Seek simplicity, and distrust it. — Alfred North Whitehead
You have no idea. — David Orr (but maybe not)
A few years ago, I was invited to the O’Neill National Theatre Conference to workshop a play. This isn’t as good as winning a Nobel Prize, but it’s very close.
At the conference, which lasted a month, I hung out with the playwright Howard Korder, who’s work has been done everywhere. With reservations, he liked my play. One day he said this to me:
You know, Wolf, you can leave out what you know. It’s true at any level.
I’ve been puzzling about the remark ever since. Does it mean what you know isn’t important, a distraction from something more important? Does it mean you can leave out a sentence full of stuff you already know? A word? A paragraph? A page? A chapter? A whole book? Does it apply to starting a business? To childrearing?
I don’t know for sure, because if I did know I could leave it out, but it’s worth considering that the answers to these questions may be yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.
I didn’t know how much I liked Steve Jobs. After he died, I began reading a lot of things he said because I couldn’t help it, what he said was everywhere on the Internet. And I realized I liked him a lot. This is one thing he said:
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.
This is like saying you can leave out what you know. And when you put it that way, who can argue? I can, sort of. Because first, it’s not only other people’s thinking that becomes dogma, it’s my own thinking. As in, I think I’ve got it figured out. Yeah, I’ve got this handled.
And second, I find it hard to recognize dogma—mine or somebody else’s—for what it is. I don’t see it. It’s in the walls. My walls. My choice of words. It’s in my received language, in words and phrases that other people use that become my vocabulary without my thinking about it.
Words and phrases like democracy. Communism. Terrorism. Occupy Wall Street. Tea Party.
IF ANYTHING CAN GO WRONG . . .
Another thing about what you know. You may not know it. Yesterday I sent out a flyer to Nick’s school. The whole point of the flyer was to let people know when to sign up for a camping trip. Only I put the wrong date on the flyer.
If, as an exercise, I had decided before emailing the flyer to leave out what I thought I knew, I might have paid attention to the date and caught the error.
I started leaving what I knew out of my writing. I’d write a page of dialogue and then as an exercise, cut everything I thought I knew. The dialogue got better. David Mamet once said this about dialogue, and it’s the greatest thing he ever said: “It’s not say what you want. It’s get what you want. If nobody wants anything, stay home.”
Even in a blog post, there are things I want. But I don’t say what I want. I try to get what I want. Because I don’t know how to do that, at least, not when I start out. And sometimes along the way I find out that what I thought I wanted wasn’t really what I wanted. And what I thought I knew turned out not to be true.
Psychological studies show that if you remove the possibility of evaluation, aversion to uncertainty goes away. Which makes perfect sense. I find it safe to write about what I know. I can fool myself into thinking there’s no danger of saying something wrong or stupid. And who wants to be uncertain, stupid, or wrong when people are looking?
“`Cheshire Puss,’ [Alice] began…. `Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’
Yesterday I knew my son Nick was a dork. We were playing a game and it didn’t work out the way he wanted and he stormed out of the room.
“You’re not listening to what I’m saying,” I said.
“Don’t care,” he said
Then he called me a name. Because he was being a dork.
Ten minutes later he found me.
“Dada, I’m sorry what I said,” he said.
I was uncertain what to do or say.
“Can we play the game again?”
“It hurt my feelings when you called me that name,” I said. “Can you think of something else to do when you feel frustrated?”
We made a list. We made a frustration management center out of some pillows. My son is a frustration management consultant now.
Who knew? I was sure he was a dork.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
The Principles of Uncertainty — Who needs Heisenberg when we’ve got Maira Kalman?
Uncertainty — This book is all the rage. I’m including it here because it references the studies showing how the possibility of evaluation increases uncertainty. The book is on my long list of “must reads.” I plan to get to it by 2022 at the latest.
What do you know, Joe? What did you think you knew, once? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)
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