I recently heard Tucker Max speak about writing books. He said he had succeeded because he told the truth about himself — including the unpleasant stuff. Most people don’t. That, plus an ability to make it entertaining, was what he could do that other people couldn’t. He was saying that “being yourself” — more precisely, building on how you are different — was the only good place to start. Imitating other people is not a good place to start. Jane Jacobs said the same thing about how cities should develop. She said it was pointless to try to imitate other cities — to imitate them by building a stadium or convention center, for example. Each city should figure out what its unique strengths are — what makes Springfield Springfield — and build on them. Amplify them.
I was pleased to hear Tucker’s remarks because I never hear such stuff said publicly (or privately), except from Jane Jacobs. When I was at Berkeley, now and then I’d tell other professors: It’s a mistake to treat all students in a class the same (by giving them the same assignments, the same tests, etc.). They’re not all the same. They differ greatly. A lot is lost by treating them all alike — a lot of self-esteem, for instance. My colleagues didn’t like hearing this. It was convenient to treat all students the same. And it was status-boosting. My fellow professors worked in a system where the dimension used to gauge success was something they were good at. The notion that there were many other useful ways to excel was undermining. If there is only one measure of success and I am #1 on that measure, I am #1 period. If there are thirty measures of success, all equally valid, and I am #1 on only one of them, my superiority is less clear.
Tucker’s presence at the Ancestral Health Symposium was criticized. Here is an email that the organizers (who include me) received:
One thing neither I nor my attendee friends can explain: Tucker Max as a speaker? Really? His claim to fame is having rough sex with drunk girls and then writing about it. I’m pretty sure the majority of his speaking gigs take place at bars and frat houses. From his own website:
“I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead.”
If you have a chance, could someone please explain this choice of speaker? I’d love to support this conference in the future, and I’m all for challenging social norms, but not those that have to do with basic respect for other people.
I wanted Tucker Max to come and went so far as to give up half my presentation time to allow him to speak.
Why did I want him to speak? Because he is a big supporter of paleo, because he had something fresh to say, because he would say it well (and he did), and because he is deeply respected by an audience it is crucial to reach — college students. Sure, some things he writes offend some people. I don’t think that means he doesn’t have something helpful to say.
I don’t think college students respect him so much because he writes about getting raging drunk, etc. I think they respect him because he speaks the truth about subjects where most people don’t speak the truth.
The connection between “being yourself” and speaking the truth about difficult subjects is simple: Being yourself inevitably involves being different and being different inevitably involves some people scorning you. As Tucker said things that caused people to scorn him. As some people scorn my self-experimentation. In a society where being yourself isn’t valued enough, the fear of scorn wins, people self-censor, and, as in the above email, they censor others. Everyone’s loss.
The effect of an educational lifetime of being treated the same — from kindergarten thru college — is that the notion that you are different and have something unique to add becomes less and less plausible to you. Because it becomes implausible, that possibility doesn’t enter into your calculations about what to do with your life — in particular, what job to choose. You begin to think that success = imitation of successful people, when that is misleading. Imitate successful people like you, yes, but most people aren’t like you. I chatted with Tucker after his talk. He said it isn’t enough to be different, you have to act on it, become better and better at exercising your unique talent. I agree. In a better world, you would do this starting young, like 10, and slowly become better so that by the time you needed to make a living you would have substantial skill. But our educational system, by treating everyone the same, or nearly the same, discourages this.