Cans, Can’ts, and Saving the World

I’ve been thinking lately about a lot of conversations I see, usually in the comments sections of things I ought not to read the comments sections of. It got me thinking about improvisational theater, something which I have a bit of training in.

One of the fundamental precepts of improv is to accept what your partners give you, and build on it. Rejecting what they give you leads to dead ends, or grandstanding, either of which is boring. Compare these two exchanges:

Alfie: Say, looks like it’s going to rain.
Bob: Indeed, rain cats and dogs!
Alfie: What, literal cats? Are going to rain?
Bob: Yessir, reign over all of us! Like the Queen, they are.

…and so forth.

Compare this to:

Alfie: Say, looks like it’s going to rain.
Bob: No, it doesn’t.
Alfie: Sure it does. See those clouds?
Bob: What clouds? I don’t see any clouds.
Alfie: Are you blind?
Bob: No, I’m not.

I mean, you could eke some humor out of the contrariness, but it’s pallid stuff.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with saving the world? I’m glad you asked. See, an awful lot of conversations about policy and innovation sound like one of these two skits. Viz:

Scientist: Hey, I think I might be able to increase the efficiency of solar panels by 20%.
Other scientist: That’d be great! How?
Scientist: If I just make whiskers out of the silicon, the surface area will be increased.
OS: Sure, but then we’d need to find some way to support the whiskers or they’ll snap off. Maybe embed them in a translucent substance.
Scientist: Okay, and we’ll have to worry about heat dissipation…

…and we’re off to the races, and by next Thursday they might have a white paper. Compare that to the other conversation, which I will pejoratively title “the ‘internet’ conversation”:

Scientist: Hey, I think I might be able to increase the efficiency of solar panels by 20%.
Internet: So? Who cares about 20%. The world is going to end.
Scientist: It’s a step in the right direction. Anyway, you just have to make whiskers of silicon.
Internet: That will never work. It’s stupid.
Scientist: Wait, what? Why?
Internet: The whiskers will break off. Have you tried bouncing a tree branch off that silicon?
Scientist: But–we could find a solution to–
Internet: And if you do, I’ll just find another problem with your design and dismiss it again. So there. Nice ‘science’ you got going on there.

Loads of fun, that internet guy. What’s he doing? Why, he’s rejecting. There was a spark there–an interesting thought–and instead of fanning it, he’s smothered it. What a git.

I’m not saying it’s never useful to be critical, or to point out flaws. The scientists in the first skit both point out flaws–but follow it up with one possible solution. The bad thing is throwing away lines of exploration because of a single objection, whether or not that objection could be overcome or whether it matters at all.

And doing that makes someone a “can’t”. It can’t be done. It can’t be overcome. See, if you say this enough, eventually you either demoralize the creative-types, or you drive them away. If the former, then hey! You were right. Full points. It can’t be done, and you made sure of that. If the latter, well, if they happen to have success, it’s a good thing you sent them back to the drawing board, right? Either way you look devastatingly clever.

Except here’s the tricky part: you don’t. The rubes in the audience may think so, for a time, but after a while, it seems like nothing ever happens when you’re around, and no one returns your calls.

So don’t be a can’t. When you see a problem in someone’s creation–don’t use it as an excuse to hamstring it or shoot it down. Use it as a way to help shape, support, and expand that creation.

This is also a reprint, from February 2010, and seemed a fitting piece for the new blog.

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4 thoughts on “Cans, Can’ts, and Saving the World

  1. Nice blog! I like the post… I wish there were a lot more of the “can” people out there in the World instead of the “can’t” s.

  2. We do have an existence proof that it’s possible to build a funny sketch out of contrariness: Monty Python’s Argument Clinic. But that falls into the category of Don’t Try This At Home—Monty Python could build a funny sketch out of coat hangers and spackle.

    Similarly, it’s *possible* to have a productive conversation where you mostly say “it can’t be done”—e.g., if you’re telling a 10-year-old he can’t jump Springfield Gorge by putting feathers on his skateboard—but proceed with caution.

    • To quote:
      M: Oh, look, this isn’t an argument!
      A: Yes, it is.
      M: No, it isn’t. It’s just contradiction.
      Even there, the simple friction of negation was uninteresting!

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