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About 25 years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, McArthur Wheeler came up with a plan. He knew a lot about secret messages and he realized that if you used lemon juice to write a note, you could make invisible ink that could only be seen if you heated it up. So he realized, if he put lemon juice all over his face, he would become invisible.
He was very careful. He checked himself by taking a picture of himself with a Polaroid. The picture came up blank, so off he went. He robbed not one, but two banks that day, and was astonished and upset to discover that he wasn’t in fact invisible.
Ironically, there are no photos of McArthur Wheeler on my show notes page, but there are plenty of links you might want to check out. McArthur Wheeler, who then went to jail, of course, suffered from what’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect – which is a syndrome in which people who know the least, often act like they know the most.
It’s easy to laugh at his plight. Of course, in case you were wondering, lemon juice doesn’t make you invisible – I am now an expert on this topic. However, there’s some part of us that wants to believe, that wants to be afraid, that wants to be sure, that if we get a little bit too uppity, we too will go to jail for doing something really stupid.
Consider the case of a friend of the family. He acted all through high school. He was really good at it. He got to college and applied for the improv troupe. The improv troupe had 11 slots in it, open for new students who wanted to apply. He didn’t make the cut, he came in 12th. He was heartbroken.
When he told me about this, I said what I thought was obvious. Why don’t you start your own improv troupe? Well, not only hadn’t this occurred to him, he rejected it out of hand.
The irony is not lost on me. Improv, of course, is about making it up as you go along. Improv is about being an impresario – somebody who’s willing to go first. Not to say “no” but to say “yes, and”.
However, it’s difficult in this culture and many of the cultures that came before, to raise our hands, to go first, to organize.
Part of the problem is called Imposter Syndrome. Clance and Imes wrote the definitive breakthrough paper on Impostor Syndrome in 1978. And in it, they described the feeling that people get, often women, but all people get, when they feel like an impostor.
When they are leaning too far out of the boat, when they are saying that they are about to do something and, deep down, realize that they are a fraud.
Well, Social Psychologists got their hands on this, and so there are scales of how much of an imposter you actually feel like. The Harvey Scale is one, the Clance Scale is another. And deep down, we all know what those feelings are.
People come to me and they talk about feeling the Imposter Syndrome, hoping that I – someone who roots often for picking oneself, for going first, for opening the door, for leading – will reassure them and help them get through this feeling.
And sometimes, people are surprised at my suggestion. And my suggestion is, “Of course, you’re an imposter”.
Of course you’re an imposter, because you are describing a future that hasn’t happened yet. Because you are arguing for something that cannot be proven to be true, yet.
This is what it means to pick yourself.
So of course you’re an imposter, and it’s good that you feel like one. Because if you didn’t, you’d be some sort of sociopath. That as an imposter, you are acting generously, acting as if, going to people before it actually works out to say, “What about this? Let’s try that”.
And so then, on to this idea of the dissolution of the TV industrial complex. If you got a book deal in 1995, when Wheeler was busy robbing banks covered with lemon juice, well then, of course, you weren’t an imposter.
Because Adrian Zackheim, or Sonny Mehta picked you. They authorized you. They said, “You need to write a book, here is an advance. We have people standing by, just waiting for you to hand in your book”.
Now, you might feel a little uncomfortable, but you certainly don’t feel like a full-out imposter, because someone picked you. But, when you want to write a book on the Kindle, Jeff Bezos does not come to your house and hand you a check – you pick yourself.
If you want to make a TV show, yes, maybe you need Ted Sarandos at Netflix to say, “Oh, I’ve seen your pilot. I’ve looked at your credentials. I’ve met your agent from that fancy agency. Here is a pile of money, your TV show is going to be on Netflix”.
Or, because it’s 2019 or 2020, you can make your own TV show, and you can put it on Vimeo, you can put it on YouTube and no one can stop you.
You are listening to a podcast right now, a completely unauthorized podcast, coming to you – unfiltered from me to you. No one approved of its contents before you are hearing it.
And the cost for you to make a podcast, compared to what it would have cost you to be on the radio next to Casey Kasem on the Westwood One Radio Network in 1995, when Wheeler was busy robbing all of those banks, you would have needed the FCC to approve what you were saying. You would have needed an executive at Westwood One to pick you. You would have needed an entire studio of people to help.
But today, if you want to make a podcast, you can make a podcast. And so here we go – if you want to do improv, you can do improv. If you want to make TV, you can make TV. Radio, radio. Books, books. Almost all the media we can imagine – the gatekeepers are leaving the building, and yet few people are raising their hand.
I’ve spoken a couple times at Carnegie Hall to Juilliard students. The Juilliard students I’m talking to have spent 15 years honing their craft. They are some of the best trombone, oboe, bassoon, and flute players the world has ever known.
And they are waiting – after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and who knows how many hours practicing – they are waiting for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra to choose them, to pick them, to give them a permit.
To tell them that they are not delusional, that the Dunning-Kruger Effect does not apply to them, because they are at the other end of the curve. They know a lot. They don’t know nothing. And because they know a lot, they are hesitating.
This leads us back 2,500 years ago to Herodotus. Herodotus was a historian of the Ancient Greeks, and he wrote a parable about a messenger that was sent from a nearby city state to talk to Thrasybulus.
And the question that they wanted to ask is, “Do you have any advice as to how we should rule? Do you have any advice as to what we should do next?” Well, The messenger reported back to the King. He got no advice whatsoever. The King pressed, well, what did he do?
And the messenger said, “We walked through a wheat field, and as we walked through the wheat field, Thrasybulus took his thresher and chopped off the top of every one of the tallest wheat stalks. The most valuable, most productive wheat stalks – he’d cut them off at the top. And then, he left without a word. Well Periander, the King, realized what the message was.
The message was – cut down your tall poppies. Find the people in your community who are leading, who are innovating, who are doing more and asking for more, and expel them. Execute them. Shun them, shame them. Average down.
Since then, countries around the world have claimed ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome,’ probably more accurately called ‘Tall Wheat Syndrome,” as their own. Australians come to me and say, “Well, in our country” and Britts come to me and say, “Well, in our country” and yes, here in the United States as well. This fear that the tall poppies once seen will be cut down, holds us back.
Why is it so sticky? How has it persisted? I want to argue the opposite of what Max Weber said. Weber said that it might be a zero sum game. That people may believe that there isn’t an infinite amount of status and respect to go around. That innovation could get used up.
And so, the masses and the rulers could see those tall poppies as a threat, because they are taking their spot in the hierarchy, their creativity, their innovation, their contribution, from other people. Better to average it all down.
But maybe it’s sticky, because we want it to be sticky. Because it’s scary to raise your hand, regardless of whether or not there’s Tall Wheat Syndrome going on in your community.
It’s scary to say, “Here, I made this”. Scary to say, “I’m starting this troupe. Here is my podcast. Here we go, I made this”.
Of course, it’s scary because you’re an impostor. And sooner or later, a critic who’s never had a statue built to him, or her, will say, “Hey, you’re an imposter, you’re a fraud”. And they’ll be right, if we complete the sentence, for now. Because it’s unproven, because you can’t be sure.
Well, if we can put our arms around Imposter Syndrome and realize it is a compass, it is a way of feeling when we know that we’re using generosity to make things better. Because we are acting ‘as if’. Because we are ‘seeking’ to make things better, by making better things. Then we can get over that noise in our head.
We can organize a string quartet with our fellow students and play in the subway, if we have to – without a permit, without a license – simply because we can.
So when I say, “Go make a Ruckus,” that’s my point. What it means to make a Ruckus is to generously act, despite your status as an imposter.
Despite what some people might think of as the zero-sum game of making a difference, and despite your brush with the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
The thing is, when we have an open marketplace, as we do now, but maybe not for long, where people who have something to say can say it, who want to create something can create it. In this moment, we have no choice but to not waste it.
We must take advantage of our chance to connect with others, to lead others, to level up, to establish a new standard for what better might be.