In August of 2016 I will be presenting a show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival called (Cut the Bullshit) Len Bakerloo Speaks Truth to Power in which I teach people how to stand up to bullshit. I did a preview in New York that was reviewed by Jacquelyn Claire in the NY Theatre Guide. Because she got some things wrong this is an opportunity to show you how its done.
I have no formal training in acting but I have a lot of experience having my work reviewed. Most of my training is in mathematics and computer science and we get used to having our proofs and code reviewed in excruciating detail that would drive the average playwright to despair. And yet you get to appreciate your critic and debugger because a single false premise in a proof or misplaced comma in code can have catastrophic consequences.
Between 1982 and 2014 I worked on Wall Street where I got used to dealing with bozos who could make a $100 million investment decisions based on prior agendas and first impressions without any research and very little thought. Now that I’m getting to meet some actors and playwrights just starting out it feels like some of them are having to deal with similar issues. A poor review can make someone feel like giving up even though many critics are bullshitters or bullies who shouldn’t be feared but stood up to instead. This is about how to do that. But first…
Things I learned about acting
In 1990 Brian De Palma decided to shoot some scenes for The Bonfire of the Vanities on the trading floor where I worked at Merrill Lynch. He asked for real-life traders to come in over the weekend and work as extras. I couldn’t resist.
Here are some of the things I learned from the experience.
Traders find filmmaking boring. What happened on that shoot was nothing like what happens during a typical trading day. When shooting a film there is a tremendous amount of hurry-up-and-wait because there are so many moving parts that have to be set up just right before someone yells “Action.” We spent a lot of time waiting for people in wardrobe, makeup, lighting, and so on. By the end of the day my fellow traders and I had had enough and we could not wait for Monday when we would go back to our real jobs.
Actors imagine trading is stressful. We had plenty of time to talk with actors who seemed genuinely interested in what our lives were like. For the most part their conclusion was that it must be incredibly difficult to be “on” for eight or more hours every day.
If you are doing a job well then you are acting competently. The scene called for 250 extras of whom 150 had to be union actors and 100 could be real-life traders. Interestingly, it turned out that some of our best traders could not participate because they were members of an actor’s union. This was not surprising because the only metric for being a good trader is that you do a good job, and that can be measured in profit and loss real-time.
Although there is no fake-it-until-you-make-it school of brain surgery, when it comes to trading (as it was conducted in the 1980’s), there was no other way to learn other than by doing. Many actors in New York made their way to jobs on Wall Street just to make ends meet, and even Tom Hanks told us that he’d done a stint on a trading floor very early on. To be a trader you merely act like one until you become one, which is also precisely how one becomes a good teacher, salesman, or tennis player.
Things I learned about critics
In 2004 I changed how I hired new employees. Instead of filtering candidates based on education and experience I decided to look for people with aptitude and a good heart who I could train before I made a hiring decision. To learn more read: How my life was changed when I began caring about the people I did not hire.
A blogger spent hours interviewing my candidates throughout the process. She was fascinated by what I was doing because not only was I training for new skills, I was helping people I did not hire find work elsewhere. This was during the first season of The Apprentice where each week Donald Trump eliminated a job candidate by saying, “You’re fired.” The contrast between my approach and The Donald’s was striking. (Read her words at: The Anti-Trump, and me.)
Beware of the agendas of others. The New York Times got wind of the story and published ‘The Apprentice’ Without TV, Trump or a High-Salary Job. Unlike the blogger, the Times reporter did not have any first-hand experience of what happened, and yet he painted me as a cheap version of Donald Trump and implied that my approach to hiring was exploitative. This really hurt, particularly because I feel that Trump is a blow-hard and a bullshitter verging on evil. I talked to people quoted in the story and they said that their comments were taken out of context. I asked all my candidates if the Times story fairly reflected their experience or their feelings and they all said that it was way off the mark.
Finally an expert in the media explained what happened to me. The Times needs to sell papers, and the story wasn’t about me. It was about Donald Trump and The Apprentice, which were hot topics at the time, and they wanted to ride that wave. The intent of the story was to caution against using the Trump approach in real life, which is something I can easily get on board with. The journalist didn’t care about what I actually did but rather how he could shoe-horn me into the narrative he had already constructed.
If you get angry then channel the energy in a positive direction. I owe the Times a great debt of gratitude. Their inept reporting made me so angry that I decided to improve my writing skills so as to present my own narrative to the public. Even though I have never aspired to be a professional writer, a lot of my work has been published in respected journals and well received. (See: BrookeAllen.com/publications)
Many of my stories have gone viral and lots of people have contacted me as a result. I find that they fall into three groups: Fans, critics, and haters.
Fans are good for the ego but they seldom help you get better. If you are trying to make a living you’d better not ignore your fans, but few engage with you in a meaningful way.
Good critics help you grow. If you care about doing the right thing then the greatest gift someone can give you is evidence you are doing the wrong thing. Sometimes the problem isn’t with what you’re doing but how it is perceived by others, and even here the critic can show you how to tune your message so what people hear is what you intend to say.
A good critic who pans your work should be doing it as a service to your potential audience while giving you honest feedback that you can use to improve (or move on to something else). For example, if a good scientist begins an engaging lecture with some badly delivered jokes, it would be inappropriate to pan his presentation as a terrible piece of comedy without suggesting that, if the jokes are dropped, it might be appealing to people who aren’t looking for a comedy but want to learn some science.
Mediocre critics need to grow. A mediocre critic lets his own agenda and narrative interfere with his appraisal of your work. For example, a teacher of salsa who hates ballet should recuse himself when critiquing Swan Lake rather than say, “I’d rather see the story presented as salsa.” (Don’t get me wrong, it is entirely appropriate to imagine Swan Lake with salsa dancers, but that is an exercise in imagination, not criticism of a ballet.)
Good critics appreciate the time you take reviewing their work. When they first present themselves the critic and the hater can look the same. The way you tell the difference is by seeing if they are interested in engagement. Start by acknowledging the points being made so as to make it clear that you take them seriously. Then address each point either with an explanation of what you’re objecting to, or how you might improve.
If you do this you’re likely to get one of three reactions: 1) Appreciation, 2) More criticism, 3) Silence.
Just as performers like being taken seriously by critics, so too do most critics like being taken seriously by those whom they review. It might be too much to expect a critic to admit a mistake or correct a review– that takes considerable strength of character that few possess – but it is reasonable for them to acknowledge your interest. You might even be lucky enough to get previously unpublished advice that could help you become even better.
Haters drain your energy and are best ignored. If you try to engage with a critic and they don’t acknowledge your desire to engage but rather take what you say as an invitation to ramp up the vitriol, then you have run across a hater. If this happens, don’t get in a pissing contest; just ignore them.
Professionals might have an excuse (maybe). When you try to engage with a critic you might get the silent treatment. There are likely two causes: 1) You are just venting anger and they are wisely ignoring you, 2) They think their time is too valuable to pay attention to you.
Interestingly, I have found that whether in academia, business, or the creative endeavors, the more successful a person is the more time they have for you, not less. Benjamin Franklin said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person.” When I was young I was often “too busy” for others but, as I grew older, I began to care more about other people and somehow I became more effective and time freed up. I’m not sure how this works, but you can read my best guess in: If you manage your time terribly, you’ll get more done.
Only you have the final word regarding you. A few years ago I took a memoir workshop at which one of the writers described an incident in art class during grade school. She had drawn a picture of a nude girl and the teacher took one look at it and said, “We don’t do that.” Then she threw her painting in the trash.
The girl came from a family of painters who thought nothing of the nude form, and yet, after this incident she gave up painting altogether. The theme in her memoir was that this teacher had scarred her for life and that nobody should have the right to do that.
Although I don’t think she saw it at first, the rest of us imagined that the teacher’s reaction was probably not a criticism of her talent but rather a reflection of what might be considered shocking to the other students. In the many years since the incident she had never thought of that.
We all run the risk that we’ll interpret the words and actions of others as a criticism of our very being. Yet, at its worst, a criticism only applies to who we are right now, not who we might become. As with the example of the art teacher and the child, what most people say often has more to do with them than with you.
The most important narrative in your life is the one you tell yourself. You author that narrative with your words and your deeds. Although it is unwise to ignore feedback, ultimately you get the final say in what you believe and what you do.
Technology is about to democratize the conversation. When you start out as a writer it can feel like there are more critics than readers. I am thinking in particular about a response to a story of mine than ran longer than the story itself. It began with, “I stopped reading after the second sentence because….”
A big problem is that many people just want to hear themselves talk, and an even bigger problem is that many powerful people are merely pushing an agenda and don’t care about finding the truth or giving space to anything else.
Titanic forces are battling to control the agenda and write the narrative. There is no better example than the so-called debate concerning global warming. There is nearly universal agreement among credible scientists that global warming is a real phenomenon and yet there are vested interests that are attacking it as if it is false (or at least still open for debate).
My friend, Dan Whaley, knows this problem intimately and he has decided to do something about it.
Dan’s father, Al, taught him coding in the mid-1990’s and his first computer program grew into the first on-line airline reservation system that was sold in 2001 for $770 million. For a second act he and his mother Margaret Leinen (now the Director of Scripps Oceanographic Institute) founded a climate-related startup to explore processes for naturally removing large amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
After the failure of climate negotiations in 2009 Dan came to the conclusion that our largest problem is our inability to reach consensus on important issues, and that nearly everything is derivative of this– so he set out to solve this problem.
Dan created a tool that resides at hypothes.is. It places a conversation layer over the entire web that allows you to annotate anything, anywhere whether the original author wants you to or not.
Engage with your critics in their home base, not yours. You can exchange private emails with a Times critic, post a sentence fragment in your Twitter feed, or perhaps even write 3,683 words on your own blog. But, if 740,221 readers saw the review in the Times, does it matter if six people read your response? The problem is that although you might own what you have to say, the Times owns the people you are trying to say it to. If the Times doesn’t want you to talk to their readers then they won’t let you.
A case study
One thing Dan Whaley and I can’t stand is bullshit because, as Alberto Brandolini said, “The amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” In his widely read monograph called On Bullshit, Princeton University philosophy professor, Harry Frankfurt, distinguishes the bullshitter from the liar. While the liar must know the truth so as to hide it from you, bullshitters don’t care about the truth. All they care about is the impression they make and the advancement of their agendas. Dan is working on tools while I’ve been working on getting the word out.
In 2014 I visited the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and became depressed for reasons I describe in this story in the Boots ‘n All travel magazine: A Better Way to Experience the Edinburgh Fringe (and life). By the time I left I’d decided that if I were to return I would do so as a producer and presenter in a show rather than merely as a tourist. For those of you who don’t know, the Edinburgh Fringe is an open-access arts festival, which means that I don’t have to be good or critically reviewed by anyone in order to put on a show. If I can find a way of doing something then I can do it and nobody can tell me I can’t. Awesome, if you think about it.
This year (2016) I will be putting on two shows: The Secrets of the Fringe Walking Tour (that will cover many of the points made in the Boots ‘n All article, and (Cut the Bullshit) Len Bakerloo Speaks Truth to Power, that will make the point that the worst bullshit is not the bullshit that makes you angry but the bullshit you can’t see because you believe it. As Mark Twain said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
The 59E59th Street Theater in New York invited me to do three preview performances, the second of which was reviewed by Jacquelyn Claire in in the NY Theatre Guide. She begins with an accurate description of what the show was like, however in the second paragraph she begins making inferences that are unfounded. She posits that my emotional reaction to the 2014 Fringe was due to seeing substandard work, when quite the opposite was the case – I was becoming overly critical of good works and wasn’t recognizing and getting to know the people around me. Then she imagines I’d said to myself, “I can do better.” That is also false. I doubted I could do better than most, but I could try, and I could fail at first, and I might get better – or not. Whatever happens, it will be an experience, and the great thing about the Fringe is that nobody will deny me that experience.
She continues, “The outcome is a little like if a great actor woke up one morning and decided to ignore his years of training, craft, and creativity as a performer and walked into Goldman Sachs and declared himself a hedge fund manager, because he had once bought a few stocks.”
This is bullshit. As I described above, it is possible that a great actor could walk into Goldman and convince someone to let them learn by doing. If they prove a quick study, he or she could easily become a trader (or hedge fund manager) because – frankly – there isn’t much to it as long as you can think clearly and don’t bullshit yourself and others .
She says later on, “I just wish he hadn’t used the theatre like a corporate takeover maverick brandishing an empty motivational speech, but rather used the power of storytelling, imagination, and truth, and crafted a performance of the theatrical world to find a receptive audience.”
What does this mean? I suspect I have spent much more time in my industry than she has, and I have never heard a corporate takeover maverick brandish a motivational speech, empty or otherwise. And I suspect she has never heard one either, other than perhaps Gordon Gekko’s Greed is Good bit in Wall Street, which is – by the way – a work of fiction.
It sounds to me like: 1) Jacquelyn has a proprietary interest in “the theatre” as if she owns it, 2) She thinks I am looking for a receptive audience in the theatrical world. But I am just guessing.
Well, Jacquelyn, I rented time at the theater so I think I can do with it what I want, and I don’t think the theater manager who invited me objected one bit to how I used his space.
As for my objective, it is not to live in the theatrical world. It is to show people what it looks like to speak truth to power, and challenge them to look at their own bullshit. I live for the minority who are receptive to my message and find my talk motivates them to change. If you find my words “empty” then perhaps it is because you can’t see how they apply to you.
After my first performance one audience member told me I should stick to my stories that make fun of hedge fund managers and not ask the people to challenge their own beliefs because I’ll lose some of my audience. Another told me that if I gave up on being “motivational” I could become the Rodney Dangerfield of Wall Street.
I thought about that and decided that is precisely NOT what I want to do. Frankfurt begins On Bullshit with, “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share.” I want to call out bullshitters and their bullshit and motivate each of us to contribute less of a share. Let’s stop saying things because they make us sound knowledgeable or insightful when we haven’t done the work or had the experience to know what we are talking about. (I’m speaking to you, Jacquelyn.)
Jacquelyn ends her review with: “I urge him to create this work into a strong 15-minute, hold-no-punches TED Talk followed by a best-selling book.”
Well, Jacquelyn, TED Talks take a lot of effort to produce and I’m not a fan of them because they are mostly highfalutin’ entertainment for the overly-educated and, taken as a whole, they are a mile wide and an inch deep. The E in TED stands for Entertainment, not Education – and it shows. I don’t know anyone who has ever been inspired by a TED talk to accomplish anything meaningful whereas I know dozens who, for years, haven’t taken a first step to do anything because there is always another TED talk they feel compelled to see. They are incapacitated by what Jon Stewart calls the Bullshit of Infinite Possibilities. For more see the TEDxSanDiego talk: New Perspectives – What’s Wrong with TED Talks? by Benjamin Bratton. I’d be much happier creating something like Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture on Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams (that was transcribed into a best-selling book).
So, Jacquelyn, for now I’ve decided to write a no-holds-barred response to your review. I’ll add yours to my my kit-bag of stories that I’ll draw on for my show and perhaps someday I’ll even include this as a chapter of a book.
If you want to learn more about me I’m at http://BrookeAllen.com and I am on record with what I stand for at: https://brookeallen.com/values/. You can write to me at: Brooke@BrookeAllen.com.
Good luck figuring out who Jacquelyn is or finding out what she stands for or how to reach her. However, you can read her review with my annotations (and add your own) by following this link.
2 thoughts on “STAND UP TO CRITICS”
As an editor and reviewer at the Edinburgh Fringe, I’d add that Jacquelyn has committed one of the cardinal sins of reviewing, which is assessing your show in terms of what she would like to have seen, not what you have chosen to produce. There is too much of her in that review, too much first person. Of course, none of us critics are perfect and I shouldn’t say too much in case I end up reviewing your show myself!
I enjoyed Brooke’s tour and show at the Fringe. As a TEDx organiser – and hard core TED fan, we disagreed about TED and TEDx – in a civilised and constructive manner. Ideas are not responsible for the people who believe in them. TED is not responsible for the inaction of some TED talk viewers. It’s great that Brooke encourages engagement and feedback. It was a pleasure to meet him.