Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Kilroy Café #68: "The Secret of Great Perfomances"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

The Secret of Great Performances


The secret of a great performance, in any field, is seeing yourself as the audience sees you, not as you want to be seen. It sounds easy but it's not.

Any of us can sit in an audience and accurately evaluate the person on stage. One comedian is funny; another is not. If we don't know the performer, it's easy to be dispassionate about the performance and see it for what it is.

This detachment evaporates when it's you on stage. Then, your ego and your familiarity with the material distort your perception and keep you from accurately seeing the performance. You may start obsessing over details and miss the big picture. You may see your performance as better or worse than it really is and be drawn into fatal mistakes as a result.

Almost everything we do for others is a "performance". This includes every art form but also most business and social interactions. We are presenting a product to an audience and hoping they will buy it. The audience can be six million viewers on TV or just one potential customer in front of you. If you are the customer, you know what you want, but when you become the seller, your vision of what the customer wants is clouded by your own emotional needs.

It's a fact of life: Most performers are not very good. They make the audience cringe with what they think is a great performance, but everyone else knows it isn't. Diplomacy may require that the audience applaud anyway—in public at least. In private, though, they turn their attention elsewhere and don't come back to that performer again.

Why does the audience lie? We all do it because we don't want to hurt the performer's feelings. We know instinctively that if the performer knew how we really felt, he would get upset. In all likelihood, he would become either depressed or angry, maybe even vengeful and violent, so we all learn to hold our tongues. We'll talk freely to others about the performance we just saw, but we will be honest to the performer only if it was spectacularly good.

We might want to offer "constructive criticism" to the performer, but this is risky and costly. The great irony of performance is that the people who are most in need of advice are those least capable of accepting it. Their ego requires a positive evaluation, because otherwise they'll be crushed by shame. It's a self-defeating cycle: The fear of humiliation on stage drives people into delusions and denial which eventually result in their humiliation on stage.

The process can also work in the other direction. Someone can put on a fantastic performance, as seen by the audience, but then discard it as worthless. They dwell on microscopic imperfections in the show, while neglecting the fact that the audience loved the whole package.

Accurately evaluating your own performance is one of the hardest tasks on Earth. It's easy to do if you have no stake in the outcome, but as soon as you become invested in something, your perception gets skewed. Emotions instead of facts start dictating your evaluation.

In some cases, your audience will give you immediate hard feedback on how you are doing. Stand-up comedians operate in this environment. Either the audience laughs or it doesn't, and it's pretty easy to tell polite laughter from the uncontrollable kind. Making people laugh is a brutal business, but at least you know where you stand.

Most other kinds of performance don't provide such reliable feedback. When you lose a sale, you usually don't know exactly why. As soon as something valuable is at stake (money, a job, love, etc.), a wall goes up between the buyer and seller. The buyer holds his cards close to his chest and the seller can only guess what they are. Rarely are the cards laid on the table, even after the fact, so the seller can see what he did wrong.

If you ask most people what makes a great performance, they'll probably say "practice, practice, practice". Wrong! Practice often means just repeating the same dumb mistakes over and over. The key to success in any field is aggressively honing and fine-tuning your performance, seeking out accurate feedback and responding to it.

When no audience member is available to supply that feedback, you have to do it yourself. The great performers are able to sit in their own audience and view their performance with detachment. They radio their observations to the guy on stage, who adjusts his performance accordingly.

Most people are just too narcissistic and self-centered to pull it off. They can't step outside of themselves to see their behavior as others see it. They may succeed by dumb luck but not by skill.

There is no easy remedy for this. You can't make detachment happen in others, only in yourself. No matter how much may be at stake in your performance, you have to be able to release yourself from it, drift to the ceiling and see it from afar. If it wasn't you on stage but someone else, what would you be thinking?

It's both easy and incredibly hard.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Las Vegas. Inspired by a celebrity impersonators convention. (Photos)
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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Kilroy Café #2: "BAN GAY MARRIAGE (heterosexual marriage, too!)"

Here is a repost of a 2008 Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed. This newsletter can be displayed on blogs and websites under the terms given here.

(heterosexual marriage, too!)


It is a polarizing political question: Should committed gay and lesbian couples be allowed to legally marry? Should the institution be restricted to "one man and one woman," or can it also be "one man and one man"? For that matter, what about "one man and two women" or "one man, one monkey, three sheep and a donkey"? Where are we going to draw the line?

In my opinion, everyone has the question upside down. Instead of lobbying the legislature or sponsoring voter initiatives to promote one side or the other, we should be talking to each gay couple directly. We should be sitting them down, perhaps in a Christian setting, and counseling them on the facts of life.

Why would you want to screw up a perfectly good relationship?

Research shows that most divorces are caused by marriage. Furthermore, science can also prove that gay marriage will inevitably lead to gay divorce, just as nasty as the hetero kind.

Marriage, in fact, is downright dangerous. It's like handing out guns to teenagers. Who among us, when afflicted by love, has the mental capacity to comprehend "Til death do you part"? Who among us is truly competent to say, "I have thought through all the implications, and this is the only path I will ever want for the rest of my life?"

Gay couples don't know how good they got it. They can never make the Big Step. They can never go down to the Chapel of Love one drunken night and throw away all future discretion. They can never just close their eyes and jump.

They have to think things through. Due to the protective restrictions in current law, they can only take their relationship one step at a time, in a process resembling reason. They must explicitly choose to share property, death benefits and child custody on a thoughtful, case-by-case basis, not as a single blind package. Yes, there are still a few retirement benefits that gay couples can't share, but most marriage services are available á la carte to anyone with some creativity.

Pity the poor heterosexual couple, living together in sin. To them, marriage is always the elephant in the room, the dark cloud hanging over their heads. When the relationship isn't perfect and you wonder what's wrong, it is easy to think that a lifetime contract must be the missing piece.

You can ask a divorcee: When did the relationship start to fall apart? A common reply is: "On the day we got married." Most relationships don't need and can't support the whole marital package. The most dangerous part is that individuality and self-responsibility often get suppressed, setting the stage for an explosion later on.

If you truly love someone and want to be with them, then why do you need the contract? If you are drawn together, so be it; if you grow apart, then you split up. Isn't the government contract, and all the economic and social baggage it carries, getting in the way of your free expression? If you're unmarried and you stay together, you know it's love. If you're encumbered and you stay together, you can never be sure.

If your particular insanity is to lust after the opposite sex, then government should tolerate your personal preference, but it doesn't need to sanction it. Marriage is, in essence, a form of religious expression that government ought to stay jolly well clear of.

Who is behind the marriage conspiracy? It's the Big Corporations, of course! They have fed us this delusion for years, because they know it is easier to sell useless products to trapped married people.

Only the gays are still free.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Las Vegas (March 28, 2008).
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You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kilroy Café #67: "Curiosity: The Hallmark of Intellect"

Here is the latest Kilroy Café philosophy essay. You can click on the image above for a larger version or print it out on a single page via the pdf file. The full text is also below. Also see other Kilroy Café newsletters and the KilroyCafe Twitter Feed.

Curiosity: The Hallmark of Intellect


Curiosity seems pretty simple. When something unusual happens in your environment, you check it out. Children do it all the time. If they are walking in the woods and encounter a strange-looking mushroom, they'll examine it, poke at it and eventually submit it to destructive testing to see what's inside. It's bad for the mushroom but good for the child, who learns about the world through aggressive investigation.

Adults, as a rule, are not curious. They may turn their head in response to a novel stimulus, but they won't go over and check it out. They passively observe but won't actively investigate. Most adults are curious only within the bounds of the field they have chosen to be curious in: Naturalists may be sensitive to novelties of nature but not those of the human world. Adults, it seems, have a comfort zone and are loath to leave it unless forced to.

So what happened between childhood and adulthood? And what is curiosity anyway?

Curiosity is the impulse, when a novelty is detected in ones environment, to actively explore it until it is understood.

Relatively few animals exhibit curiosity. It is generally limited to the mammals and the young ones more than the old. Reptiles aren't curious, except as related to immediate food or threat. If something unusual appears in their path, they'll simply walk around it. Monkeys, on the other hand, are quickly attracted to changes in their cages and will investigate like human children do, even if they don't expect reward from it.

The benefits of curiosity are far-sighted and intellectual. It is the first step in learning. When something is novel, it means that we don't yet have a model for it in our head, so it makes sense to explore it in case this knowledge might be useful in the future. We don't need to know exactly how it will be useful; we only need to know that exploration, as a whole, is beneficial to our survival.

Curiosity can be dangerous. We know it killed the cat! Whenever you poke something, there is a risk it will bite you back. The compensation, however, is higher adaptability. Curiosity is one reason our species has come to dominate the planet. At least a few members of our clan have been drawn to things they don't understand, which has ultimately given us our technology and science.

But curiosity is also dangerous in a personal sense, especially to adults. Most adults have already committed themselves to personal and emotional investments based on certain assumptions about life, and unfettered curiosity runs the risk of disrupting those assumptions. That's why they don't dare explore.

For example, if you are committed to a certain career and have already invested 20 years of your life in it, you will resist any form of curiosity that might suggest that a different path would have been wiser. Curiosity is tolerated only to point where it generates anxiety, then it is turned off. The more boxed in you are by your past decisions, the less curiosity you can afford without triggering that most powerful of human emotions: regret.

There are four steps in the process of curiosity: Orientation, Exploration, Integration and Release.

Orientation is turning ones attention toward a novel stimulus. Almost everyone will do that: turn their eyes and head toward anything out of the ordinary. Most drivers will notice an oddity along the side of the road. Only a few, however, will stop the car.

Exploration is the next step. You actively investigate and experiment with this novel thing—poking, prodding.

Integration is when you absorb this new phenomenon into your internal theories, so it no longer seems unusual. This may take minutes, weeks or years, but eventually the novelty becomes routine and uninteresting because it is understood.

Release is when you let go of the previously novel object and move on. This step is very important because it leaves you free to be actively curious about something else.

Even if they get to the Exploration phase, adults often get stuck on the Release phase. If something is initially intriguing to them, they often try to own it and never give it up. All sorts of old novelties clutter up our lives like this, preventing new novelties from getting in.

An active and dynamic intellect dances continuously with curiosity. To be able to truly grow, you need to be uncommitted enough to allow random exploration and also be willing to let go of whatever you find.

Most minds just can't do it. They get trapped at one stage of development and curiosity dies shortly thereafter.

If the opportunity of a lifetime sat down beside them, they wouldn't know what to do. They would ask no questions, and the moment would pass.
—G .C.

©2010, Glenn Campbell,
See my other philosophy newsletters at
Released from Ontario, California.
You can distribute this newsletter on your own blog or website under the conditions given at the main page for it.
You are welcome to comment on this newsletter below.