Episode 318

Emmy Nominee Baratunde Thurston On Life As A Renaissance Man, Appreciating Nature, Citizenship And More

The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Baratunde Thurston | Renaissance Man


Baratunde Thurston is an Emmy-nominated host, producer, writer, and public speaker. He is the host and executive producer of the PBS television series America Outdoors, creator and host of the acclaimed podcast How To Citizen, and a founding partner of the new media startup Puck where he does a lot of his writing. He is also the author of a New York Times bestselling comedic memoir, How To Be Black and an incredible speaker who has delivered multiple popular TED Talks with millions of views.

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Emmy Nominee Baratunde Thurston On Life As A Renaissance Man, Appreciating Nature, Citizenship And More

Our quote for this episode is from Dario Fo. “With comedy, I can search for the profound.” My guest today is Baratunde Thurston, an Emmy-nominated host, producer, writer, and public speaker. He is the Host and Executive Producer of the PBS television series, America Outdoors, the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast, How To Citizen, and a founding partner of the new media startup Puck, where he does a lot of his writing. He’s also the author of the New York Times bestselling comedic memoir, How to Be Black. He is also an incredible speaker who has delivered multiple TED Talks with millions of viewers. Baratunde, welcome. It’s great to have you join us on the show.

It’s good to get elevated with you, Robert.

Performing From A Young Age

You are a gifted performer and a comedian as well. I’m always interested in people with that skill set. If you think back to childhood, was that something you were always doing like finding ways to perform and to make people laugh?

I was always finding ways to perform. I remembered one of my very early performances as a kid in an elementary school musical production. I don’t know where the song came from, but there was some song about wearing a wig and our teacher loved it. It was like, “What’s that on your hair? A wig. What’s that on your hair? A wig. I say, what’s that?” We made wigs. That was part of the fun in the class and we all danced around the stage doing this headbanging wig motion.

This is all a bunch of little Black and Brown kids in Washington DC in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood rocking out to What’s That on Your Head? It brought me great joy to do that. I loved the stage. I’ve loved being silly. I loved making people laugh. Not so much being physically tickled myself. I felt that was a form of mild child abuse on my mom’s co-workers.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Baratunde Thurston | Renaissance Man


My youngest son would agree with you.

“You’re so cute.” I’m like, “Yeah, cute from a distance.” If you start pinching my cheeks and wiggling around in my armpits, it feels like I enjoy it to you, but inside I hate you. That part was never too much fun. I started young, Robert.

Our mutual friend Adam Grant, in one of his books, said that the average professional comedian is a sixth or seventh child. I think he postulated it was a way to get attention in a large family. That was not the case for you.

No, I was in a very small family. Primarily, it was me and my mother. My older sister Belinda was nine years ahead of me so she was living a parallel, more advanced life in terms of when she was a teenager. I was just starting to wake up to the world and then she moved out of the house. It was heavily me and my mom who was working a lot. I had time with my friends, time to myself, and a lot of time with Mom, but I wasn’t competing with a lot of other people for attention. I liked expressing myself. I played in youth orchestras. I did school plays. I ended up doing later in childhood talks and panels and things on stage. It emerged very young and I never turned it off.

From Harvard And Into The World

You went to Harvard.

I did.

What did you study there?

Philosophy. Thinking about thinking.

Someone in those environments, particularly maybe Harvard, a lot of serious who’s creative, comedic, or otherwise. Sid that feel like it went against some of the grain?

No, but I think when some people hear comedians, they have a very particular idea and I don’t necessarily fulfill that idea.

Yeah, that’s a delivery mechanism.

I was and remain a pretty serious person. Even as a child, I was also very taken with the challenges of the world. I think performing gave me an escape at times just to put my body and mind in a different space. It occasionally gave me an avenue. The opposite of escape and a way to channel this stuff. Being at Harvard was a great place to explore serious things and that was my predisposition. I wasn’t a party animal. I didn’t drink and drugs. I was boring in that sense. I probably missed out on some fun because of that but I was exposed to a ton of possibilities there and a lot of nerdy people and thought patterns.

Also, I had a chance to play more with this expression thing. I did do public speaking and I did do stage plays, productions, and Shakespeare. I got very silly. A lot of my comedy voice found its first real home when I was at Harvard. The things I was doing before weren’t quite my voice and there I was able to merge my serious side that cared about the world with the need for a comedic and silly side. I found that people appreciated it because there’s a lot of self-importance and seriousness at Harvard.

We’ve got enough seriousness.

It was a great place to be satirical. There’s a lot worth poking at an institution like that.

What did you do when you graduated?

I got a job. I started paying off those loans. I stayed in Boston for another eight years. I immersed myself in the Cambridge Boston area and the very first job I got was in business. It was in strategy consulting, which I didn’t know what that meant. Most people don’t.

It sounds important.

Including the people who do it but it’s got two very important words. With strategy, already you’re elevating things and consulting implies expertise. It’s like quality expertise from essentially a child but I did this job for many years right after school and it was focused on telecommunications. A small firm that was taken advantage of the business opportunities created by the 1996 Telecommunications Act. It was hilarious. That was a natural segue from philosophy.

I worked in strategy consulting out of college in a telecommunication practice for a firm at a similar time I think to you. The first thing I had to do was learn acronyms. I’m sure someone said POTS one day and I was like, “I have no idea what POTS is.

It’s the Plain Old Telephone System.

We can have a separate conversation about that, but that’s funny. You had to know your acronyms doing that.


Everyone was talking about 3G at the time.

3G was coming. DSL was all the rage. Fiber wasn’t yet there. I graduated college in 1999.

That was ’98. This is almost similar. It’s very funny.

We’re twins. A brother from another mother. My telco bro.

I do remember POTS. After the third meal, I was like, “Can someone tell me what POTS is? Is this some sophisticated thing?”

I don’t think we’re talking about kitchenware. This is something else. It was an important chapter of my life. One is because of the acronyms and the deep education in the Microsoft Office suite. PowerPoint, Excel, and a little access when you want to get extra nerdy and pretend you know how to rock a live database. Also, there’s a great value and a great absurdity in that role. As a 21 or 22-year-old, my very first assignment was to join this multi-consulting firm team to create a new mobile operator. There were three different consulting firms hired by a landline to launch a mobile virtual network operator.

I was going to throw the MVNO thing at you but you beat me to it.

It was a crazy business to be in because we had to model every type of consumer telecom service and then prove the case for operating that at worse margins in terms of this virtual operation on top of some wholesale infrastructure. It made me learn a big chunk of the business in my first year on the job and it was entrepreneurial but it was weird entrepreneurship. It’s because they outsourced the entrepreneurship to consultants, who are not entrepreneurs.

I was the youngest on the team. There were senior people who had mastered PowerPoint and Excel far more than me at that point. Some of them had operated in the business thankfully but it was a wild learning experience. Expense accounts were absurd, all of it and that is where at the same time I started doing standup comedy. It was the phase of my career where I took the comedy lane so seriously began there. I don’t think it’s an accident. I think strategy consulting is super absurd and I needed to burn off some of that reality into an equally absurd pursuit of standup comedy.

I heard you say it when you were hustling around and trying to make it a standup. I heard you mentioned I’m in Boston at the Ground Round and that brought back warm memories for me. That was the old stomping ground after softball games. I missed the Ground Round. We need Ground Rounds in the world.

Back the Ground Round.

Was this the Cleveland Circle one you were at?

It was Route 1. The autophile, we drove North. It was right on the highway. You could look out the window and see cars whizzing by or look up and see the NCAA tournament, which a lot of people chose to watch instead of listening to my bad jokes.

Working At The Onion

I know in 2000, you had the opportunity to work at The Onion in the heyday of that publication. That sounds a lot more fun than telecom acronyms. What was that like working there and what did you learn from a serious standpoint working at The Onion?

It was incredible. It remains the best full-time job that I’ve ever had. Certainly, the best employment by others. I do love the jobs I’ve created for myself as well but in terms of clocking in and clocking out, The Onion is by far the best work environment and creative collaboration that I think I’ve been a part of. The serious thing I learned from The Onion was I learned that most of the things I know about communications, marketing, and creative collaboration originate there.

Know your story before you tell someone else or help someone else with theirs. Create your own mythology and backstory to draw from, and infuse your perspective, and identity in every step of your operation, and not just your product. A lot of people think about The Onion at the time as a newspaper or online or videos or whatever the media was, but every aspect of even the internal operation can benefit from maintaining that strong identity.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Know your story before you tell someone else.” via=”no” usehashtags=”no”]

Also, it sounds corny, but creating for and building for something bigger than yourself or more than yourself. I think The Onion is super collaborative in a way that I find rare. In the creative world, everyone writes for this mythical character of “The Onion.” It is a news operation that has created a mythology that has no real public true personalities. They’re all characters. When everyone’s writing for a set of characters, it allows the ego to recede because the credit isn’t public. You’re not elbowing each other out for being top of the trending topic for the most likes, for the most traffic, or for attention.

They weren’t attributed.

No. There’s collective attribution which allowed for a smoother process of collective creation and that was humbling. The other serious lesson I learned is about brainstorming. I still marvel at the number of people who run a brainstorming session by calling a meeting and saying, “Folks, we’re going to brainstorm now. What are your ideas about X,” and then wait for people to start talking.

Adam has a lot of strong opinions on that.

Also, stare awkwardly at each other. The Onion had a process around creativity which allowed for the institution to maximize the return on creative investment and that is the worst way to talk about comedy that I could find. You ask for serious lessons from a silly place and those are some of the biggest ones.

Free Speech And Satire

You mentioned the word satire before. The Onion is heavy on satire. The Babylon Bee started taking on that role on social media a little bit. You used satire very well. It seems like it’s harder. I heard someone talk about it last week that one of the consequences of restricting free speech is that one of his measures of free speech is how a society tolerates satire. I’m curious about your thoughts on that.

It is complicated and you hear me taking a breath just to try to consider as much as I can knowing my answer will never capture everything. I feel like there are at least two elements to why satire is harder. One reference is what you just shared. When you have fear of expression or negative consequences for certain types of expression, then you’re going to hold back and you’re not going to push. Satire is all about pushing. There’s a natural constriction on that. It means the rewards for pulling it off are even better because you’re like, “How did you manage to do that in this environment?”

You found a loophole or some way to say the unsayable. The other factor I think driving the challenge of satire is that the world that is to be satire has become satirical. Part of the job of the satirist is to ratchet things up and to heighten absurdity, but when it’s pre-heightened, the raw material itself is absurd. We are going to have two octogenarian candidates that most of the country dislikes strongly vying for the presidency. Where do you go from there?

[easy-tweet tweet=”The challenge with satire is that the world that is to be satired has become satirical.” via=”no” usehashtags=”no”]

We’re already starting with a premise of, “That’s pretty absurd.” There are many other reasons and things that differentiate these candidates. I’m not making them equal at all. I am saying that there’s an objectively absurd starting point to a lot. We had an insurrection in this country and many people in power who were physically threatened by that insurrection are defending it. That is the naturally absurd place to be. Where do you go from there? That is a creative challenge and also makes satire harder.

Do you think though that some of the customers, and I know you talk about mindset and we’ll get into that more? Particularly, when you know someone’s trying to make a joke. I think there are times when people are not trying to make a joke and they’re serious but you can choose to take a position of, “I’m going to be offended or I’m going to laugh. I could probably use a laugh more than I could use assuming the worst now. Do you think we need to get a little less serious about some stuff? I know we need to be serious about some things.

I think the answer is yes, and. We’re always in some kind of transition in society. There’s a whole line of thinking and alleged jokes that are lazy or bullying in some form. They’re not that creative. They’re not saying anything interesting. They’re just picking on people. To tell the folks being picked on, “You should just take a joke. You’re minimizing something real.” What you said about us finding a fence in things, is very true because of the echoes that get reinforced through algorithms and social media, which now show up in our real life.

We have an offense-on-demand opportunity in the current world where we can just live in a world of being bothered by things and not experiencing something beneath that bother. Not choosing to experience it at the surface level.

There’s something that I have to decide when I’m listening to someone who’s saying something that I think is dumb or offensive like, “How much is this going to get to me and how much is it a threat to me?” That line is very blurry. It’s not a simple, “No one should ever be offended by the joke,” nor is it, “Everyone needs to only say non-offensive things.” There’s something in between that’s happening and there’s stuff that comics said 50 years ago that they would never say now because they’re explicitly racist and terrible.

Everyone should be subject to a level of ridicule, pillory, and self-deprecation. Who’s doing it and how it’s delivered, that’s where there’s so much sensitivity but there is no world where a population can’t find humor in its own circumstance. The origins of Black comedy are right out of that as one example. Segregation could never be funny. Police brutality could never be funny, and yet some of the greatest comic voices found ways to heighten the absurdity of that reality, make a comment, and make people laugh all at once. There wasn’t the level of micro hyper-criticism and we’re also seeing a rise in actual tangible threat, which puts everybody on edge. It’s a mess. I’m not going to pretend this is easy.

This is hard work for people who want to be funny. I think your analogy is that if the temperature is already high, it only takes a degree or two to get the water boiling. I think that’s a good way of thinking about it.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Baratunde Thurston | Renaissance Man


There are folks who one of the greatest starting places for making your point is with yourself as there were shock jocks in the eighties and nineties who were explicitly trying to poke at people but never giving of themselves. You can enter the space of being offensive if you start with you and your own experience. You earn credibility with that. I know a lot of what I get bothered by is people who are just like, “I want to say the edgy thing because I was told I can’t say it. I’m not a part of that. I’m going to poke at those people over there.” However, if you have no existing relationship and no existing experience and you’re not talking about yourself either, you’re talking about them, that’s a pretty disconnected way of engaging with the world. A lot of folks don’t have tolerance for it.

Public Speaking And Performance

Storytelling is what you do and bringing your experience into it. You’re an incredible speaker. You’ve had all these TED talks. I know people who might be reading this and I’m sure the answer is both somehow. What is natural versus what is learned when it comes to public speaking and performance? There’s a talent component, but can you look at your own trajectory in terms of how you’ve changed, where you’ve changed, and the pieces of it that you can elevate your game to use the phrase?

To lean into elevation, I’m going to say to the extent that I’m successful as a speaker, I’ll give it 28% born with talent and the balance is effort, luck, and support. I think I underestimated the amount of training that I have. I’ve been studying performance and I’ve had four decades of practice, failure, and study. Thousands and thousands of gigs of some kind. Sitting on a panel, sitting on a stage, emceeing a fundraiser, emceeing a gala, or keynoting a conference. A terrible standup, pretty good standup, amazing standup, and terrible standup again over and over.

[easy-tweet tweet=”Success is 28% born with talent and the balance is effort, luck, and support.” via=”no” usehashtags=”no”]

Zoom performance and so many different versions of performance. Also, key moments of outside upgrades and elevation. I studied improv comedy formally, you know, in an intensive program in Chicago. I literally took a class on standup in Boston at the Boston Center for Adult Education at the very beginning of my career. I took media training. I’ve read books. I’ve watched other people who do it better than me. I’ve criticized myself.

When I was doing standup, seriously, I would record all of my sets, and then after, I would listen and I would take notes on everything I said, the pacing, the timing, the inflection, and the word choice. And I’d do an edit and then the next time I was on stage, I tried to implement those changes. There was this iterative process. I don’t want the takeaway to be, “You got to be born with it.” That helps a lot. It does and there is so much I was born with. I’ve also benefited from the explicit effort. Also, a lot of people looking out for me. There are a lot of silent angels out there who’ve put in a word or given me an opportunity before I was ready and given me a chance to prove that I could do something I wasn’t even necessarily sure I might be good at. We need that too.

Did you ever get any unsolicited feedback that you were pissed about at the time, but then when you thought about it, it turned out to be pretty transformative for you?

I’ve shared this before so I apologize if you may have even heard this.

I haven’t.

It was in Boston. It was during the early standup period. I thought I was very good and I wasn’t. The tiny audience didn’t like me. They didn’t think I was good or funny. The feedback I got was silence and then heckling. It’s immediate feedback. It’s not like an email through my website after the fact but it came with construction. It was a constructive feedback. I was doing the thing that I criticized earlier. I was lobbying grenades at the world from a position of distance and sharing nothing of myself.

A lot of these people in the audience didn’t believe me. They didn’t feel it. They had no credibility. They weren’t connecting. Someone yelled out literally, “Talk about yourself. Talk about your relationships or something.” I was like, “Oh boy.” In that moment I found something to tell that I’d never told before because I didn’t operate that way.

I was a calculating analytical critical comic about the world that was broken out there and nothing broken in me. In that moment I stumbled into a story of brokenness in me at a terrible moment in the relationship I had, which then allowed me to reflect on the terrible relationship we were having with our political leaders. All of a sudden, it felt real. That’s a positive story and a positive case with immediate devastation, but then also immediate redemption. They don’t all go that way.

There have been other moments of feedback. I got criticized and this was through a website thing. I had made a joke essentially at the expense of the people of Mexico. I made some joke about cartels and I threw all of Mexico under the bus to make a point about America’s brokenness. Somebody called me out on it and they’re like, “I see what you were trying to say here. You didn’t have to subject every Mexican to your comparison here. Here’s what’s happening.”

I acknowledged it and I didn’t have an immediate redemptive moment, but immediately I was like, “Why are you being so sensitive to me,” but then I sat with it. I tried to do something better and differently in the future. I did acknowledge them in a future version of the newsletter where I had made that joke. Those are two examples. One super awesome where I look great and one where I learned a little lesson.

Your unique ability or style, a lot of what I’ve seen is even how you described your time at Harvard, but entertainment that challenges people to think differently. How have you learned how to walk that line between entertaining people, making them laugh, challenging, and educating them at the same time? It’s because I’m sure sometimes people aren’t, “Can I laugh? Is it okay?” Some awkward moments but this seems like the thing that you’ve like hung your delivery on and style on.

I have learned to walk a line in part because my own existence and to some degree survival have depended on it well beyond the context of performance, speaking, and comedy things. The world can be a very threatening place and unwelcome place for a lot of us. We all face our challenges. For me as a Black American male born in this country in the ’70s and coming up when I did, there’s a lot of risk.

There’s risk in the community I grew up with in terms of violence and exposure to that from drug dealers and gang members, but also from the police. There’s the risk of misinterpretation of my motives and my emotions by folks who would feel threatened by me and thus become a threat to me. I’ve carried a tension my entire life around how I walk a line that lets me be me and exist how I want to exist and also preserve my ability to exist.

I think some of my rhetorical line-walking comes from my existential line-walking in the social tension that I’ve gotten so accustomed to and found a way to succeed in. I think being where I was from and going to the high school and the college that I went to required a level of dual consciousness, a level of code-switching, and a level of line walking. Some of that shows up in the way I approach the world.

I’m trying to think if there’s another real answer to your real question here. I’ve practiced a lot. I think standup helped me more than I often realize because you have immediate human feedback, even just energetically, and you can feel like, “I’m out over my skis,” or, “I’m not pushing enough.” It’s just an old trick of mine to switch back and forth between a hard real statement and a ridiculous, silly statement. It’s a pressure release.

I enjoy the expansion and the contraction. It’s like breathing. It’s this diaphragmatic thing where you’re like, “I’m going to start and just get you to like me and tell a whole bunch of silly stories and then I’m going to make a real hard point about American racism. I’m going to be deprecating about the glasses I’m wearing and then I’m going to talk about climate or something.” Allowing for both, that back and forth has felt, I enjoy it myself. I can’t just live in the checkout lane or the world of not being connected to the hard reality, but I also just can’t live in the hard reality. That’s too hard. It’s too depressing.

You said something there. You develop a rapport. You make people laugh and then you tell them some hard stuff, which I think they’re maybe more open to and receptive given that you’ve built that relationship with them. I think that’s partially what makes it extremely effective.

It’s something that I felt like I discovered it. We’re humans and we think we’re special and each of us individually thinks we’re special too, not just our species. We’re like, “I had the realization of all realizations and if I had read more books, I might’ve learned it sooner.” However, starting with a relationship rather than request, judgment, lesson, criticism, or demand. Everything starts with a relationship.

That is true in the relationship between us, a standup comedian, and their audience. This is true with a group of founders. It is true with the entrepreneur and their customers. You don’t start with the strategy, the pitch, or the sales collateral. I mean you can. Some people do, but I think you have a lot more resonance and long-term success, meaning, and purpose to your activity if you start with a relationship.


The Elevate Podcast with Robert Glazer | Baratunde Thurston | Renaissance Man


That also means listening, feeling, attuning to, learning, and then having some iteration around that so that when you launch your product or ship your message, it’s more likely to land. Even though it’s something I’ve learned implicitly or intuitively, it’s still something I don’t apply all the time because relationships take work. You’re like, “I’ve learned from relationships so long ago so I can still apply that,” but then I’m different now.

Whoever I’m engaged with may also be different. It may be the country I’m talking about or the customer base I think I have or the business partner who I’ve known for such a long time, but it’s worth checking back in to reestablish or maintain the quality of the relationship so that whatever flows from that is also quality.

I don’t know if you know Dr. Malik Muhammad. I had him on. He has worked with at-risk youth for over a decade. One of his things was he said the formula for change that he’s learned with all of these kids is that a change equals connection plus challenge. Also, it can go different ways. Sometimes we need the connection in order to challenge and sometimes we need to challenge in order to develop the connection. He said it goes in different directions, but I always thought that was a beautiful framework.

Connection plus challenge and yeah, they are in a spiral dance together.

How To Citizen

One of your major projects, you have a lot of them we’ll talk about is How To Citizen. It’s a podcast that turns citizen into a verb. What does citizening as an action mean to you?

It means we have a lot more power and possibility than we tend to give ourselves credit for when we see citizens merely as a birthright or a piece of paper. We are living in a time of great division, great tumble, great fear, rightly so in many cases, but also great opportunity. Democracy is dying. It’s in crisis and it’s being reborn and renewed. Part of that rebirth and part of that renewal is people reconnecting. Creating relationships to cooperatively determine our future, to collectively decide what we want, and how we’re going to achieve it.

[easy-tweet tweet=”We have a lot more power and possibility than we tend to give ourselves credit for.” via=”no” usehashtags=”no”]

Citizen as a verb in the context of this podcast that my wife Elizabeth and I have created and what we’re doing beyond that medium has four key principles that give more options to participation, civic engagement, democracy, and voting. One is to show up and participate. Just assume there’s something you can do, which is not the orientation that a lot of us are raised with.

It doesn’t mean on Twitter. That means in real life.

It can be.

That’s a fire and fire and duck mentality a lot of times.

Show up, participate, and do something. Understanding power to citizens is to understand power. The many ways that we can generate and experience it. That it’s not a zero-sum thing and because someone else has power, we can’t have it. That is a false idea. One of our first guests, Eric Liu lays this out beautifully and he wrote a book called You’re More Powerful than You Think. Commit to the Collective. That is a hard one for us Americans sometimes. A collective that sounds like the other C word. That’s communism. What are we talking about here? What are these collectivists? Chill out.

It’s beyond yourself. There’s another one of our guests who we’re collaborating with more now, Jon Alexander wrote a great book called Citizens: Why the Key to Fixing Everything is All of Us. You take on a challenge so big that you can’t achieve it by yourself. What is a business but that? If you could do it by yourself, why would you hire people? Why would you partner with anybody? There are strong examples of committing to collectives all around us, but our general narrative shies away from that and heightens the individual to the detriment often of individuals and the collective. The last is to invest in relationships. That’s what we’ve been talking about here with yourself, with others, and with the planet around you. Also, to find that connection as Malik said, and nurture it. From that springs so many things.

When you combine these, you end up with a lot more that you can do to face the challenges and the opportunities that are around us like housing, criminal justice, and food. There are beautiful things happening with groups of people who are showing up this way. Many of them are not formally citizens, but they are citizening and the deepest premise of the work is that we are the stories that we hear about ourselves.

We need to tell ourselves more of these stories of us practicing democracy. As Jon says, it’s something you do, not just something you have. Democracy is a practice. It’s not a possession. When it’s challenged, one way to “save it” is to practice it more. Not just talk about the challenge of it, be it, and do it. That’s citizening to us.

There were two things you said in the last principles that struck me. I think about some of what’s happened since COVID is that you have a lot of people saying, “I want to work where I want, how I want, and do my thing. We seem to have lost that being part of any team or any collective is not self-optimization. It has some sacrifice if you’ve ever been part of any organization. The second part is I don’t want to come to the office and I say this as a company that’s been mostly remote.

The data shows that people are super lonely and disconnected. It seems like people aren’t paying attention to what they’re asking for and then the reality of some of the things. Do you think this is a problem in terms of we’ve seen a lot of kinds of individualism and then also people not to together and forgetting what it means? I’ve heard anyone how you describe the onion or describe the highlight of their life or career, it’s rarely a solo thing. It is the best team or group that they’ve worked with and a free-agent nation approach is going to miss a lot of that.

Yes. Hyperindividualism will kill us all and that is true on so many levels. There’s this fractal principle that patterns repeat at every scale that we’ve talked about with two of our guests on How To Citizen, Adrienne Maree Brown, and Dr. Sam Rader. Hyperindividualism in a single human body is loneliness, depression, overconsumption, and death by consumption. It’s lethargy in many cases. It becomes hyperaddictive things sometimes. I’m not a professional psychologist, and I want to be careful in some of my language, but it is unhealthy to be alone and try to do everything by yourself.

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However, as a society, hyperindividualism is one of the drivers of the climate crisis. Also, not taking into account our relationships with our planet, with our resources, but also our neighbors that are trees. They’re not just our resources and we need them and this wildlife needs us too to help manage things in a healthy way and keep things in balance. We need to recognize that we need each other from a mental health, physical health, and collective health perspective. Also, the drive to optimization of the solo self threatens all selves.

Your specific example of remote work, working from home, and me, myself optimizing, that is a symptom of a larger disease. It is a particular story and like a meta-narrative of, “Just get yours.” The healthy response doesn’t have to mean the opposite. It doesn’t have to mean, “Everybody commutes two hours, sits in traffic, guzzles gas, and is in weird overly cooled, or under-cooled office environments. All of that doesn’t have to be the answer, but we need an answer that puts us in the company with others again on a regular basis.

That might be more dinner parties and that might mean singing groups. Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering, we had her on our show. We need practice at being around each other and the technologies we have had also in many ways encouraged the isolation further because they have us thinking we can get even more of our needs met sitting alone tapping on a screen and not being in a community with other human life and beyond. That wasn’t a reference to aliens. I was talking about animals by the way.

There are a certain amount of chemicals and neurotransmitters and a lot of things that when we are with each other socially are released and there’s no corollary in online communication.

If we’re not going to be in the office, we need to be in our neighborhoods more. We need to be in coffee shops. We need to be in volunteer groups. We need to be in hiking clubs. We need to be in sewing circles, knitting groups, and book clubs. We need to fulfill that need in a real way. We have a great opportunity, Robert to rediscover that and apply that.

To me that was right. We had been a remote organization for a long time, but I always felt like that was the trade-off. “We’re not traveling to work so we expected you to be going to spin class or doing something or using that in a different way to develop your community and not to have it at all because a lot of people are suffering from that.

As with schools, they are built in communities. They’re compulsory communities where you don’t necessarily like all the people. You wouldn’t choose to hang out with them, but you have to and that is a muscle.

I couldn’t agree more than a thousand per se. You have to coexist with some people. They have to say some things you don’t like and or maybe that is mildly offensive and cope.

Also, to have a relationship enough with someone for both ends of this. For the person saying the offensive thing, to recognize that offense lands in the body of a person you care about and not an anonymous username. It is so much easier to pop off when you have no relationship with the targets of your popping. Similarly, for the recipient of the offensive expression or language to recognize that the person doing it maybe just didn’t know any better and didn’t mean the worst thing that you think they could mean by what they did.

Also, because there’s a relationship, you both have an opportunity to learn and to contribute to the other. Also, to send and receive better the next time around. Maybe that offense will flow in a different direction and you’ll have earned some credibility for how you handled the previous moment and so forth and so on. Also, with the new person who joins that community, you’ll remember how you were treated well the last time you offended and worked to extend that grace to the new offender. All of that becomes much harder when we’re isolated from each other.

You realize there’s a person you could like that said something you didn’t like and then they said something you liked the next day. It’s all in the same package.

That sounds great. That’s a great possible future. I like this.

Balancing Optimism And Self-Determination

Another thing I wanted to ask you about because I heard you say something about it stuck with me. I know and you’re so good at these and answers. There’s a certain orientation in the world that wants us to embrace the victim mindset and how we are disadvantaged. There are certainly a whole bunch of truths to that but I heard you tell a story about saying that you were frustrated one time when someone defined you by the adversity that you had to overcome and that you didn’t embrace negativity. I have not seen a lot of positive worldviews come out of victimization. At the same time, there is real history and hurt and things that have gone on. How do you think about this in terms of balancing optimism and self-determination with realities that have happened?

Acknowledging harm is key to healing it. I have participated in systems of harm by the nature of where I live or where my tax dollars go to be the most distant about it. I have hurt people’s feelings before. I have said things that have hurt folks. I’ve made choices and I have been hurt by the same in the other direction. The key is to both acknowledge and process.

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Also, to have a way to move through that harm that doesn’t ignore it because ignoring the harm is risky for the harmed and the participant in the act. You don’t learn your lesson. You may end up having a wound that festers and gets infected and causes greater pain later. You may end up inflicting the same harm on others as a psychological reaction. Hurt people if they don’t find a way to process their own hurt.

It’s in everyone’s best interest to acknowledge it and then be provided with tools and community enough to not stop there. How do you do that? It’s very hard. You don’t do it alone, and I think that’s a consistent theme we’re coming back to. I don’t think you can think your way out of it by yourself and read a bunch of texts and solve it. I think you have to move through it. It’s probably helped with others going through it with you. It takes a bit of a leap of faith and a little delusion to live in the post-harm world, in the post-victim state. In the world of agency, fulfillment, joy, power, and recognition even if the harm is continuing.

I’m speaking in a structure right now. Let me speak in a specific. If you’re trapped in a harmful relationship, it may be a huge step just to say, “I’m in a harmful relationship.” You may not be in a position to end it or exit it, but there are steps that institutions, people, medical professionals, friends, and family have to help people move out of that and into something else. Part of getting out is also imagining yourself in a healthy relationship and experiencing the joy of that before you even have it in real life.

That could be an interpersonal relationship in a household, parent-child, or spousal. It could be a societal relationship. It’s womanness to patriarchy. Disabled community to abled community, Black American to America. There’s so much subtlety in it because there are so many different participants in the system. If someone is acknowledging harm, that is a big step for them. It is not necessarily an attack on everyone in the system where that harm is taking place.

Even how we receive someone’s statement of, “I’m a victim,” I’m not saying you are attacking me. I’m saying, “I feel like I’m victimizing,” and for those who are feeling into that negative and harmful experience, it is important to have something to anchor to beyond that. Something that you can nurture yourself in community with others that helps you psychologically and probably tangibly get to that better place of not getting stuck in harm.

The last dynamic I want to name here is I want to destroy all these binaries as much as possible, which is something I’m also still learning to do. I grew up in the classic male-female. Now, we’re learning. There’s this spectrum in between. I’m like, “Gay-straight.” There’s a spectrum in between. The spectrum is in everything it turns out but we’ve set up some roles in our rhetoric in society where some people “get” to be victims and others by inference are victimizers.

In this discussion that’s exploded around DEI right now, you’ve got a lot of hurt, fear, and annoyance at like, “If I run this institution and I’m not in a victim class, then I must be the victimizer. That sounds BS. Reverse racism is nonsense to me. Screw it all.” Part of the premise is flawed. We’ve set up a lot of the DEI discussion about rescuing people from adverse circumstances by oppressors who’ve put them there and it denies the humanity I think of so many involved because the benefit doesn’t accrue to the alleged victim.

There is an upside to having people feel like they belong in an institutional organization that goes beyond those targeted underrepresented groups. It accrues to the literal bottom line but we need to have the relationship that you and I have been talking about first so that these exercises, workshops, initiatives, and bold statements land in the body in a way that feels connected to other bodies and not just like vague pronouncements. It’s because otherwise, we’re disconnected and disembodied from it and we don’t care.

I heard someone say who is a huge advocate in this. When you put any psychologist or sociologist, when you put people in a threatening state, you are going to have a very hard time teaching them something. The opposite of what you were saying and how you do it is building that relationship. Let’s laugh and now I’m going to land a tough message with you. Humans have some immutable characteristics around threat detection and it’s very hard when you’re doing that. I think there are some social science principles that would be helpful to bring it to.

The story that goes along with this is about this transition from me to us. It’s about this transition from I and you to we. I think we have thought backward sometimes and we’re like, “The we will emerge after we hyperdefine I and you. I’m BS-ing a little bit here.

That’s interesting.

When I think about the initiatives that I’ve been a part of or the workshops, exercises, and they’re starting not with establishing the we. When I listen to the people who work in civil war zones and conflict zones and Israelis and Arabs and Hutus and Tutsis and Irish and Catholics and Protestants, they don’t start with the thing. They start with shared stories.

I was going to say that storytelling has always impacted me.

We both have these relationships with our parents, with our children, or with our spouses. We laugh together. We cry together and now, we can talk about ceasefires. We can talk about our hiring methodology. We can talk about promotions, but we have established that we are a part of the same organism. We are a part of the same body and we have a shared fate and the shared outcome to benefit us. I’m not doing this to benefit me or to attack you. I’m doing this to benefit us. We have to establish the us or else we will continue to operate hyper individualistically and destroy us. No one wants that.

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I think that puts the cherry on the sundae. I’m not going to try to top that. I know we’re running out of time. Baratunde, thanks for joining us. You’ve been on my interview wish list for a while and you did not disappoint.  I’m glad we had a chance to make it happen.

Me too. You got me all fired up to start my West Coast Day. Thank you.

We’ll have you back for part two.

I’d love it. There’s so much more to discuss.

I got through about half my question so we’ll talk about that.

This was part one. You should even call it that. That’ll put the hook.

Thank you for tuning into part one. You heard the commitment. Baratunde will be back for part two. To our readers, thank you for reading. Thanks again for your support. Until next time, keep elevated.


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