Listen to Episode #68 here:
Fighting Boredom with Adam Barsky
Our guest is Adam Barsky. He is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on how people use emotions to make ethical judgments and decisions. He has been studying what makes things funny. He’s the Cofounder and CEO of a social enterprise dedicated to helping ethical consumers make more informed and impactful choices. He’s also a collaborator and a friend. Welcome, Adam.
Adam, if you can’t be doing the things that you’re doing, what would you be doing?
I’d probably be a professional traveler, going to different places, experiencing their cultures, finding ways to talk interestingly about them as a blogger and an Instagram influencer.
You don’t do much social media. I’m impressed by that.
I’m maybe a little old for social media.
Everybody’s on Instagram.
A while back when Facebook was still cool and fun, I would have little quips that I’d put on there and it was a little bit satisfying to say a little funny thing. I don’t know, I feel like the public nature of the conversations don’t appeal to me. This is a private conversation that’s being made public. This is exactly what social media is.
For our audience, it wasn’t clear. Adam was gung-ho to do this podcast. I roped him into it.
I like to fly under the radar. That’s been my thing for a long time. As long as people aren’t paying too much attention, I’m doing all right.
You’re not a “look at me” kind of guy.
Not in public situations but in a roomful of people, I’m like, “Please look at me.”
You are a funny writer. I think you’re a funnier writer than you are a talker. Of all the people I email with regularly, you’re in the top three in terms of funniness.
I’d make a real effort to make a casual conversation funny, an instrumental conversation funny. When we’re trying to figure something out when I’ve got to make plans with somebody over text or something that would normally be the banal thing that you’d have to do. That’s where I try to be funny because I feel like those things are inherently boring for both people who were involved. That can be a little bit more entertaining as opposed to trying to make a night out funny, which everybody is expecting. You want to have a good time. It’s where boringness exists where you would like to insert little jokes to make the other person feel like the situation is a little less boring.
You’re good at it. I appreciate it. I noticed it.
It’s unprofessional though. I do this in a professional context as well as group emails to my department as well. It’s the same thing. I have no filter though unfortunately.
I’m a little the same way. I have a particular perspective about relationships and the value of conversation. Whether it be friends, professional, dating and beyond, I’m always on the lookout for good conversation. That doesn’t have to be oral. It can be written. The reason is that’s what you’re doing with the person the most. That is like you may both be interested in mountain biking, movies, travel or whatever. Most of the time, you’re sitting around talking.
I’ve been married for ten years to a woman who I have almost no shared interests but we have great conversations. That sustains it and I’m happy with that.
If you get on a dating app, you list all your interests like live music, this and that and all those things. People make big decisions about whether they are willing to meet somewhere or not based upon those interests. What I think is interesting is I send some of my more enjoyable relationships in life or with women who we didn’t have a ton of overlapping interests, but we could have a good fun conversation.
Maybe that’s because it’s easier to imagine yourself doing something with somebody than having a good conversation with them. I could imagine going skiing with somebody. We’re on the slopes together, but it’s sitting down and laughing together or having a good conversation about stuff that’s tough to picture.
What I have done when I’m on the apps is I will do phone calls sometimes. That forces the conversation in the way that you’re uninfluenced by looks and the context.
I remember my dad saying something one time. I was in France with him when I was fifteen. It stuck with me my whole life. We were at Musee d’Orsay and we were looking at a painting. I said, “This is boring.” He said, “It’s not boring, you’re boring.” He’s like, “You don’t know enough about this for it to be interesting. You’re not curious about it and therefore, there was plenty that would be interesting about this, the context, the history and the feelings that it evokes in other people or me. There are lots of things that you could find interesting about this but you’re boring.” In fact, that led to a whole way of art appreciation that my wife and I have, which is that we go to museums. We try to come up with funny titles for the paintings.It's easier to imagine yourself doing something with somebody than having a good conversation with them. Click To Tweet
We’ve done this together. It’s hilarious. It’s a great way to appreciate art. It forces you to tell a story and think about what it is. That’s not for everybody. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing this for everyone. It forces you to be interesting rather than making the painting work. The same thing is true in conversation. Everybody has something interesting to say and even the most banal stories have moments of interest and something that could be funny and something that could be played off of. It’s up to you to pay attention, work off of that and think about it. It’s the same way. There are certain people you’re definitely going to have better conversations with but there are interesting bits in everything.
In filmmaking, as you know I’m doing some research on editing. There are two forms of editing. One is structural and one is stylistic. For example, you might have a film that’s beautifully edited from a structural standpoint that puts together a story in an interesting way. A lot of like dramas are structurally edited strongly. Stylistically, it’s more aesthetics, the visual of it. A lot of action movies are light on story and structure, but they’re very strong on style. For example, Matthew Vaughn did the movie, Baby Driver. It’s not a terribly good story, but it’s fun to watch. It’s highly stylized.
I think about conversation as having those two elements because what you’re doing with the conversation is you’re editing. You’re deciding what goes in and what goes out. You’re deciding the order of things. A podcast can have the same thing. What are the beats? Does it move? Does it sizzle a little bit versus what you were just talking about this idea of, “You’re boring versus this is boring.” It’s structurally an interesting thing. You can say it in a way that pops or doesn’t. Some podcasters are a little better on style and some are better on structure or substance.
It’s like peppering the emotional flow throughout the content that’s being delivered. We could be talking about something interesting from a content perspective, but it’s not very funny or it’s not interesting to listen to because we talk in monotone or whatever.
What it sounds like to me is that there are times where you’re trying to add style to something that the structure of it is fixed. An email to your faculty or you telling me that you’re coming to town. I want to back up and get back to your question about your travel blogging. Why that?
It combines the things I like to do. I remember I wrote like a travel blog before that was a thing, before there were social media. It was called TravelLog.com. It was way back when I first started doing some serious traveling. I remember thinking this is a good way of telling a story. It’s like a way of writing a funny story, but the content is all provided to you by your experiences, which is life in general. I enjoy creative writing but I have a lot of trouble making up stories. I tried to write a fictional story at one point. There was a little bit that I could do and I got to about 30 or 40 pages into it. I enjoyed that process, but it was like pulling teeth. When I’m able to write about my own experiences or the experiences of others, I enjoy writing. It’s a weird way to say this, but I wrote the eulogy for my mother, for my father and the best man speech for a couple of different friends. I always write these things ahead of time. When I do that, there’s a real sense of personal flow and connection to the stuff that’s being written. It gives me an opportunity to do that creative writing but about something that’s real.
There’s a reason you’re in academic because you’re writing about something that at least you believe is real.
That, I would have struggled with. I don’t find academic writing enjoyable. I do it because it’s my job. For some reason, you would think that that would be the thing that I would like to write. The abstraction from reality that’s required for academic writing, I find to be difficult to overcome. The concrete experiences that we have and finding ways to articulate those in an interesting or funny way. It’s something that if I had my druthers, that’s what I would be doing and traveling provides you all these kinds of experiences and contact.
In the same way of doing a best man speech or eulogy, it is seeded by your experiences with the person. You’re not a travel blogger. You’re an academic but you’re more than a professor. You’re an entrepreneur. You teach management, but now you’re living it. You’ve launched your own business.
It’s been an interesting experience. Over the last couple of years, I started a social enterprise. I also took over the social entrepreneurship subject in my faculty. I teach social entrepreneurship, which was great. It’s the class I learned the most from. When I first got the class, I thought, “I don’t know much about social entrepreneurship as an academic subject.” I’ve got ten to twelve guest speakers to come in. I learned everything. I was like, “This class is great.” I’m teaching it but I’m enjoying it. To learn how to try to create something and not an enterprise, a business, but something that has a social outcome as well to try to balance those two demands in practice has been an incredibly interesting and difficult experience. I’ve got a partner. His name is Adham Diab. He’s the CEO of our little enterprise. It’s been years of trying to figure something out. That’s a complicated problem.
What is the problem? Tell the audience what exactly you are doing.
Part of the problem is figuring out what the problem is exactly. There’s a series of problems that are high level. The problem is the lack of consumer engagement with the choices that we make on a day-to-day basis. Some of us think about the eggs that we buy. We want free-range eggs or maybe we would try to buy organic food or maybe we try to buy clothes. You might try to make some choices that are good for society. It’s difficult when you move outside of some of the basic consumer goods to start making conscious ethical choices. If you wanted to have the most ethical bank or the most ethical electric company or the most ethical mobile phone company, how would you make that choice? How would you even know which one was better or worse? If you were able to make that choice, even if you did make a choice, would that choice have any impact?
This is the classic alternative, which is a lot of people’s consumption is designed to make the world a better place. The primary benefit is that it helps them feel okay, but it has very little effect on a big world with nine billion people, whether you recycled or not. It has little effect. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. If you want there to be a greater reach, you’re limited as an individual.
It is primarily because your actions are individualized and because we haven’t collectivized as consumers. There isn’t the way that employees did in the industrial relations movements and said, “As an employee, I can quit.” That’s not going to change the working conditions around here. The only thing that’s going to make a difference is if we work together as employees and collectivize our labor and say, “We’re not going to take these conditions.” Otherwise, the power differential is great between the companies and the individual employees. The same thing that’s true as consumers. We feel as disempowered as consumers now as probably an employee did in a factory who’s like, “This sucks but what am I going to do? It doesn’t matter what I do because like they’ll hire somebody else.”
We realized what was missing from what we believe is a real latent desire within the populace to engage in conscious consumption is a platform by which that can be made effective. We’re calling it to impact procurement. The idea is the things that you buy, especially the services that you use, that the choices that you make can have an impact but they have an impact only under certain conditions. Those conditions at the minimum are that you have good information about the companies and the differences between them. When you do make a choice, that information is then communicated back to the companies and collectivized with other individuals who are making similar choices. The idea is to create a marketplace where we can create this financial pressure on organizations to be better citizens, to give more back to the community to make better environmental choices. Community investment or corporate social responsibility moves from being a cost to organizations to being something that they need to do.
It’s a feature that you use to differentiate yourself from other companies.
They do that right now. Companies do a lot of marketing of some of their behaviors. All kinds of companies are doing this now.
We donate money to this and we recycle our waste.
Primarily what we’re finding and what the research suggests is that companies are spending more money on the marketing of these activities than the activities themselves. How can you as a consumer differentiate between a bank that says they give X amount of money to homeless and another bank who says they have carbon neutral activities? How do you decide between those two things? Because the information is so distributed and not made available to you in any consolidated form as a consumer, you can’t differentiate. You don’t know who’s better than who. That information and that transparency doesn’t exist, which disempowers the individual from being able to make conscious choices. When you make a choice, it doesn’t matter because there’s no collectivization of those choices.
What we’ve been doing is trying to create both the social footprint index, which aggregates or creates an index of corporate social performance across a number of dimensions. We’ve started with corporate community investments, so how much companies give back to the community and ranking companies within an industry. Looking at all the banks in Australia, all electric companies in Australia, all the insurance companies in Australia. Each one within their industry gets ranked against each other in terms of how much they give back philanthropically, how much they spend on social programs. We have criteria that we used to include or exclude companies. You get a ranking within each industry. Within the platform, you can make choices about who you would like to use instead of your current provider. That gives you both the opportunity to increase your social footprint, which we give you a score but also have that information communicated back to organizations. When you make that choice, it tweets to both companies.
It says, “You’ve been fired. You’ve been hired.”
Because they give more back to the community. It also collectivizes the decisions into a report that we give back to companies and be able to say, “This is how many consumers you lost. This is the financial impact to you of losing those consumers.” It is beholden on you to spend that money at least that amount of money to get those consumers back or not to lose more. By spending more money on community investment or other social programs, you can win those consumers back. That creates a naturalistic marketplace by which companies now compete to be better citizens. What that requires is an engaged populace. You’ve got to feed this thing with people who care. We created a platform called MyFootprint.co. You can go and visit it now, see what it looks like. This one of the problems of not being a big social media guy is you need to promote it. Everything else comes down to marketing and it is so hard to market a complex idea.A lot of people's consumption is designed to make the world a better place. Click To Tweet
I want to make sure I understand this right. I’m going to try to translate this into non-managerial speak. There’s a group of people in the world who care about the purchases that they make don’t make the world worse and if that possible to make the world better. People are conscious of doing this with their consumable goods, the things that they can hold onto, the fruit that they buy and the cars that they drive, etc. They don’t do this well for services because services is a little bit of a black box. It’s hard to see and especially to see the competition among the service providers. MyFootprint.co gives you that information and it removes the friction of changing because you facilitate the change.
That’s our next step. At the moment, you just register your changes but we’re going to that direction.
What happens is it bands people together, so you get this unionizing of consumers to have a real effect in the marketplace. Then it very publicly communicates who the winners are and who the losers are, who are the good banks and who are the bad banks. It’s a complex decision. Luckily, it’s people who are involved and people who are customers. I teach marketing. I teach the value of communicating value, marketing communications, yet I’m also terrible about it. I like making things. I don’t like promoting things. I love making this podcast, I am crap at promoting it.
My wife had a business for a while. She did a company called Groomy where she made these wonderful toiletry bags and accessories, design them and manufacture them. We’re like, “This is going to be a killer. There’s nothing like it on the market in Australia at the time. It was cutting-edge fashion, design, everything. It came down to marketing. She’s like, “It’s not what I want to do. I don’t want to be a marketer.”
How do you come through the clutter?
Look at Fyre Fraud, those firefighters had nothing. They had no idea. They just promote it. It’s fabulous.
There are two documentaries about this Fyre Festival. I watched one of them. It’s enthralling. There’s a Netflix one and a Hulu one.
They’re both worth watching. It’s the power of marketing. It’s evil marketing.
One nice thing about you is you are a do-gooder. It wasn’t an arbitrary decision that you got into social responsibility, but I want to tell a quick story about something that you did that had a profound effect on my life. You know this because you’d known me for several years. You forced your friendship on me. As someone who forces his friendship with people, I appreciate that. Adam’s family lives in Colorado. Your brother is here. Your parents were here. Many years ago, you reached out to me, “I’m Adam Barsky. I’m a professor at the University of Melbourne. Can we get together for coffee? I’m here in town.” It didn’t work out probably. I’ve gotten better at saying no to those things in a case.
We became friends and you hosted me for a trip to Melbourne during my first sabbatical. You’ve hosted me since then. You come back to the family. We started working together. It’s fun, not super productive, but productive enough collaboration. At one point in time, we were out. I was commenting on how your life as an academic is unlike many other people’s lives as academics, which is that you truly have work-life balance. You have work-life balance in a way that at times I’m envious of. It’s not because you work in Australia. You would have work-life balance if you worked in the United States, which is harder to do. You said to me, “Pete, if you start saying no to things with the goal of living a simpler life, one day your life will be simple.” Do you remember that?
I said, “If you make choices to make your life simpler, eventually your life will be simple.”
It won’t be right away but eventually, your life will be simpler. That led me to think a lot about what I’m saying yes to, what I’m saying no to, why I’m saying yes to it, why I’m saying no to it and so on. I’d be much clearer about those choices and what are their short-term and long-term effects on my happiness in terms of living a good life but a life that is not boring. This is a big hairy, audacious, goal. You’ve been working on it for years. Why did you do it then?
People look at my life as an academic and a lot of people feel the same way that you do. Part of it is being in Australia. We got a sabbatical every three years. My teaching is minimal. I teach on average about two weeks a year. Technically, I have a lot of free time. I’m not super ambitious when it comes to being a world-famous academic.
You’re a good academic. You’re not deadwood in your department.
I’m not ambitious enough to be famous in that regard.
There’s a little bit of a sweet spot in academia.
I have trouble admitting this sometimes, but I don’t think that I was born to be an academic. I fell into it. I have never liked it that much. To answer interesting questions, you can’t do it the way that we do it. You have to answer these very narrow questions rigorously or you can talk to big questions, but without any real rigor.
What Adam is referring to is the peer review process, which is you’re writing these 30-page papers basically. They have to go through often several rounds of anonymous review by critical reviewers. That process takes years typically. The final outcome is usually not as provocative as the thing that you started out with. While it typically is correct, the ideas in papers are typically correct, they can’t have much of an impact. They’re not read by normal people and by the people who make decisions.
If I were to publish a paper in the top journal in my field and it was a big hit. It’s still possible that no single person outside of academia would ever read it. That would be considered a huge win for me in my career. I always felt like there was a disconnect between what we’re doing. Everybody has talked about this and complained about this in academia, but this hit me hard that it felt like I was in this fantasy world. It was very hard for me to take it seriously as a profession because I’m like, “We are just telling stories to each other.”
In defense, generally the efforts are that you try to tell a correct story. This story is a new story. It advances an idea.
The ideas that you’re advancing are the stories that are being told within academia. It’s the story of a particular way of thinking about things. These aren’t necessarily the relevance to the world. When I think about my impact in the world, it has been very marginal.
It’s probably your biggest impact in the world has been teaching students.The abstraction from reality that's required for academic writing can be difficult to overcome. Click To Tweet
I enjoy that part of it, but the research part of it, which is the main part of our job is something that I haven’t gotten a lot of personal satisfaction out of. Because of that, if you don’t like your job, you’re going to spend most of your time trying to minimize the amount of time you spend doing your job or the amount of time. I’ve nailed not liking your job. If you don’t like your job, I’m doing it the best. I’m the best at that.
I like being an academic more than you do.
People are like, “What a great life.” I’m like, “Yes, if you don’t like your job, this is the way you ought to do it.” I’m like, “It would be much better if you loved what you did and you’d be fine to spend lots of time doing it.”
As an aside, I’ve always been a good enough teacher. When I became a good teacher was when I started making my teaching interesting to me. It was fun to me. Once I made teaching fun to me, everybody was happy. I agree with you.
When I saw the impact you could have on students in being a teacher, I spent a lot of time trying to think about how to make the content interesting. I won the university award for the Teacher of The Year. I was up for Australian Teacher of The Year last time. That’s something that I have cared about. The question was why have I started the social enterprise? It takes up an enormous and inordinate amount of time. There are two reasons for that. One, I find it to be intrinsically interesting. I find the idea of trying to solve a real problem in the world that would make a difference, to be something that’s worth my time. Secondly, you learn. I’ve learned so much by trying to do something. I’ve even been an academic for many years now. I know how to do it. I had never started a business before. This is a tech startup. We’re coming up with a computer platform in the marketplace. It’s not trivial. It’s not something that I knew anything about.
The obvious business would be what I do. You write a book. You do consulting. You do professional speaking, etc. That’s leveraging your existing skill set.
Part of this problem is data collection and data analysis is how do we get this data? How do we figure it out? How do we consolidate it and make it understandable to people? It has used the academic skills, but it’s required a whole other set of skills that I didn’t have. Creating the personal growth that comes from that has been enjoyable. I had this real sense that I wanted to make an impact in some way. My parents instilled in me when I’m young the social obligation that comes with having the privilege. We didn’t grow up rich. We grew up white, at least you have that. My dad worked in Harlem, in the inner city schools teaching for many years for very disadvantaged kids. My mother worked in philanthropy for a long time as well. This was something that was important to them. It was important for me to show them to carry that on as well, that part of what we did.
You’ve launched this because you want to make the world a better place. You want to stretch yourself and gain new experiences and so on. There’s a third reason that you fuss around with entrepreneurial ideas because you’ve talked to me about this. Do you remember what it is?
It’s your escape.
I was going to say escape. I thought maybe that we had already covered that.
The fascinating thing about you, Adam, is that you have the world’s most stable, steady job and yet you have your eye out for that big thing that makes it the case that you don’t need to do that job anymore. Is that just simply because you don’t love the work enough? You’re not a government worker. A lot of academics are basically government workers. They’re prevention focus. They’re trying to avoid bad outcomes. They seek security and stability. Is it simply that doesn’t resonate enough? Why with world’s safest job do you look for an escape route?
It goes a little bit back to what I was saying before. You can have the easiest life in the world, but if it’s not intrinsically satisfying, what’s the point of continuing doing that? There’s an escape into something that ideally would be more intrinsically satisfying, but it probably is another pain in the ass that I’d have to deal with it for the sake of. I get that. Maybe what I want to do is work with people. Academia is this weird job where everybody hates it because either you’re an introvert. You’re happy to sit in your office and work for hours at a time on your computer. You have to stand up in front of hundreds of people and publicly speak all the time for hours at a time.
I’m going to be teaching eight hours a day, every day for two weeks, ten days. For some people, that is living hell. That would be the worst possible thing they can possibly imagine having to deal with. They love the other side of the job. If you’re super extroverted, you don’t mind getting up in front of a big group of people. You’re trapped in your own office by yourself sitting there writing papers. It’s a solitary, lonely existence. When I say I don’t like writing papers, maybe that’s what I don’t like. We collaborate. We do a lot of Skype calls and that’s great. That’s motivated to me. It comes down to sitting down in front of my computer and writing for extended periods of time. I struggled with that because I’m such a social person.
What’s interesting is you seek out deadlines. We have a third collaborator, Caleb Warren, who has been doing the humor work with me from the beginning. You look for a deadline anecdotally in a way that the average academic doesn’t, who’s trying to avoid a deadline. I’m going to shift gears a little bit and make another observation about it. You won this teaching award. One of the things that I’ve noticed about you is you’re very good at dealing with bureaucracy. There’s an extra level of bureaucracy with Australian academia. I’ve regularly seen you adeptly in a focused way deal with bureaucracy in a way that makes your life better as an academic or in your second life as an entrepreneur. You’ve funded some of the work through grants. You get me to come to visit even your teaching award came in part. You’re a good teacher. It’s earned.
I saw the angles. I know what gets rewarded and what doesn’t.
You had to fill out the forms. Why are you good at filling out forms?
It’s adept where I look for an easy win, low-hanging fruit. One of the things I know about academics is that they hate filling out forms. They will sacrifice all kinds of things not to have to fill out a form. That leaves this opportunity for people who are willing to fill out this form. I remember talking about arduous forms. The teaching award, for example, was two pages. You have to write a little thing about yourself. A teaching statement is the philosophy of what you do and some evidence for why you deserve this award. I don’t know how many people filled that up, but I’m guessing not many or not everybody who was eligible. That’s because people don’t think that they can. I’m willing to give it a shot. I’m willing to ask for anything and that helps. A lot of people don’t even think to ask for things because they’re like, “I’m not there yet or I’m not entitled to this.” I’m like, “I’m almost certainly entitled to this.”
Let me put forth another hypothesis. It’s work but it’s not writing a paper. One of my colleagues fussed around with this idea. I don’t know what came of it, “Is procrastination bad?” The answer is generally yes. Procrastination is less bad depending on what you do while you’re procrastinating. I’m not much of a procrastinator, but I tidy up my house when I’m procrastinating. That’s not a bad way to procrastinate in the sense that a tidy house makes me happier and makes my life better.
The difference was when I procrastinate, I’d be like looking for a housekeeper online and interviewing lots of different ones until I got the perfect one. That problem would be solved forever. My houses would always be tidy.
It’s versus someone who plays video games, apps or something.
I have a desire to be productive, but an inability to be productive in one domain. I spend an inordinate amount of time getting to know the rules and exploiting them because I know them.If you don't like your job, you're going to spend most of your time trying to minimize the amount of time you spend doing it. Click To Tweet
As someone who has benefited as a research scholar at the University of Melbourne, I thank you for that. Your family has come up a few times. I knew your dad. He passed. You did the eulogy for him. What did you talk about in that eulogy?
This is a lesson on how to write a eulogy. It’s like our best man speech is I don’t want to tell a story. It’s like when you’re writing a paper or something like that, it’s not a narrative. It’s not like this happened and this happened and a surprise ending. It’s thematic. What are the things that mattered to me? I thought about the character strengths, the strengths that I received from him, the pattern that I feel like got passed on. I talked about his courage, wisdom and compassion.
The wisdom like that you’re boring.
It’s wisdom like that. Wisdom in terms of he taught me how to be wise. When I think about wisdom, it’s about knowing yourself, understanding how you think about things and how you act. If you can act with purpose so you can understand, you interrogate your own beliefs and actions. That’s what he focused on my whole life was helping me to look inwards whenever I acted to understand that thing. If you’re not okay with it or you are okay with it, at least you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
It was basically about how when we were young, I wouldn’t get punished. We didn’t get physically punished or even grounded or anything like that. He would lecture. We were horrified. I hated lectures. What they were was they were interrogations. Why did you do that? What were you thinking? Why did you think that it was okay? What was behind that? What challenged me is that you have to think, “Why did I do that?” There’s no getting out of it. It’s like to go to your room and think about what you’ve done. It’s like, we’re going to talk about exactly what you’ve done, why you’ve done that thing and why you think that’s okay.
Over time, you learn about why you do the things that you do instead of doing those things. That provided the foundation for me to at least be okay with myself and do things that are purposeful. I’ve always acted purposefully in my life. As a result, I’ve had a fairly straight forward life. I’ve had an easy goal. One of the reasons behind that is I’m like, “What am I thinking about doing? Why do I think that would be a good idea? What are the other alternatives? Why do I think those would be a good idea? Once I figured out what the purpose of what I’m trying to do is working towards that in a fastidious way. I thought about the kinds of themes or the kinds of major things that he bequeaths to me. The examples that I had that for me were the clearest. It’s hard because as a professor, you always end up in like teaching mode. All of my talks or eulogies or whatever that I’ve given up end up trying to simplify a complex problem.
How do you talk about someone’s entire life?
It’s a tricky one. Also, how do you make it both interesting as well as true? How do you make it something that people want without making a trite? It’s not for the audience, it’s for you. It’s a fine balance of trying to both create the content. It’s like teaching again. It’s delivered in a way that people will be able to accept, understand and embody, but also to make it beautiful so that people feel it as well as hear it.
I was tasked with the eulogy from my mother’s father and my mother’s mother. Both of them were fairly young. I did a very nice job with my grandfather. My grandmother, I have regrets over that eulogy in part because someone said to me that I left the audience wanting more. What I did was good, but I could’ve done better. I wish I could do them again knowing what I know and having the skills I have now.
You only have one shot.
These things matter. There’s a reason that we celebrate transitions, whether it be marriages and births or graduations. To me, death is a transition. That celebration is more for the audience than for the person.
The other thing is it’s important to have a creative outlet of some kind so that when the time comes for you to need to express emotional things, you have a way of doing that. I play the guitar poorly. If you’re a musician or if you’re an artist or something like that, that’s when you’re able to express these emotions in some way that it’s hard to articulate. Being a writer, it’s such a gift in these times because you’re able to express the things that are going on inside your head and the things that are happening inside of you in a way that are both true and also beautiful.
I’m working on this new book project. It’s no longer a secret. As an aside, one thing that I like about you, Adam, is you’re the only person that I’ve talked to among my friends who doesn’t like the idea. I appreciate it. When I’m circulating the one-pager for the project, people were like, “This is great. I would love to read it.” You were like, “Nah,” but you might be right.
I’ve come around. The very first time you told me about it, I was like, “Eh.” Over time, I’ve thought about it.
For the audience, I’ll be giving a talk about this and now I’m writing the book. It’s basically serious business lessons from the masters of comedy. This is related to your idea about making jokes and emails to your colleagues. It’s not a book about being funny at work, but it’s a book about thinking funny. That is, how do you think differently about the world? If you know anything about business, you know that businesses reward creative thinking, novel thinking, risk-taking. My argument is that comedians are at the cutting-edge of this. One of the chapters is about writing. In it, I’m making the point that when we think about writing, we tend to think about communicating ideas.
I’m writing a book and I’m communicating these ideas. You make the marketing communication, you’re communicating an idea or you’re writing a eulogy, you’re communicating an idea. Your point about being a creative person makes the ability to communicate better especially when it’s about something emotional because artists deal in emotions. That’s what art is. It’s about representing emotions. I believe that. Poetry doesn’t teach you something about the world, but it makes you feel about the world. The point I make is there are these two other valuable elements to writing that are overlooked. The first one is record keeping is that we should write in order to record ideas. Ideas and memories flitter away. Having some process of writing down the ideas that you have is worthwhile because you can see them again. For example, I’ve started journaling as a result of this. I wish I had been journaling my entire life.
A few journal entries that I’ve written, I’ve probably read 100 times.
For example, the value of record keeping is this. I was looking back through this journal and I’ve found in three different places, I wrote the same exact phrase, which is I’m weirdly stressed. I was stressed out, but I couldn’t figure out why I was stressed out. That was useful for me to be able to notice that’s happening because it goes, “This might be more of a problem than I think it is.” It’s there and it goes away. It’s the idea of recordkeeping. The second one is the clarification. The act of writing a eulogy or the act of writing a paper or the act of writing one pager for this book, it shapes, it doesn’t take the thing in your head and put it on a piece of paper. The act of having to articulate that changes the thing. My argument is it changes it for the better.
You feel like you have a great idea until you write it down. To write this down, there are many missing pieces. You know when you’ve got a great idea because it flows onto the paper without any work or much translation. When you start to write it, the better of a writer you are, the more that you’re able to do that crafting process as you’re going.
The only way you can become a better writer is to write. I’m working on that.
I remember you saying that. That stuck with me when we first met is you’re like, “A couple of years ago, I wasn’t that good of a writer.” I sat down and I said, “I’m going to write.” You’re like, “I’m going to write every day.” You’re one of the most disciplined writers I’ve ever seen.
I need to be because I’m not that good a writer.You can have the easiest life in the world, but if it's not intrinsically satisfying, what's the point of continuing to do that? Click To Tweet
That’s how you do it. With comedians, that’s what probably differentiates the successful ones to the unsuccessful ones. You can be funny but to have the discipline to write it down. I find it to be the most satisfying thing that I do, but still, the thing that I do the least. When I take an idea and I write it down or even a thought or even a journal or something like that, when it’s done, I’m like, “I’m glad I did that.” It felt so good. It felt so right. Getting started, the process of doing it because before you start the writing, it feels good in your brain.
New ideas always feel good.
They feel good. They feel nice and fluid. I have this problem with my cofounder. He’s got these ideas in his head. He used to be this great poet, but now he struggles to write. He’ll be talking about these ideas. I’m like, “We need to write this down because you’re talking about lots of different things and they’re all good ideas. Until we write this down, it’s nothing.” He’s like, “I want it to flow.” I’m like, “I get that. You want it to flow. That’s what everybody wants is that flow in your mind.” It doesn’t take away from the quality of the ideas, but the usability of the ideas becomes evident when you put it to paper.”
I’m a big one-pager. You have an idea, write a one pager. At the end of it, you have a feel for how strong or weak it is as a result. I do want to say that I liked your dad. He’s a great guy. He was a big caregiver. Your mom died of Alzheimer’s. He was her main caregiver for many years. He had a little bit of this renaissance after her passing. He got sick. He had about four months of renaissance and then he got stage four lung cancer. He beat it.
He was visiting me in Melbourne. He wasn’t feeling well. He was otherwise in absolutely perfect health. He never smoked. I took him to the hospital there. He had a pulmonary embolism. They did a scan. They said, “It looks like there’s a little something on your lungs. You might want to get that checked out when you go home.” He got on a plane. Once he recovered from the embolism, he went home. It turns out they’re like, “You’ve got cancer. It’s everywhere. You’ve got a giant grapefruit-size tumor in your leg, on your shoulder and you’ve got about two months to live.” It was a horrific diagnosis. They put him on one of these targeted therapies called Tarceva, without any real negative side effects, cancer basically disappeared. Eight months later, we were in Antarctica together. We’re waiting to see penguins as we jumped on the shores. He went to Africa. He went on safari with my brother and came back a week later and had a stroke. It’s a significant one. His cancer had come back. He had a stroke. It looks again dire. He beat the brain damage and then he came back from that cancer a second time. He came out to Australia by himself and met his granddaughter, my daughter, for the first time and he passed away but after two and a half years of good quality life.
It’s fascinating seeing him thrive again.
It’s incredible to watch somebody be so resilient in the face of the most terrible things. Your wife of 50 years dies of Alzheimer’s. You’re given this incredibly terrible diagnosis. He was consistently able to come back from what would be so devastating to people that they would never even think to do what was required to come back.
It had a big effect on me thinking about it.
It goes back to that idea and part of what we know about resilience is that you can take much more than you think you can. Good things that happened to you are not going to be as nearly as good as you think they’re going to be and bad things that happen are probably not going to be as bad as you think they are. Part of it takes is the resources, be optimistic and see the possibilities of the future. He always did that. Having the support and building that up throughout your life so that when it happens, you can draw on that. He didn’t pull away from people. When my mom was sick, he didn’t go into seclusion. When he got sick, he had friendships. He had relationships. He had the kinds of things that he could draw that facilitated his recovery as well. He was a survivor and not just a survivor, but somebody who thrived in the face of incredible adversity.
Onto a lighter question and the final question, what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good and stands out? Not run of the mill good but is like, “That’s excellent.”
I just read Circe. I enjoyed that.
I read it out loud to my wife and my daughter. We have a six-month-old. She just comes home from the hospital. My wife has started nursing. We were sitting around a lot. I started reading this book. I started reading it out loud. It’s a wonderfully written story. Have you read it?
I don’t think so.
It just came out. It’s the retelling of the Greek and Trojan wars, the gods and all of the battles between Zeus and Odysseus and all of the things, many of the stories, but from the perspective of this minor nymph, Circe. The whole thing is told from her perspective. It’s an interesting story, interesting take on that. A lot of stories you’d be familiar with, but a different perspective on another human goddess from your perspective on them and a female perspective. I enjoyed that. I would recommend that.
Adam, thank you for saying yes to this finally.
It’s no problem.
I wish you the best.
- Adam Barsky
- Adham Diab
About Adam Barsky
Adam Barsky is an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses on how people use emotions to make ethical decisions and judgments and, more recently, what makes things funny.
He is the co-founder and COO of a social enterprise dedicated to helping ethical consumers make more informed and impactful choices.