Tuesday, July 25, 2006


(from October, 2001)
I acquired a new student teacher this week. That reminded me of a piece of bad advice teachers get sometimes: Make the lesson seem relevant to the students.
I know this advice means well, but I think it’s a mistake. I think as soon as you get to the idea “seems,” you’ve lost the battle.
Think about it. If I’m going to “make” the lesson “seem” important, then I’ve already conceded that it really isn’t important. Would I try to make the sky “seem” blue if it were blue already?
So a teacher who is trying to act as if his lesson matters is telling his students that it doesn’t (but we’ll try to fake it anyway).
I mention this because I think the whole seeming problem is widespread in our culture.
For instance, there are folks out there making a mint teaching managers how to motivate their employees by “seeming” interested or concerned. We’ve had waves of management movements based on “empowerment” that teach the idea of getting employees to “buy in” or become “invested” in a particular plan.
These rarely work because they are based on “seeming.” Managers want to make it seems as if employees have a say. But even a dog is smart enough to know that just because he is tied to the bumper, that doesn’t mean he’s steering the car. Managers want to stab someone in the back, but they would like it to seem as if the person threw himself on the knife.
It’s not a bad thing, the argument goes. We know that employees are happier and more productive working for a company that cares about them. If we can make them feel as if the company cares, isn’t that good? Does it really matter whether the concern is real or not, as long as it’s convincing?
Well, would you like to be married to someone who does not love you, but is only pretending to? Would it be sufficient to be married to someone who is trying hard to seem as if they are committed to you?
Of course not, because, somehow, you’d know.
It’s like follow through in golf. The follow through shouldn’t matter—after all, we’re talking about what you do with the club after it has already hit the ball. By the time the club is whipping back past your shoulder, the ball is already rocketing down the fairway (or into the woods, or toward the water hazard). After the moment of impact, it doesn’t know whether the club head lands where it belongs, or in your ear.
But it does matter. The whole act, the whole motion affects the outcome. Trying to hit the ball and then seeming to follow through won’t work. And “seeming” doesn’t work, because in the end it is just a more sophisticated type of lie.
So in the classroom, the trick is not to figure out how to make a lesson seem relevant—the trick is to first figure out how it actually IS relevant, and then show that to your students. And if you can’t figure out why the lesson is important, then it’s a waste of everyone’s time.
In the workplace, the trick is to actually care about your employees, or not. You may or may not win their affection (which, really, you may not actually need) but by being honest with them, you get a good shot at their respect.
If your goal is to involve them in decision-making, you have to let go of the wheel and give them input. If you’re going to make the decision yourself, just make it. Seeming to provide a choice when you really aren’t fools no one, and it makes you look like a lying weasel. Nobody does his best work when he thinks he’s working for a lying weasel.
In your personal life, you’re committed to someone, or you aren’t. You love someone or you don’t. Not that we can all be paragons of virtue and certainty, but there is an enormous difference between trying to be committed, and trying to seem committed.
That’s why politics seem cleaner and clearer here; because TV is the medium of seeming, and without TV, our politicians have to pretty much be what they are. It’s easy to seem for thirty seconds at a stretch, but seeming over the long run, up close and personal, is darn hard.
The clarity in non-seeming action is refreshing and invigorating. Part of the energy in the midst of grief that we felt nationally a few weeks back was a dose of that. For a brief time, people, leaders, everyone, stopped trying to seem like something and just were what we were. If we want to carry something good away from this attack, that would be a fine choice.

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