Confessions of a Recovering Bullshitter
Last year, I was on a panel at a conference. The kind where all the speakers from the weekend sit on stage and pass a microphone back and forth to answer questions from the audience. Most of the questions were directed at specific speakers, but a few were, “what do you all think of…” questions for the whole panel where we passed the microphone down the line and took turns answering with statements that usually started with, “to echo what [person who had the mic last] said…”
At some point in this Q&A, an audience member asked a Panel Question that I had no business answering. I think it was about business, or gym ownership or something. But as soon as they asked the question, my brain said, “you have no idea how to answer that question in a useful or creative way.”
But when I was handed the microphone, and begging eyes of the audience were on me, I talked anyway.
I said something pithy and delightful. The audience laughed. I passed the microphone to someone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about. And I immediately felt like crap.
It’s taken me a year to figure out why I answered that question and a whole lot more like it and why I felt like crap every time I did.
But now I know — it’s because I was bullshitting.
A Cog in the Bullshit Industrial Complex
Bullshit, according to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, is different than lying because the bullshitter does not seek to mislead, but to impress. My friend Marcia Baczynski knows I am concerned with the truth and making good work. But she also knows I like to impress. So she sent me Sean Blanda’s essay for 99u entitled, “The Creative World’s Bullshit Industrial Complex.”
According to Blanda, the Bullshit Industrial Complex is a pyramid:
Group 1: People actually shipping ideas, launching businesses, doing creative work, taking risks and sharing first-hand learnings.
Group 2: People writing about group 1 in clear, concise, accessible language.
[And here rests the line of bullshit demarcation…]
Group 3: People aggregating the learnings of group 2, passing it off as first-hand wisdom.
Group 4: People aggregating the learnings of group 3, believing they are as worthy of praise as the people in group 1.
Groups 5+: And downward….
I wish I’d read this essay before that I’d ever been on a panel. Before I ever opened my mouth with advice that I had captured through cleverness instead of mastery. Because as Blanda points out, “In the short term, [the Bullshit Industrial Complex is] creating a class of (often young) creatives deluded into thinking they are doing something meaningful by sharing ‘advice.’ Long term, it’s robbing us of a creative talent.”
The world doesn’t need more advice. It doesn’t need another impressive guy with good hair telling you shit that you already know. It needs more people doing good work for the sake of finding out what is true and what is not true.
It needs people brave enough do what I should have on that panel— take the microphone and say, “I have nothing to add to what has already been said. Next question.”
And I am gonna ask for your help being that brave, because it is too easy for me to be impressive instead.
I’m a lucky guy who happens to be a particular kind of clever. I understand systems really fast and I’ve had a liberal arts education that has only made me better at it. I’m also, frankly, a charming motherfucker (I blame the hair). The combination of these qualities (as well as being a white, cisgendered, straight dude) is a potent petri dish for the creation of bullshit, intentional or not. In fact, it wasn’t until I hit graduate school that I learned that my cleverness can actually be a barrier to doing good work. My ethics supervisor put it bluntly — “you’re too good at this too soon. I’m worried you’ll be dangerous to your clients without strong supervision. So I’m gonna pair you with a supervisor you can’t charm.”
It was a tough education from a lot of patient people (almost all women and other people who were not blessed with my bullshitting pedigree), but I finally began to learn the joy of a craft I could not bullshit. I had to actually learn to listen. I had to actually learn to teach instead of just talking about what I know. But most importantly, I learned the value in surrounding myself with people who won’t let me start accidentally doing slipping into the bullshit territory.
Right now, it’s people like Marcia Baczynski, Vanessa Naylon, and Omar Ganai that keep me focused on doing work that falls into Groups 1 & 2. But I want to recruit you as well. And give you full permission to tell me I’m full of shit.
What We Do
As a team, our mission has been, “help the most people help the most people” and after 3 years of learning, I can say that the way we are seeking to achieve that mission is by helping the most people learn to support each other’s Basic Psychological Needs.
That means our list of “non-bullshit topics” are
1. Explaining Motivation Science
2. True stories about how people got better at stuff.
3. Practical advice for supporting Basic Psychological Needs learned from #1 and #2.
4. Designing need-supporting experiences learned from #1, #2, and #3.
5. How we know what we know about #1, #2, #3, and #4.
What We Don’t Do
The list of what we are not experts on is infinite, but here’s an abbreviated list based on what I get asked about the most.
- Mental health
- Writing Code
- Lead Generation
- Running a gym
I am going to endeavor to not talk about these topics as much as possible and only talk about these topics as they relate to actual experiences I have had. I’ll indicate the likelihood of bullshit by using lots of qualifiers like, “In my experience,” and “I might just be talking out of my ass here, but…”
Please use those qualifiers as note bene that my desire to be helpful might have exceeded any wisdom I have on the topic at hand.
Avoiding a Slide Down the Bullshit Pyramid
When I look back on the work I’ve done in the past 3 years, the stuff I am most proud of and the stuff that people seem to appreciate the most is not bullshit. It’s firmly rooted above Blanda’s Line of Bullshit Demarcation in Groups 1 & 2. We’re passionate about making more of that genuine, creative work. But when I look back on the stuff that has not worked out, it’s usually because I had slid below that line and I was too loud to notice smarter people than me warning me about it.
So I’m giving you full permission to be loud. To email me and say, “Stevo, what the hell are you talking about? What does this have to do with discovering the truth of how people actually get better at things?”
I can promise I’ll hear you out. Because I’m trying to stay above the Line, but I know how easy it is to start sliding when someone hands you a microphone.