142: To Sam Harris, whom I hope to meet backstage Friday at the Beacon Theater (transcript)

February 25, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek headshot

In the interfaith Sam Harris says, “We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence.” I like Sam’s podcast a lot. I listen to most episodes. I’ve read several of his books. I support his podcast with cash. I will see him in person this week for the first time at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan with Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. It looks like I’ll get backstage passes, I’m not sure, so I may meet him. What are my goals with this recording that isn’t obviously about leadership and the environment is to prompt the chance of meeting him in person. You’ll see why over the course of this recording. I support his initiatives on free speech and not just for myself and people who agree with me. I support his initiatives on freedom from religious oppression and I don’t see it as oppression to choose free speech over religious laws of whatever religion. Though of course there’s nuance there as well so I’m not one sided on that issue. I support him on identity politics that judges people by the color of their skin, sex and other accidents of birth or the content of their character. I share his dismay and disappointment in the behavior of the left with whom I agree on many issues in its meanness and sanctimony calling people names and abusing authority where it dominates like university campuses and in some media instead of engaging on ideas or leading through empathy, listening or making others feel understood. I also share his view on the right’s meanness and sanctimony through its false greater claims to free speech, sustaining systems that exacerbate economic polarization, twisting issues to get poor people to vote to further impoverish themselves. I can’t stand either side or any of the many sides twisting language and demagoguery playing to their bases.

Anyone who knows me knows I support and act for equality, diversity, freedom, environmental stewardship, universal education, healthy food, access to all these things for everybody. Also empowering the individual, integrity, honor, personal responsibility, not victimhood or blame. As much as I support him in his message, this view, that conversation is the only alternative to violence or even the main one is holding him back. In fact, he knows this. Where he has experience influencing other ways he doesn’t rely on conversation. Actually, I’ll get to that in a second. A second effect I want to treat quickly. He cites as evidence that his approach is working, that say, “Youths in the Middle East identify how they’re being oppressed and act on it to remove themselves from that situation.” Maybe that happens. But to cite that as evidence that it’s working is confirmation bias. Maybe these people were coming of age and would have changed without hearing him at all. Maybe they would’ve changed faster or more without hearing him. It’s possible. Maybe this conversation is working with them but influencing yet more people to dig in their heels or move the other way and maybe those people are much greater or more influential or more violent or something like that. For all he knows he’s moving the world in the opposite way that he wants yet he’s using confirmation bias to reinforce what he’s been doing. It may be that he’s acting optimally. It may be the case that he’s doing the best thing possible but he has no idea.

Anyway. Back to where he doesn’t rely on conversation. The big example I can think of is meditation. He created an app at great cost and time and money to give people experience meditating. He changed tremendously as a person himself from his experience meditating. As with many active social emotional expressive performance-based fields he learned by practicing the basics and teaches that way. He would never consider propagating the practice of meditation by lecturing or merely sharing a conversation about it except to promote acting on it which is where the change would come.

A second example – Brazilian jujitsu. He doesn’t listen to podcasts or just watch videos on it or if he does that’s not all he does. He practices it. In the practicing that’s where the learning happens and when you hear him talk about it you hear the big changes that came through that practice, not mere conversation about Brazilian jujitsu. These experiences of his – Brazilian jujitsu, meditation for example show that he knows that conversation is not the only alternative to violence. Experience, experiential learning and leading others to new experiences. What I call subsets of leadership are not conversation and they are more influential. I’m sure he recognizes that all behavior based or performance-based activity you learn experientially, not just conversation. Conversation would never lead to a great basketball player, a great singer, a great piano player or actor. Why would you expect changing behavior regarding religion or free speech to differ?

When he spoke with Scott Adams, he seemed to liken leadership to manipulation. He was talking about Trump whose style of leadership I don’t support but leading by engaging on people’s emotions with empathy, listening and behaving and communicating so people share what they care about what motivates them, what they normally protect because it makes them feel vulnerable but to enable them to act on it. People crave this style of leadership. Students and my clients they often ask, “How can I get my manager, my spouse, other people in my life to lead me this way?” They like it. They love it. They want it. When they see it, when they feel it, when they see others getting it, they want it themselves. This isn’t just passing the golden rule. This is people really wanting it back to them.

As another alternative, not that I’m proposing that you do this but just to consider alternatives. Gandhi’s great Salt March. Gandhi could have had conversations about the problems with a government monopoly on salt trade. Maybe he did. But whether he did or not, he also walked to the beach, evaporated some sea water, sold the salt that came from it which broke the law and influenced more people than any conversation would have. Now I’m not saying that non-violent civil disobedience is the only other alternative, just showing another example of leadership more effective than conversation very different than what we see in the US today.

And that’s what this episode is about – revealing what Sam is missing and probably misunderstanding that holds him back from achieving his goals. Rather he understands in certain areas – meditation, Brazilian jujitsu, for example, but not in his podcast to show the stakes. The people he opposes who don’t rely merely on conversation are winning. My point isn’t to copy or use their nefarious techniques because they work and we should fight fire with fire. I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that engaging intellectually is like boxing with a hand tied behind your back. In his guest and my guest on my podcast Jonathan Haidt’s terminology it’s engaging the rational rider but not the emotional elephant that guides actual behavior. Any view that suggests engaging emotionally is wrong or manipulative in a negative way and it can only be that misses what makes us human. Most people who feel that we probably feel high minded but it’s more ignorant. It’s a difference between a teacher who only lectures versus one who teaches with experiential project-based learning or free play. Can you imagine a basketball coach who coached through conversation only complaining that another coach who practiced listened, ran drills and so on was using nefarious unfair technique? Intellectuals will never be effective. And I’m not saying that Sam Harris is solely an intellectual but intellectuals will never be effective until they stop ignoring that humans are emotional and that behavior creates learning, emotion, awareness and new conversation more than conversation leads to new behavior. Behavior leads to learning facts and conversation more than learning facts and conversation leads to new behavior.

I believe and I can’t say for sure that Sam operates on a model that if we keep talking, we’ll eventually reach the truth which we’ll all agree on and then we’ll all act together. Maybe he’ll learn something, others will learn too and we’ll all come to agree. It’s a nice idea. I trained as a physicist, I have a PhD in it, I worked with NASA and Columbia University and the European Space Agency to help put a satellite into orbit. I was interested in finding scientific truth. Physics is a lot more rigorous and the concept of truth would be more clear there than in many other fields to the extent it’s very clear. But many important issues that Sam treats admit no truth and, in any case, more important issues aren’t about truth. For example, what is the best strategy to handle the environment? There is no second universe where we can test and double blind controlled experiment and do things. We only have one planet to work with. How do you get your candidate elected in 2020? Again, there’s not a whole lot of experimentation to be done there to find out what the truth is. These aren’t truth matters. For that matter the great physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” The strategy to go for truth or conversation, I don’t think it reaches where he thinks it could.

I have no problem with intellectual pursuits and the joy that can come from them. But I also see that people rarely change from rational debate and I think what Sam wants is change. I don’t think he wants a repeat in 2020 of what happened in 2016. To use Jonathan Haidt again, he gets and addresses in the logical mind doesn’t influence yourself or others. People who know all the facts about sugar still eat it into disease and early deaths at great costs to themselves and their families in money and misery, just to give one example of where people know the facts and they act against what would make their life better or what would look like that would make their life better. I put to Sam to consider what is the ratio of desirability between his sharing his disdain for Donald Trump or some other person he disagrees with versus influencing large numbers of his supporters to stop supporting and voting for him. His conversation as a client, wouldn’t he rather replace talking at cross purposes with leading him to want to understand him? Leading [unintelligible] to want to understand Sam. That’s different from you wanting him to understand you. That’s for him to want to understand you. I didn’t hear that in that conversation. That’s leadership. Working with motivations and emotions is human. Anyone who associates it with master manipulation that’s a calling Brazilian jujitsu violence. It can be but it doesn’t have to be. And when it isn’t, Sam loves it. At least that’s what I get from listening to Sam talk about it and the effect it has on his life.

Looking back at conversation, what behavior does a purely intellectual conversation-based strategy motivate? It looks to me like inaction among people you agree with, an opposition among people who don’t. Look at those who disagree with Sam. They motivate with emotion. Calling that trickery or master manipulation or unfair ignores much of what it means to be human. I would say someone who ignores people’s motivations and emotions deserves to lose. All the more if they suggest that others should feel the motivations that they want them to despite what they actually feel. That to me sounds like entitlement. As for truth, again, many things that people consider true others consider false and aren’t in the domain of science or truth anyway. You believe that conversation is the only alternative to war. Is that the truth? Are you open to other views? Were Mandela or Vaclav Havel conversationalists or violent? Because they’re pretty influential.

Some people approach things with different views. People can fight over resources one valuing their family more, the other theirs. That’s not a matter of not being true. That’s not a matter of disagreement over truth. There’s only so much water to go around people can fight over it. Conversation is not the only way to handle such situations. People see and act influenced by their beliefs of the world. We decide based on emotion. Analytical emotions provoke analysis. If conversation, debate, dialectic and so on were only ineffective, I wouldn’t bother trying to influence Sam but these techniques are counterproductive. If you look at the emotions, this academic, abstract, analytical approach creates it’s argument and debate. All the listeners to me right now you’re probably feeling it now because I’m talking for so long. If you disagree with me, you’re probably feeling the effect I’m describing because I’m just engaging your intellect right now. I’m taking a big risk here.

So let me address some common misunderstandings. By leadership I don’t mean a person in a corner office telling people what to do, nor painting a face blue and charging into battle, nor relying on authority. Influencing people to change their behavior in ways they want to and will thank you for or more like experiential project-based education. My leadership style is to behave and communicate in ways to make people feel comfortable sharing what they care about. Things that normally make them feel vulnerable, then to connect those things to activities or tasks which imbues those tasks with meaning and purpose. When you do that people act for their reasons, not yours. You enable them to do what they’ve always wanted to do though they may look like they’re doing it for you. And once that happens you support them which is what leaders spend most of their time supporting others doing what they always wanted to do. In Jonathan Haidt’s terms I learn about their elephant and engage with it. Beyond that I also teach to develop those skills at NYU and in my online courses and direct with one-on-one coaching I teach how to develop those skills the way Sam teaches to meditate or that he learns Brazilian jujitsu by practicing the basics. Anyone can learn them. You don’t have to be born with anything special. This style doesn’t trick people or try to get them to do things they wouldn’t. It helps them do what they always wanted to but didn’t know how.

As far as I can tell Sam’s goals include to help people who shares values act more effectively. I believe that’s what he’s trying to do when he teaches meditation through practice, not conversation. With people who disagree with him he’s also trying to change their behavior. If you can identify values that would lead to different behavior, this way does it. It would force him to start by empathizing with them which is emotionally hard but he’s practiced it. He talks about when he talks about understanding why say a person in a complaints department might be grouchy at the end of the day. He uses that understanding to lead himself. He could also use that understanding to lead others in ways that people would thank him for.

What people care about means their emotions. Emotions motivate people in their behavior. Connecting emotionally enables you to lead. As it happens conversation also evokes emotions but their emotions connect with debate analysis and they are not intellectually active but behaviorally inactive emotions. That is I believe he’s leading now through conversation for people to listen more, maybe debate but not to act. I wonder how many people he influenced to vote differently in 2016. Meanwhile, the forces he fears and opposes evoke emotions that lead them to grow. Sam is already leading just that where he cares about the most ineffectively or kind of productively. I hope that I don’t sound presumptuous to say this but that’s what it looks like.

And there are alternatives. Humans are not purely intellectual to treat them that way pushes away the most active non-academic people. Nobody likes their emotions, motivations, cares and values ignored at best or trampled over at worst. And anyone can vote for whatever motivation they want to only criticize Trump, say, as one person he disagrees with based on your values without addressing why people vote for him. Ideally make them feel understood so they listen to you. It tramples over their values and decreases your influence over them. We saw the results in 2016. Who wants them repeat in 2020? Sam has the opportunity to influence and lead. It’s his right only to converse. I’m not trying to say what he should do but I presume he’d rather not contribute to the forces that helped Trump win, as one example.

I looked up once the definition of convince. I’m not saying he’s trying to convince but it seems in what he’s talking about he criticizes Trump, for example, he criticizes many of the people he criticizes. The root of the word convince is the same as the root of the word victory, vince and victory. It’s to defeat. When was the last time someone’s attempt to defeat you led you to follow them? Convincing provokes debate. I don’t think Sam was overtly trying to convince but his descriptions of Trump didn’t show any openings to try to understand why someone would vote for Trump. Gone is the ability to influence tens of millions of people when you only engage with them intellectually. Also gone, a Supreme Court seat, environmental regulation, the U.S. reputation globally, more of the middle class, civil discourse and so on. So what price conversation? What price this idea that there are only two options – conversation and violence? Meanwhile, many of my greatest role models lead this way. Mandela, Gandhi, King, Havel, for example, they didn’t just talk. They practiced and promoted nonviolent civil disobedience, for example. Where would they have gotten otherwise? For that matter, Bach, Beethoven, Shakespeare, the Buddha, [unintelligible], Rosa Parks. I could go on about great influencers throughout history that didn’t engage through conversation or not solely through conversation.

One of my personal favorites, the first women to wear pants. They could have conversed. They could’ve just talked about it but they did it. They wore pants and I can imagine scorn and ridicule that they faced but they acted and influenced billions. Basically, everyone – female and male today. We’re considering Gandhi’s Great Salt March. He could have conversed about the injustice of the government enforced monopoly on salt sales. Would he have achieved the same effect? How about Muhammad Ali not accepting the draft compared to talking about it?

Let me remind you of Sam’s statement which he repeats and follows in various forms through his podcast:

“We have a choice. We have two options as human beings. We have a choice between conversation and war. That’s it. Conversation and violence.”

The great Salt March, Selma, [unintelligible] civil disobedience, the first women to wear pants. They are not conversation, nor are they violence. There are countless more alternatives, more open to Sam for his audience and network, the resources he has available. So how to lead Sam’s audience and more importantly those he disagrees with? He doesn’t have to give in I have the dream speech. He doesn’t have to march and go to the sea, nor go to jail. I’ll speak in the second person now, speaking to Sam, if that’s not too presumptuous of me to presume that he’d listen to this podcast.

I’d like to say I know exactly what you can or should do but for one thing I don’t know your world that is what your guests have access to, your goals and so on. More importantly, I focused on my passion which is leading people to act on their environmental values and to enjoy that change acting on environmental values. On a personal level, I’ve reduced my footprint from probably average for an American to about 10 percent of that while improving my quality of life. I’m sharing that improvement of quality of life while decreasing one’s carbon footprint, not just global warming but all of our environmental problems. I think that life improvement and decrease of the effect on the environment is possible for most Americans but not with our current culture. While, I support many others work, I consider that leadership in the style of Mandela, Gandhi, King and Havel missing from the area of the environment. It’s a global challenge and my resources are limited so I hope you forgive that I haven’t figured out approaches for your challenges but I can tell you this. You can figure out the best strategy better than anyone but restricting yourself to conversation is like boxing with one arm tied behind your back. It’s engaging with the rider but not the elephant or both your audience and the people you disagree with that you want to influence the most. My work is to help people develop and apply the social and emotional skills of leadership to their situation to enable you to act effectively in your world on your goals which you know better than anyone. With meditation you’re engaging with the elephant. You know it works. You know that conversation about meditation would never achieve what an experiential course would hence you’re doing the experiential course. I teach leadership and initiative because I consider it the critical missing element from work on the environment. The parallels to freedom of speech, identity politics, regular politics, social media and the issues you treat, Sam, are obvious, at least they may seem obvious to me. We don’t just want to talk about them while elections, supreme court seats and so on shock us moving in directions we disagree with.

Sam, as a start, I propose appearing on each other’s podcasts. You appearing on mine would give all the advantages of guest on my podcast which is that they love it. My guests learn and grow from the experience of sharing something they usually don’t and acting on it publicly so the others can follow. That is to help create an environmental legacy that is missing among world-renowned influential people. Billions of people crave this leadership so many of them feeling, “If I act but no one else does, then what I do doesn’t matter.” Because the world is devoid of influential people, world-renowned people acting on their environmental values. And you, Sam, simply starting by appearing on my podcast as an influencer of your stature would help be a leader of leaders and help reduce loneliness, purposelessness, meaninglessness of many people out there who want to act but feel alone. You’ll be in the company of several people who’ve been on your podcast like Jonathan Haidt, Geoffrey West, Doug Rushkoff who has been on mine as well as people who seem at least to me like your peers in some way like Seth Godin, [unintelligible] and Elizabeth Kolbert. I think that the experience of an active experiential interaction with a goal not just a conversation about the environment but leading in that area, not coercing, not just spreading facts, guilt, blame, doom, gloom or telling people what to do. I believe that that experience will inspire you to new directions with your podcast to see new possibilities beyond conversation or violence.

You have resources to create understanding, action, votes and cultural change and more for people to appreciate and thank you for leading them for them to want you to lead them again. You already do this with meditation. You already have people do this with you and teaching a Brazilian jujitsu. You see it with Jonathan Haidt’s work. As far as I can tell you’re frustrated at seeing the limitations of not addressing people’s emotions with Trump voters, identity politics, encroachments on freedom of speech, the decline of public discourse and so on. I’m not suggesting I would teach you the way I teach my students. That feels presumptuous. But at least to untie the arm behind your back to liberate latent effectiveness in you. I will say this that people who develop leadership skills through me tell me they effect every relationship they have – their husbands, wives, children, colleagues, tell them that they like the change. It’s not rare that people they lead shed tears of gratitude telling the people they have coached and taught that no one has made them feel so understood and so inspired.

And there’s nothing special about me or my students. On the contrary, I come from an analytical academic background too far from able to lead people effectively. So I’ll close with an open invitation to Sam to appear on each other’s podcast to explore alternatives to conversation and violence that aren’t master manipulation but are actually creating meaning, value, importance, passion, enabling people to do what they’ve long wanted to do but haven’t known how. If it helps, in case he’s listening, some credentials, my book Leadership: Step by Step became a number-one bestseller that universities across the country use to teach leadership. It’s endorsed by number-one bestselling authors like Dan Pink, a four-star general, people of tens of millions of TED Talk views. An Annapolis graduate said it changed his view from “You can’t teach leadership to can.” which you can see on his video Amazon review. I didn’t even know he could make Amazon video reviews but if you go check out the page it’s there so Leadership: Step by Step and search for the video reviews. Beyond that I teach at NYU to rave reviews. I’ve coached at Columbia Business School where I got my MBA and increasingly work at West Point. My next book Initiative, just finished its last round of copy editing ready for launch this spring. I could go on with my credentials but they’re just background. The point is to prompt experience which I propose starting with the trading podcasts and hopefully meeting in person at the Beacon Theater in New York.

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