A Philosophy of Listening
One day I think in 2010 while I was volunteering at a local soup kitchen, I walked past a bookshelf full of romance novels. Serendipity means finding a book worth reading on a shelf full of romances. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable was sitting there. I’d never heard of it before, but even the way the spine is designed said “this is not a romance novel.” So I seized the day, plucked it from the shelf, took it home, and began to read philosophy again.
In fact, I had read Why Art Cannot Be Taught by Elkins a few years before but perhaps didn’t see it as the philosophical book that it is. But the point is, since graduating college I hadn’t really engaged my brain that way. Once I read The Black Swan I had to admit to myself I was reading stuff that was a bit over my head, and from there I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and so on. I began again to engage philosophy, this time in a much more serious way than I had during my undergrad years. You don’t have to have a graduate program to make yourself read.
My basic conclusion after reading Why Art Cannot Be Taught was that Elkins was correct in saying that Art cannot be taught, but incorrect in failing to offer a more excellent way to engage with art students. Coaching, I believed, and a community of authentic relationship, may not teach anyone to become a “great” artist as defined by fame or wealth. But it could help artists to become better people, more well-adjusted, less prone to isolation and even to suicide or self-medication – things which have been known to destroy artists in their prime. If you want to become an artful motivational listener, that is, if you want to listen to people and watch them walk away and succeed at attaining goals and dreams, this is a science to some extent which can be studied like the science of mixing color. Just because you can mix red and yellow to get orange doesn’t mean you can move people. Just because you can ask powerful questions, like “What do you hope to get out of this session” doesn’t mean you’re going to become the most famous or wealthy coach. But then, this isn’t necessarily the end of an art-form like listening. As Ronald Reagan said (or repeated) “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.”
Perhaps the first thing we have to lay down to learn this art is the idea that it will somehow become a great career and that it might make us famous. (Incidentally the same goes for writing. You have to come to the place where you don’t care how much money it makes or how famous you will become – you simply have an idea or story to tell. Then you become productive.)
One of the biggest philosophical questions of all time is this: What is Truth?
As a motivational listener, you’ll be listening for that too. But not so much in the way of a judge or lawyer in a courtroom. Instead, you’re listening for the truth like a hunting guide looks for bear or cougar spoor. Yep, the old biologist’s joke is true: bear spoor happens. The real value of being a hunting guide is in recognizing the unexpected for what it is. If you were teaching people to hunt for deer in northern Indiana, where I live, you’d think it’s not so difficult to avoid the danger of becoming prey. But there have been stories in the area of bears visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Some years ago, perhaps around 2007, I was working in Ohio and saw a newspaper article discussing the fact that several people had spotted a cougar in their backyards. A representative of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources was quoted as saying “there are no cougars in Ohio.” Now there are many current articles about cougars in Ohio woodlands. As unusual and unexpected as they may be, you would do well to recognize the signs of this animal in your vicinity – and to be able to say to yourself the first time it happens, “I know there are no cougars, but here is a cougar,” and to take appropriate action. Being able to recognize something which is highly improbable is a key component, possibility as a critical piece of truth, that takes awareness and alertness that’s worth paying for.
On the flip side there are things we may uncover as we track that could help, as we listen to people’s story, which could lead to discovery of something spectacular, perhaps even resulting in some sort of breakthrough, and dare we say, greatness. To continue with the hunting guide analogy, knowing how to find not just any buck, but the twenty-point buck; to not just locate the hole where any northern pike are hiding, but to catch a record fish.
So, the art of motivational listening, like any other art, perhaps cannot be taught. But there is one thing I can tell you: you are looking for something you do not know. This is the core idea behind Taleb’s Black Swan. The Black Swan event is “an outlier, as it lies outside the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Secondly, it carries an extreme impact… Third, in spite of its outlier statues, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurance after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. … It Is easy to see that life is the cumulative effect of a handful of significant shocks… Black Swan Logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.”
This is what we’re looking for when we listen. Where are the handful of shocks, positive or negative? To refer to an earlier essay where I discussed the nature of the knuckleball, say for example that you are the batter, and the knuckleball pitcher makes a mistake. He throws a pitch that rotates, and the ball, rather than knuckling impossibly, suddenly becomes very hittable. The only problem is that you may be so surprised by the relative ease that you miss the pitch anyway.
Another pitch, even more rare than the poorly-thrown knuckleball, relies on the surprise. This pitch, called an eephus pitch, is served up to the batter in such a way that it is intended to be so hittable that the batter misses.
Wikipedia notes: “The delivery from the pitcher has very low velocity and usually catches the hitter off-guard. Its invention is attributed to Rip Sewell of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1940s. According to manager Frankie Frisch, the pitch was named by outfielder Maurice Van Robays. When asked what it meant, Van Robays replied, “‘Eephus ain’t nothing, and that’s a nothing pitch.” Although the origin is not known for certain, Eephus may come from the Hebrew word אפס (pronounced “EFF-ess”), meaning “nothing“.”
The Eephus pitch must be used with terrible infrequency – a complete outlier. The minute it becomes expected, it becomes worthless. It’s no longer a Black Swan Event. Sometimes it’s called a ball, sometimes a strike, usually makes the batter laugh, fools even the umpire, and once, Ted Williams hit a home run in the All-Star Game on an eephus pitch. Ted Williams was the kind of batter who was always ready. Ted was one of the greats.
Greatness, in terms of “no limits to what may be accomplished” is often the result of flexibly and appropriately responding to a Black Swan event when it happens. It means the ability to recognize bear or cougar spoor and get out of the woods, or being ready for the eephus pitch, that moment in which things become so easy for you to knock it out of the park that you’re likely to completely miss your chance. I think the worst thing we could do when we see the eephus pitch coming is to freeze. Better to swing away and miss than not to try at all; as Shakespeare famously said, “Better to have loved and lost than never to love at all.”
The issue becomes one of preparation. How do you seize the day if you aren’t awake? Again, the quest for not only the truth of what is now, but the truth of what might be possible even if it has never been done, seen, or thought of, is where greatness exists, and yes, it’s improbable.
All the more reason to be on the lookout for it.