Polite Dinner Conversation

Tonight at dinner, I overheard two couples talking about Important Social Issues. I’m a writer, so eavesdropping isn’t really considered rude. It is actually a kind of professional obligation. The couples were talking about gay marriage and transgender identity. What struck me wasn’t the content of the couples’ conversation. I was amazed, rather, by the tone — friendly, civil and challenging. The privileged white upper-class man was being rude and sarcastic. The privileged white upper-class woman answered his sarcastic jibes with earnest, polite, unapologetic replies. She answered every joke with a “Imagine how you would feel if…”

The conversation had a pleasant, enjoyable rhythm. They were rising and falling against one another’s reply. There was thoughtful, quiet spaces in-between each retort. There was civility. There was respect. There was friendship.

The conversation captured me not for its academic merits or it rhetorical riposte.  The conversation caught my attention because it felt so unusual. Somewhere along the way, disagreements have become forbidden. When friends disagree with one another, we keep it to ourselves. We learn to avoid the discomfort of discord. We pretend that silence is agreement, that tranquility is concert. And yet we once were a country built on public debate, a great laboratory for ideas, where a kind of intellectual survival of the fittest sussed out the best, most powerful ideas through argument and disagreement.

I don’t want to make too much of it. Maybe it is just me. But I find myself increasingly talking to people who agree with me, nodding my head to acknowledge things I myself might have said.

And then I see how other’s practice constructive disagreement in such a polite, friendly and constructive way. And I see how important this dinner time conversation might become.

In a few weeks, the United State Supreme Court will announce decisions on some majorly Important Social Issues. The decisions will help establish or reinforce legal and political precedent for how we want to live. The decisions will impact social norms and will help govern the ways we organize ourselves inside our communities. And yet, for all the importance of the Supreme Court decisions, I can’t help thinking that it won’t be enough. The future won’t be made by legal pronouncement or proclamation anymore than it will be made by news commentary or podcast. The future will be shaped over a thousand pleasant meals with friends gathered together disagreeing through polite dinner conversation.

More Than Content

I have been thinking about Jim Rettew’s comments about the Idea Industry and how treating ideas and inspiration as commodities limits how we can interact with and use those ideas.

The Idea Industry is way bigger than TED. It includes writers like Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladstone, podcasts and, yes, bloggers.

As one of those bloggers, I sometimes wonder what it is I am actually doing when I write for other people to read. Am I just moving ideas around from place to place, pointing to interesting sites that others might find inspiring or, at least, amusing for a short while? Or does my work as a blogger contribute something greater?

We often talk about blogs and books and articles and movies as content, as if it were something physical that resides inside something else. A specific, discrete something with its own properties than can be placed in a vessel, carried somewhere else and then transferred to another vessel. That is the connotation of content. In this model, art is about information transfer.

Blogs and books and articles and movies can be more than just content. Content is information. If blogging is just about information transfer then it is easily done and pretty much anyone can do it.

My best blog posts, the one’s that get comments and get people interested, are the posts that tell stories. Good blog posts share something from personal experience and connect it to the experience of other people. That is what we can do here to add value. We can tell stories. We can tell stories about ourselves, people we know and people we invent. We can tell stories as a way to connect insights to experience.

Come to think of it, this is what great teachers do, too. They move beyond lecture and tell interesting stories to help students make their own insights.

Come to think of it, this is what Jesus and Buddha did. They didn’t lecture or preach a lot. They pretty much went around telling people interesting stories that connected ideas to experience. That’s how major movements get born.

The way we think about what we do determines the value of what we do. If we trap ourselves into the act of creating content, that is all we will ever have to offer. We can offer more of ourselves and help make the best ideas come to life.

We can tell stories.

TED Talks as One Night Stand

Last week, I wrote a bit about the limits and virtues of TED Talks as a vehicle for ideas that can transform how we work and live. I love TED Talks and usually find them wildly inspiring. The trick is what to do with that feeling. Where can we carry that sense of inspiration? How do we apply it?

Jim Rettew offers great insights on the nature of TED and what we should be doing with it. You should read “Are TED Talks a One Night Stand With Ideas?”

Rettew offers two essential insights for me. The Biggest Ideas are usually statements of problem rather than statements of solution. He offers Picasso’s Guernica as an example.  To be fair, Guernica is a different sort of thing than a talk, but the example gets Rettew to this statement:

Great Ideas, then, don’t merely easily please us with their immediate utility — often, they break our hearts with desperate futility; with both the aching impossibility and sure inevitability of the trials and tests of human life. But that’s precisely what makes them Great.

Which leads to Rettew’s other essential point about the TED Talks way of sharing: “It gives us the climax of epiphany, without the challenge and tension of thought.”

The habit of thinking represented by TED Talks delivers the quick thrill of insight without the underlying work of thought, reflection and bewilderment.

Rettew sees trouble not specifically with TED Talks, but rather the Ideas Industry. TED Talks are just a useful exemplar.

TED Talks are powerful, useful and generally helpful. The trouble is with the easy trust that TED Talks can create. The TED Talks website is an epiphany machine. Since viewers receive these epiphanies without the preliminary discomforts of confusion, critical thought and experience, the machine delivers the appearance of solutions as a form of entertainment. We can feel better about things because smart people have come up with great ideas. Action is not required. We aren’t asked to actually do anything.

Great Ideas, Rettew tells us, require something from us. Great Ideas require action. We are more than pundits and consumers.

As bloggers, we are part of the Ideas Industry. When I post, what is it I am doing? Am I contributing something useful that can be used to make something useful happen? Am I just a conduit for the comfort of other people’s epiphanies?

Maybe the idea of epiphany is what I am actually working with in this series of posts. The assumed belief that useful insights and solutions always arrive as epiphanies, and that progress always happens in unexpected, brilliant leaps forward.

We need those leaps sometimes, to be sure.

More often, progress comes from slow, steady application of reason, hypothesis and process of elimination.

The Idea Industry tells us that epiphanies are required to make things better. The problem is that epiphanies are not something we can count on everyone to provide. If we are going to improve things that matter, we need to get everybody into the game. We need to encourage both kinds of thinking.

The Tyranny of Big Ideas

I am a person who loves big ideas. You may have noticed.

I can’t really help it. I get inspired by other people’s bold thoughts, sweeping visions and prophetic pronouncements. I walk around with this sense that we are living in radical times and believe that the scale of change around us requires a comparable measure of audacity, brilliance and courage.

I am not alone. The world is filled with people who are ever-watchful for the next brilliant solution to a once seemingly intractable problem. You find these people, people like me, more often than not, watching TED Talk videos.

John Spencer sees a problem with TED Talks. TED Talks are conceived as being a way to jump start meaningful conversation about worthwhile ideas. The point of the conversation is, of course, to vet the ideas and improve them through critique. Spencer doubts the quality of the conversation that follows.

Spencer describes TED Talks as a kind of “Secular Scripture”, a text that  cannot be refuted. For Spencer, TED Talks are sometimes brandished as a kind of idea bomb that gets tossed his way whenever he offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing wisdom. This has not happened to me, but I see the danger of the experience he describes.

Big ideas can be habit-forming. Big ideas can be addictive. There is an element of wishful thinking that sometimes hounds the believer of big ideas, a willingness to trade away the obligation to be skeptical and mistrustful of ideas that have not yet proven themselves or arrive unaccompanied by detail and practice.

This is where most big ideas suffer. Big ideas are often celebrated and lauded before they get connected to details and practical application. Worse, big ideas get praised as half-solutions before the nature of the problem is fully explored. And then, the person who is casting doubt is a naysayer. But the work of skeptic is necessary. Otherwise, we lurch from big idea to big idea, each time willing ourselves to believe that problems have been solved, really and permanently solved, simply because we would like for them to be solved.

Sometimes big ideas are used as a tool for political manipulation. (Recommended listening: DecodeDC’s “There’s a Plan for That”)

It can very difficult to argue with big ideas. This is partly because bold ideas are generally conceptual in nature and painted with broad strokes. It is hard to deconstruct broad strokes without nitpicking. Nobody likes a nitpicker.

Sometimes, big ideas arrive with such force that there is no space left for critique or examination. In Spencer’s view, if TED Talks are a conversation, the original presenter gets to speak with a megaphone and everyone else answers in scattered whispers. The TED Talk viewer is given easy access to new, challenging ideas but does not often see those ideas presented in context with opposing, contrarian views. In this way, TED Talks can sometimes become a kind of sales pitch — quick, to-the-point, ready to sell and, ultimately, unanswerable.

Spencer’s critique is fair. Like Spencer, I think TED is an excellent site rich with powerful, challenging ideas that deserve to be shared and discussed widely. We just need to be sure that we aren’t giving these ideas a pass just because they are big, bold and lovely. Ideas get improved by being pulled apart, debated, and, sometimes, refuted. Not all ideas deserve to be implemented. Not all big ideas need to be tried.

More to the point for me, there is a warning here to beware the lure of the big idea as a magic tonic that cures all ills. People like me are called idealists. People like me have a lot to offer the world, but we have to be careful. We should never expect big ideas to save the world. Ideas never saved anyone or made things better. Hard work makes things better. Easy to forget sometimes that the way to change the world is to work hard. The process is iterative. The process is incremental. The process can be frustratingly slow. Without the work, however, the idea is just a false comfort, a fun diversion that keeps us from the discomfort of disagreement and uncertainty. Nothing useful ever happened without discomfort and uncertainty. We work through that.

We need big ideas. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t need to be so complex. Sometimes we need smaller idea, so long as it is the right small idea and it is coupled with lots and lots of work.