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It's not up to you
There’s a bit in Louis CK’s Live at the Comedy Store that I’ve been thinking about ever since I first saw it in 2015. It’s about someone saying they’re “not an asshole” (yes, it gained another layer of meaning after the misconduct revelations in 2017) and ends with Louis CK saying:
It’s not up to you if you’re an asshole or not. That’s up to everybody else. You don’t get to say no to that. “You’re an asshole.” “No, I’m not.” “Oh, sorry, I thought… Okay, well, I’m glad I checked. I guess you’re not.” If somebody tells you you’re an asshole, you should go, “Oh, shit, alright, what happened? How did I get here?”
I keep thinking of this not because I’m constantly wondering whether I’m an asshole or not (I guess, uhm, leave a comment if you think I should?), but because the idea that some things aren’t up to you, but up to the judgement of everybody else is very powerful. I’ve seen it show up again and again. Here’s what I mean:
It’s not up to you if you’re a clear communicator or not. That’s up to everybody else.
It’s not up to you if your RFC is easy to understand or not. That’s up to everybody else.
It’s not up to you if you said your message enough times or not. That’s up to everybody else.
It’s not up to you if your tool is easy to understand for new users or not. That’s up to everybody else.
You get the idea. The quality of some things is measured through the perception of others and order to improve them you need to keep that in mind.
It sounds to obvious, right? I mean, of course it’s up to others to decide whether I’m a good communicator or not, of course. And yet, in practice, people tend to miss this.
They write something and their readers consistently misunderstand what they wrote. They blame it on the readers, not their writing.
They say something once and the listeners don’t turn it into action. Speaker blames the listeners, because haven’t they said it very clearly and in a way that’s easy to understand?
Very easy trap to fall into. Very powerful if you can avoid it. How to avoid it? I’m sorry to say that I don’t know of any shortcut, you just need to keep “how is this perceived?” constantly in mind and adjust what you’re doing accordingly.
Here’s George Saunders talking about this very thing in the context of writing:
How, then, to proceed? My method is: I imagine a meter mounted in my forehead, with “P” on this side (“Positive”) and “N” on this side (“Negative”). I try to read what I’ve written uninflectedly, the way a first-time reader might (“without hope and without despair”). Where’s the needle? Accept the result without whining. Then edit, so as to move the needle into the “P” zone. Enact a repetitive, obsessive, iterative application of preference: watch the needle, adjust the prose, watch the needle, adjust the prose (rinse, lather, repeat), through (sometimes) hundreds of drafts.
Now let me be perceptive and say: I can’t follow George Saunders. See you next week.
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