARE IT.

3. Make a daily to-do list

Sitting around watching TV, falling into a YouTube vortex, and playing video games while pounding Miller High Lifes might seem like a good way to distract yourself from the fact that you’re not working, but it’s actually doing more harm than good. Our brains need stimulated so that they’re releasing dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins into our bloodstream; these chemicals counterbalance the stress that can run rampant while thinking about paying bills without work. A simple way to release these “good” neurotransmitters and activate your brain is to set and achieve goals every day. They can be as simple as finishing a book you’ve been reading, putting furniture together, learning something new, meditating daily, or finally organizing that desk. You can be as ambitious as finishing a book you’ve been writing, getting your weight down, or putting together a new resume for after the quarantine is over. Make a list of at least 3-5 things to get done the next day, right before you go to bed.

4. Create Positive Momentum

Hanging around the house in your flannel pants and ratty hoodie is comfortable, sure, but what kind of message are you giving your brain? Communicate that today is going to be a good day to get something done by treating the morning like any other busy morning – except better. Get dressed, exercise, shower, dress your best, eat a healthy breakfast, and get working on your biggest to-do of the day. Whatever you do, don’t turn on the news before you start your day. If you’re going to watch or listen to anything, put on something that motivates you or makes you laugh. Now is as good a time as ever to create new habits.

6. Practice Gratitude

Whenever you feel yourself becoming stressed, depressed, or anxious, find at least one thing you’re grateful for in that moment. For example, when I start thinking about and getting stressed out by what I don’t have, I remember to be grateful for the opportunity to get a bunch of projects finished that I’ve been working on for months, even years. At the very least, right before you go to bed, make a list, mental or physical, of three things you’re grateful for that day. They can be as simple as being grateful for air, water, or the house you live in, just do it as you lie down, so the last thing going through your head is good vibes. It can always be worse, which is why it’s important to consciously remember why it’s always better than it seems.

What we see and how we see it determines how we feel, what we do, and what we get. Shift the first thing and create some positive momentum, even when it seems like doing so is impossible =)

For your daily dose of good news: https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/, https://www.sunnyskyz.com/good-news, https://www.positive.news/

 

 

Why Are We Teaching Cursive?: School Shootings and Education Overhaul

The other night, I sat down to take care of my 2019 taxes. Armed with my 2018 tax forms and an IRS-sponsored how-to as a reference, I was fairly confident I’d finish up within an hour. Four hours of frustration and stress later, I leaned back in my chair, signed the final dotted line, and sighed, “I wish we learned how to do this in school,” out loud.

Whodathunk that teaching a useful tool for adulthood at some point during elementary, middle, and high school might be a good way to spend some of that 13 years?

Filing taxes isn’t the only skill our education system can teach that would make the world a better place. Sift through Twitter, Facebook, or the comments on YouTube videos for a few minutes. Turn on the news and watch talking heads argue with one another about one person sitting in a certain white house for hours on end.

Perhaps teaching our fragile-minded youth a thing or two about skills they’ll use EVERY DAY like empathy, communication, collaboration, emotional intelligence, and creativity would do them better than learning how to classify species of primates, a skill they’ll never use… unless they become a biologist.

Imagine students graduating college and entering the workforce with the abilities to diffuse conflicts before they even start, to turn disagreement into collaboration, to share the talents they’ve been honing for over a decade in a way that contributes to society.

Or we could keep teaching them cursive.

Kids need to engage their brains, explore, and discover what they’re passionate about, and how to work with other people to share their passions. It’s silly that the system forces children to work alone on tests, projects, and various busy work, while ranking them individually. Then, once they graduate, they have to suddenly work together in groups with others who don’t think like them, and no one has the skillset to collaborate efficiently.

HOW IS NO ONE TALKING ABOUT THIS!?

In episode five of the You Can’t Laugh at That podcast, the topic of discussion is school shootings. As comedians, one of our jobs is to point out absurdities and injustices in ways that make people laugh. The fact that younger generations have to go to school worried about a potential shooting is absurd. Yet, nothing is being done about it. Sure, lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation to restrict the purchase of firearms, but an overhaul of our massively outdated education system – a system that was created to control the population during the Industrial Revolution – reaches the core (not Common Core) of the problem.

Shootings are the symptoms of a much larger problem:

  • Kids aren’t being taught actual life skills like how to get along with others who aren’t like them. They’re taught how to fall in line and fit within a societal construct.
  • Children need to collaborate, explore, and be creative, and that need is being stifled in favor of robotic, state-mandated curriculum and standardized tests.
  • Children are punished for their eccentricities and displaying their talents in ways that don’t fit an outdated system.

Do you think there’d be a school shooting problem if students actually looked forward to going to school? No one has ever said, “I love going to school!” Then proceeded to go on a shooting rampage.

What can we do? It’s not like our education system is going to be overhauled overnight. We can:

  • Push our school districts to put more money into art and mental health programs
  • Lobby for schools to push more collaborative classroom learning experiences
  • Vote the legislators out of office who support standardized testing
  • If you have children, support their creative exploration and let them make mistakes. Besides, you’ve made mistakes too. It’s okay to not know all the answers all the time, and your children need you to support them as they search for the answers to their questions. That’s the real education
  • START A CLASS THAT TEACHES KIDS HOW TO DO THEIR TAXES

It takes several small changes, starting in your home and in your community, for any real and lasting change to occur. After a quick glance at our world today, there is a deep need for growth in how we condition our children, and rather than just alleviating the symptoms, it’s time to get to the root of it all.

Also, WHY ARE WE EVEN TEACHING CURSIVE!?

You Can’t Laugh at That episode 4: School Shootings

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-4-school-shootings/id1495600197?i=1000465863089

When it Comes to Jokes, How Soon is Too Soon?

Life is full of ups and downs. Without the ebbs, we wouldn’t appreciate the flows, and when things are down, they can seem really down. In the face of tragedy and trauma, sometimes the last thing we want to do is laugh, but sometimes, that’s the jolt we need to shake ourselves out of a slump. At the end of the opening monologue for the first episode of Saturday Night Live after 9/11, executive producer Lorne Michaels asked Rudy Giuliani, “Can we be funny?” Giuliani quipped back, “Why start now?” which immediately broke the tension and heaviness that hung in the air. Collectively, it seemed as though America breathed a sigh of relief.

In the age of social media, when tragedy strikes, comedians, wannabe comedians, and basically anyone with access to a smart phone take to Twitter to joke about it. Many are in poor taste, many are cringeworthy, and very few actually do what the Giuliani did on that night in 2001. As he was flanked by first responders, he cut the tension with one punchline (whereas now, he creates tension every time he appears on a TV screen).

Which begs the question: how soon is too soon to joke about something?

The answer to this question has been debated for forever, and it can’t measured in days, months, or years. Whether a joke is too soon is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Too soon can be better measured by combination of the teller’s intent, the target audience, the trust built with that audience, the framing of the joke, and the target of the punch line. Whether you’re a comedian on stage, a random person tweeting about a tragedy, or searching for a way to console a friend or coworker, these are the questions you should ask yourself:

What is the intent of your joke?

A comedian’s job is to make people laugh. Even though sometimes it may seem to be to shock, offend, or gross out an audience, the goal of these jokes is always laughter, and through a trial and error process at open mics and bar shows with very few laughs, the goal of funny is either reached, or the joke is abandoned. For me, the biggest reward of getting a laugh is the fact that I have succeeded in making a connection with others. I’ve shown them that funny does exist, even in the darkest corners of life, and that from that darkness can come release. If the goal is simply to offend, shock, or disgust, think twice about opening your mouth or hitting “send.”

Who is the audience?

If you want to make your audience laugh, you first have to know who your audience is, whether you’re speaking to a room full of people, or saying something in jest to one person.

One of my first speaking gigs was for a group in Richmond, Indiana. In that presentation, I had a joke about the negative spirals our brains can take us down when we’re stressed, and the joke ends with me joining a cult because “I can never turn down free Kool Aid,” which almost always gets a laugh. In this case, the audience stared back with nary a smile, and I had no idea why until we reached the Q&A portion of the program. A woman’s hand shot up in the air, and with a quiver of subdued anger in her voice, she scolded me: “Jim Jones is from Richmond. Some of us in this room lost loved ones in the Jonestown Massacre.” I had no idea. My face turned fruit punch red;

Since then, you better believe I read the room and adjust my material accordingly before I get on stage. A few weeks ago, I spoke at a luncheon, and as the meeting was about to start, the meeting planner made me aware of a table of nuns seated in the front of the room. Instead of powering through the program, I switched out a few of the more PG-13 punchlines and had a great presentation without alienating anyone. I even snuck in a double entendre at the end that made the table of nuns double over in laughter. Why? Because before I told the joke, I asked the question:

Have you built trust with the audience?

I could spend 1000 words talking about how building trust with someone is more important than the content of your funny line, but I’ll boil it down to just a couple of points.

  • Communicate that you empathize with your audience. See where they’re coming from before you share where you’re coming from. This is vital whether you’re performing at a comedy show, or just having a 1-on-1 interaction.
  • Be sure to approach them from equal footing – if you make it seem like you’re preaching or talking down, it makes it harder for the two of you to see from the same angle.
  • Do they know you’re funny? If I’m in front of an audience, I never start with the edgy material until we’ve all shared a laugh at my own expense or at the absurdity of everyday life, so we’re now on the same page. If you barely know someone and you find out they’re going through a rough patch, even if you want to make them laugh, it’s abrasive to just introduce yourself, then go right into your jokes.

How are you framing the joke?

Again, your goal is to make your audience laugh, but the tragedy or trauma in itself isn’t funny. It rarely is, even if there is humor to be found. For example, Giuliani’s joke wouldn’t have worked if it weren’t for such a heavy tragedy. Without explicitly mentioning 9/11 in the setup or punchline, though it was implied, that way, when the punch came at the expense of Michaels and SNL, everyone exhaled deeply. More recently, Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash along with eight others. Since then, I’ve been using that tragedy as the vehicle of a joke about my mom always calling me to deliver bad news. The joke isn’t framed to make light of the tragedy, the tragedy is framed to make light of my experience of it.

Who is the target of the punchline?

The intent of the above Kobe joke is to make people laugh, I perform it in front of audiences who want to laugh, I place the joke at the end of my set so that the audience already trusts that I’m funny, I use the tragedy as a vehicle to get to the punchline, and the punchline never comes at the expense of the victim. It takes the tension and releases it in a way that makes the audience feel better for having laughed. After my Aunt Kristie was killed in 2009, I was able to make light of the situation, not by making light of the tragedy or by poking fun at her, but by making light of the weird ceremonies we have to mourn the dead, by making light of the idiocy of her murderers, and about how I don’t have the tact to make people laugh in the face of tough times.

You don’t have to be a comedian to practice these tips. The next time you want to break the tension after a tough meeting, someone’s hard day, or after a tragedy, ask yourself the above questions and help make the world a better place by making one person smile at a time.

Hear more on the topic and listen to the above Kobe joke in this bonus episode of “You Can’t Laugh At That” on Spotify. If you enjoy, follow the podcast on Spotify – we post new episodes every Monday.

Thanks for reading and enjoy!

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

You CAN Laugh At That

My last name is Horning.

That’s where it started.

With a last name like that, you naturally get picked on when you’re a kid, and I learned at a young age that because my last name was Horning, therefore, I must be “horny.”

I didn’t know what that meant.

I was in kindergarten, so there was no context for “horny.”

You don’t experience “horny” when you’re six, so I imagined a Viking helmet, a bull, or a trumpet, and I was none of those things, so I resisted the name-calling.

And instead of solving the problem, it made it worse.

And the more I resisted, the more I became an easy target.

Until one day, I decided that enough was enough.

I decided to lean into the bullies and it flipped the script completely.

They were like, “Your last name’s Horning, you must be horny,” and I was like, “I am.”

And it worked.

Because no one wants to pick on the horny kid.

The horny kid is unpredictable.

The moment I start dry humping pillows at your birthday, is the moment you stop calling me “Horny Dave.”

It solved my bullying problem.

Because if we get into a fight, I’ll defend myself, but if I get a boner and you win the fight, I win the fight.

That’s a risky proposition.

This taught me that when shit hits the fan, instead of resisting, lean into it.

Once you do that, you realize that even though you may be struggling at any given moment, there are an infinite number of other ways to examine the situation, discover new information, try something new, and overcome it.

This realization has the power to flip your mental script, not only making the shit more bearable, but making it exciting.

You can power through to the other side and do something about it because now, you see that another side exists.

When I leaned into my last name, I learned that leaning into the situation instead of pushing back took away the power that other people had over my happiness.

Leaning in and rolling with the punches life throws has gotten me through bad days, stress, anxiety, failure, heartbreak, loss, and even death (not mine).

The wave of relief that comes with the realization that there’s another side to any situation is a gift that laughing gives, and that’s why I do comedy.

It makes me feel good and I want to share that with you.

It’s why I speak.

It’s why I started a podcast.

It’s why I’m writing this.

No matter where you are and no matter what’s going on, know that somewhere, somehow, there’s something funny, and as soon as you’re ready, give yourself permission to find it and laugh.

Remember that you can laugh at that, and when you do, it makes you stronger and happier… even if you are a trumpet.

*Below is the first episode of my podcast “You Can’t Laugh at That” with fellow comedian Steve Mers. If you’re a comedian, a fan of comedy, or you’re looking for fresh perspectives on controversial or overplayed topics, there’s something for you in every episode. New episodes drop every Monday, and we dive in headfirst with our first where Steve and I break down transgender jokes, exploring what’s funny, what’s not, why, and how to find fresh angles that prove you CAN laugh at that.*

Listen here:
If you enjoy, follow on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Libsyn.
Like it on Facebook:
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Share with your friends.
And most importantly, enjoy!

Thank you!