Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Compensations and Losses of Old Age

Benjamin Schwarz comments on John Updike's writing at the end of his life, and says:

Above all, and most poignantly, this collection highlights Updike’s evaluation of the slackening of his own mental and athletic prowess… A generous and companionable critic and an avowed Christian, Updike met the decline of his powers with courage and good humor, but also with a clear-eyed recognition that the compensations of old age—a hard-won sagacity, a bemused detachment—don’t make up for the irretrievable losses.

I liked "hard-won sagacity" and "bemused detachment" to describe the "compensations of old age." And I love the counterbalancing statement that, no, of course nothing makes up for the "irretrievable losses"…

Things Men Will Never Understand About Women

The always worthwhile Caitlin Flanagan recently penned a gushing essay about Oprah. Oprah possess remarkable range–in a single show she can interview a guest who was abused by her husband and then, later on in the program, do a segment on the wonders of a panini sandwich maker. There are few others who handle light and heavy topics with equal aplomb, Flanagan says.

Along these lines, the paragraph below from Flanagan caught my eye: 

THERE ARE CERTAIN things about women that men will never understand, in part because they have no interest in understanding them. They will never know how deeply we care about our houses—what a large role they play in our dreams for ourselves, how unhappy their shortcomings make us. Men think they understand the way our physical beauty—or lack of it, or assaults on it from age or extra weight—preys on our minds, but they don’t fully grasp the significance these things have for us. Nor can they understand the way physical comforts or simple luxuries—the fresh towel or the fat new cake of soap—can lift our spirits. And they will never know how much our lives are shaped around the fear of bad men and the harm they can bring us if we’re not careful, if we’re not banded together, if we’re not telling each other what to watch out for, what we’ve learned. We need each other’s counsel, and oftentimes it comes when we’re talking about other things, when we seem not to have much important on our minds at all.

It's not that a woman's anxieties about body image might be equal to the delight of a new cake of soap; it's that to fully understand a person (woman or man) you need to know what keeps them up at night, yes, but you also need to know their favorite bike route, or ice cream flavor of choice, or the story behind the shirt they always wear on the weekends.

Oprah gets this. It's part of what makes her so successful.

Steve Jobs Brainstorming at NeXT

Fascinating 20 min video of Steve Jobs leading a brainstorming session (among other things) at NeXT in the late 80's. At his death he was leader of one of the world's largest corporations; but in this video he talks as a founder of a fledgling start-up dealing with office supplies and payrolls. He implores his employees to regain the "start-up hustle." Good stuff.

Knowing a Man vs. Knowing About a Man

Sportswriter Joe Ponsnaski is in the middle of writing of biography of Joe Paterno. And then last week happens.

On his blog, Ponsaski reflects on the man, and starts with this:

Writing a book comes from the soul. It consumes you — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all of it. I have thought about Joe Paterno, his strengths, his flaws, his triumphs, his failures, his core, pretty much nonstop for months now. I have talked to hundreds of people about him in all walks of life. I have read 25 or 30 books about him, countless articles. I'm not saying I know Joe Paterno. I'm saying I know a whole lot about him.

Love this distinction.

Insiders, Outsiders, and the Invisible Wink

Outgroup-300x225

"Inside baseball" refers to using jargon, specialized knowledge, acronyms, first names instead of full names, or other such things when speaking and writing. Using shorthand of this sort is simply more efficient when among friends, colleagues, or other "insiders." But there's a larger reason for inside references: They subtly increase the bond between the people in the know. If I tell you that Jake is sick today, and you know who Jake is without me needing to use a last name, that reinforces a defined ingroup based on our common experiences, knowledge, vernacular.

When you're with outsiders, you don't use inside references. I'd say Jake Smith, not Jake. I'd say "customer relationship management," not CRM.

Where it gets tricky is when you're in a group where there's both: some true insiders to you or the topic you're speaking/writing about, some people who are not.

When you make inside references and outsiders read/hear them, outsiders do not understand the content itself and, more importantly, feel excluded. They're in the outgroup. Sometimes the effect is trivial or inconsequential; other times it's small but meaningful.

I've been in group meetings where a few people who've worked together a long time crack an inside joke and all of us who didn't get it immediately feel like outsiders (relative to whatever bond they have). The people in on the joke feel closer, but this isn't great for overall team work and team bonding.

Romantic couples tend to do this a lot, actually, and it's annoying. You're out with a couple and they turn to each other and wink or quietly chuckle for a moment and while they feel closer, you're simply reminded of your outsider status relative to their communal bond.

So what's the right negotiation of inside vs. outside references when in a group of insiders and outsiders?

One idea: use "Invisible Winks" in your writing or speaking. A real wink, the closing of one eye, is a non-verbal cue to another insider usually about some mutually known knowledge. But a real wink is often seen by other (outsiders) in a physical context; it's also impossible to deploy in a written context. That's why the effective wink I'm talking about (in-person or in writing) needs to be "invisible" and context-agnostic. The key to an invisible wink is that insiders get the wink while outsiders do not notice the wink; additive to insiders, neutral to outsiders.

Suppose I were to write a blog post about a recent plane flight and mention that I won the critical armrest battle. For the majority of people reading this, that means nothing beyond its surface semantic content. And it's fine – they read it and move on. But for people who've been reading this blog for several years, they get the history behind the reference. It would serve as a special wink to an insider: Hey, you get the history.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a blog post awhile back (that I can't find for the life of me) in which he ended with a sentence not in quotation marks that was actually a sentence from a Yeats poem. Again, he doesn't quote Yeats with quotation marks, but he closes with Yeats's words, which happened to fit the topic perfectly. Those who didn't know it was Yeats presumably read it and absorbed it normally. Those who did catch the reference found an easter egg and felt smart — and closer to Sullivan as a result. It was the perfect invisible wink: greater bond with insiders, neutral effect on outsiders.

David Foster Wallace did this a lot, too. His writing is packed with hidden references and allusions, but not in a way where outsiders (i.e., people who don't pick up on the allusion) feel like they're "missing" something. Insiders get them, outsiders do not but do not realize they do not, and everyone is happy. As a result, DFW obtained both a mainstream audience and deep engagement with one portion of that audience. It's rare especially in academic writing and even in mainstream novelists.

In a real life, insider/outsider mixed context, an invisible wink may simply be the utterance of an inside reference without the chuckle, physical wink, or color commentary on the history of whatever it is being discussed–and only the utterances that don't make outsiders feel excluded.

Does this all sound insanely oveanalzyed? Maybe, but I think it's important. When I think about socially brilliant people, they possess a remarkable sensitivity to insider/outsider dynamics when speaking and writing to groups. It's part of what makes them socially brilliant.

Bottom Line: The best inside references strengthen bonds with those who get it while not being so obviously inside baseball that outsiders feel excluded.

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Related point: I think Tyler Cowen once said that he sometimes uses fancy economic terms on his blog without defining them because it creates an aspirational effect for the portion of his readers who are not professionally trained economists. When you use a term and do not define it or even link to Wikipedia, it signals to readers that you assume they know the meaning. It gives them an opportunity to elevate themselves. Essentially, he's giving outsiders the opportunity to feel like insiders–once they brush up on their econ knowledge.

(thanks to Stan James for helping brainstorm this idea)