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Colbert: On Flop Sweat and Embracing the Bomb

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Man in spotlight laughs with failure

Lovely death mask courtesy Time magazine

Lovely death mask courtesy Time magazine

The recent excellent GQ article (By Joel Lovell) on Colbert illuminates the thoughtful wells the comedian will pull from as he starts his late night gig tonight. Is he a moral intellectual? A public thinker? A likeable guy on stage who talks with a knife? Is he a comedian with a charter to entertain?

Yes.

One revealing quote deep in the article shows Colbert’s dance with failure:

…longtime Second City director Jeff Michalski told them that the most important lesson he could pass on to them was this: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”

“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert said. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”

What is true for improv and comedy is also true for teaching, business meetings and ordinary conversation. We just might fail. We might fail to connect. We might fail to convince. We might fail to feed the self-image we continually tend, whether that image is macho or hip or knowing or controlled.

I cannot help but wonder if our growing xenophobia—an unfortunate currency in play by many presidential hopefuls—is a response to fear of honest but hard conversations. That kind of conversations that need to happen between us. All of us.

Philosopher turned motorcycle mechanic Matthew B. Crawford’s insightful book The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015) writes about the role of apprenticeships and (some) graduate programs in helping the newcomer absorb the wisdom and knowledge of the group. Growing understanding happens through didactic methods of course, lecture and the like. But much of what we know arrives as a sort of tacit knowledge—a kind of knowledge that shows up from watching others do a task.

On the way to this and many other connected points, Crawford points out again and again that we need the conversations and the interactions with others in order to understand who we are. We need interactions within our tribe—yes—but we also need the interactions outside our tribe. These can be clarifying interactions: they help us understand what we know and what we believe about the world.

All this to say:

  1. I look forward to Steven Colbert’s masterful comedy/public thinking.
  2. I want to grow at hard conversations—even if they gut the self-image I so carefully tend.
  3. I/we need to embrace the people who are different rather than push them away. They have powerful things to teach us—and that is part of the collective wisdom of our U.S. of A.

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Written by kirkistan

September 8, 2015 at 9:25 am

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