Humor, Honesty, and the Safety to Fail
Hello and happy Tuesday inspired humans! Let’s jump into today’s stuff!
ONE FROM THE AGES
William Shakespeare, on the magnitude of truthtelling:
“No legacy is so rich as honesty.”
ONE FROM TODAY
Comedian Bryan Callen on the danger of seeking purity:
“You get these people who have loved the idea of trying to purify and create their own utopia, which a lot of historians have written about. The most dangerous thing a movement can endeavor to do is to purify or create a utopia… if you have any questions, see Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Stalin’s Russia. I mean, Stalin would have people killed because they had the wrong idea of what communism was…. That’s what happens throughout history. That’s what happens when you have ideologues running things. Because they’re not smart. They’re fanatics. They don’t open themselves up to other points of view.”
Source: Eric Weinstein’s The Portal Episode 9, Cracking Wise with Bryan Callen
ONE FROM US
As my father observed, humans have four instinctive behavioral responses: fighting, fleeing, feeding, and sex. The Four “F”s. These primal urges pull and prod us to fulfill our biology’s chief mission - keeping our DNA alive. But, we also have a realm that goes beyond our basic instincts for self-preservation.
We expend valuable energy dancing and playing, we take immense pride in manipulating our food so that others can’t help but eat more of it, and, sometimes, we even run into machine-gun fire despite an overwhelming urge to flee. As the psychologist and father of sociology, Emile Durkheim explained, humans are governed by two often competing operating systems. We are what he called Homo Duplex - an animal compelled by carnal self-serving impulses, but also by the need to transcend ourselves through our relationship with society. Durkheim referred to these latter needs as the realm of the sacred. They are the basis of culture and fulfillment.
All of us, from the most introverted to the most social, have a deep need to be a part of something bigger than ourselves - to be connected to a group. In fact, Durkheim found that the greatest predictor of suicide was social alienation (what he termed anomie). When social bonds are weak - when people don’t feel connected to something bigger than themselves - mental health declines.
Much has been made of the negative mental health consequences that we expect to follow COVID-19 social-distancing efforts. But our collective mental health was already disturbingly low. Suicides, drug overdoses, depression, anxiety, and every metric of mental dysfunction that I know of has been rising steadily for decades. There are undoubtedly a number of reasons, but perhaps the greatest cause of declining mental health is our desire to make everyone feel safe and protected.
In his amazing book, The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle dissects the ingredients of strong cultures - from Pixar and the Navy Seals to Google and the New Zealand All Blacks. What he finds is completely contrary to the thinking of self-esteem and “safe space” culture. The first step of creating a connected, high purpose culture is to create safety. But not the safety to remain fragile. It is the safety to be authentic, to think creatively, and to fail. Great cultures are places that seek dissenting opinion, critique, and most of all frequent failure. They are places of “high-candor feedback” and “uncomfortable truth-telling” where the commitment to truth and mission supersede dogma and feelings.
Contrast that to the failure-is-not-an-option party line that dominates modern education or the communication patterns developed by social media-induced cancel culture. Mainstream culture has been swept away by a well-intentioned mission to make every encounter as safe and non-threatening as possible. We are trying to create a culture where everyone is protected because they all agree and no one dares to offend, but this only breeds mental neuroses.
Minds that are not used to being challenged will perceive every challenge, no matter how minor, as a dire threat. People who have been immersed in self-esteem tactics like grade inflation, social promotion, and over-celebration will learn to focus on outcomes over process. They will avoid risking failure because, from their fragile perspective, failure would be too devastating. Most notably, people who are raised to believe that any thought outside of the mainstream dogmas is indicative of moral vagrancy are conditioned to find malice even when it doesn’t exist and to respond with the greatest possible outrage. This creates an environment where people are afraid to utter anything honest or creative. In this manner “safe space” culture promotes social alienation by making it unsafe to risk the type of interactions that would strengthen understanding and social connection.
The Culture Code also looks at terrible cultures, specifically, the inhumanly bureaucratized Air Force Minuteman missileers. These 750 men and women work in isolated locations as nuclear missile launch officers. Despite the significance of their job, missileers have developed a reputation for apathy, recklessness, and dysfunction. This stems from a culture that discourages creative problem-solving and stokes fear of failure in much the same way that outrage culture does. As one missileer explained, “Every deviation is treated as if it’s violating a presidential launch order. Make a critical error? You’re done. You’re the shitty guy. There is no such thing as doing an outstanding job. You either do it right, or you get punished.” Another got to the root of missileer apathy, explaining: “We don’t care if things go properly. We just don’t want to get into trouble.”
Similarly, teachers learn to care less about preparing youth to live great lives and more about towing the party line. There are no incentives for creativity and passion but many other incentives that discourage teachers from deviating from the broad, scripted curriculum, helping students think critically about controversial topics, or questioning the many dogmas that have institutionalized low standards. Education has become obsessed with arbitrary metrics and superficial short term feelings at the expense of creating the capacity and inclination for critical thought.
If we want to come together and create people with the tools to thrive, then we have to embrace a more nuanced approach. Safe space culture makes failure unsafe. Dogma makes honesty unsafe. Collective progress can only come from a shared pursuit of an ever-illusory higher ideal - one that seeks to balance notions like strength, compassion, truth, grace, tradition, innovation, and courage.
The best cultures are high energy. They are full of passion, frustration, and laughter. A culture that can’t poke fun or embrace humor is probably the best indicator of dysfunction. When people laugh together, they can’t help but feel connected and safe. To have frequent laughter requires a capacity to laugh at oneself - to be okay with imperfection, honesty, and the harsh realities of the human condition. Rather than seeking evermore sensitivity, let’s turn our attention to helping our youth laugh at themselves and develop a Willingness to Fail (#WTF) in pursuit of growth.
If you want to explore these ideas further, I can’t give high enough praise for the podcast interview between Eric Weinstein and Bryan Callen featured in the above quote. Also, I've come across two wonderful items from Andrew Sullivan, an article and a 10-minute video, that are worth checking out:
Is There Still Room For Debate
Andrew Sullivan on Free Speech
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Thanks for reading!
Life is too short to be normal,