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Explanations

We probably spend more time explaining things than anything else. Seriously, I’ve checked the timesheet data!

New ideas. How things work. Best practices. Documenting it all.

So what are we, really, but brokers of knowledge? You can call it professional services, creative services, consultation, guidance, or whatever you like. But ultimately, what we sell is knowledge. And by the way, that we can make an economy of buying and selling knowledge from one another is a beautiful thing. That is, provided our hearts are in the right place.

See, explaining things — at least, in a way that does any good — requires something that I guarantee is going to make you a bit squeamish to talk about in this context: love. But ask yourself, do you want your client to understand some technical process, or some complicated idea, or to start doing something a different way? If so, you’ve got to sincerely want them to succeed. You’ve got to actually care for them. Not just because they’ll pay you, or because if you help them you will look good, but simply because they are just like you — unable to do that thing on their own; scared of failing; worthy of respect; worthy of compassion. If that’s too touchy-feely, then I’ll put it in purely economic terms. If you want a system where your knowledge earns you money more than once, you need to love the person who pays you for it.

C’mon, you say. Love? Really?

Absolutely.

OK, fine. Maybe. But this, from you? You’re not exactly Mister Rogers.

It’s true. I’m not even close. But that doesn’t mean I can’t put this out there for discussion, does it? If we can’t acknowledge the ground we have to cover before we’ve covered it, what hope is there for any of us?

So Mister Rogers. Let’s start with him. Take a look at the video below. What you’re about to see is a person who truly embodies what I’m talking about. Here, he shows what it looks like to cut right to the chase and freely love another person. He clearly doesn’t care what that looks like to the outside eye. With or without the camera, I believe this scene would have played out exactly this way:

It’s tough to watch, isn’t it? I bet some of you are downright uncomfortable right now. Perhaps you didn’t even make it all the way through. The predictability of that feeling — discomfort in the face of true, unashamed human kindness — is how I know I’m on to something here.

I also realize that’s not necessarily an example of explaining — at least not in the way we’re likely to experience it every day. Here’s something a bit closer: the first bit of a very long interview in which Mister Rogers practically defines patience. It’ll take you a while to see it all, but it’s worth your time. Bookmark it for later?

So maybe Mister Rogers sets the bar too high. Honestly, if — on my best day — I could be like Mister Rogers on a no good, very bad day, I’d be happy. I have to imagine that for some people, like Mister Rogers, that kind of love comes more easily. As for the rest of us, we need to practice it. We’ve got to learn how to strip away whatever it is that blocks our love from coming out. We’ve got to learn how to not feel embarrassed when talking about love.

So, let me introduce you to another person whose example might seem a bit more within reach.

S. James Gates is a brilliant physicist. Brilliant. The kind of person who probably spends almost all of his time explaining things — difficult, elusive concepts — to other people. Here he is doing just that on an episode of On Being about uncovering the codes for reality. The interview is about an hour long.

When you have the time, I encourage you to listen — really listen — to how he patiently and gracefully explains some of the most challenging aspects of contemporary physics to the host of the show. It’s as if he were explaining them to his own child. He’s calm, careful, compassionate, even loving.

We’ve got to ask ourselves what within us withholds that kind of care — there I go again, avoiding using the word love — for others. And then we’ve got to do the work to get rid of it. Perhaps not completely or permanently; maybe that’s not possible for any of us. But at least enough to be the kind of people that are able to offer help that is meaningful and worthwhile, even when we are selling it.

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