Stupid in Public

Fadden (pronounced: fay-den) was the kind of kid who cut up. But he wasn't dumb. He rode the edge: annoying teachers—but not so much that he got in real trouble. A smart-ass who was unmistakably smart.

I took Calculus my senior year of high school. I sat at the very front. I've always liked sitting at the front. Fadden sat at the very back.

As I remember it, Fadden spoke more than anyone else. He asked endless questions. He asked them loudly. He asked them frequently. It could get annoying. Simple questions, obvious questions, questions I didn't think he'd be asking if he was really trying. "Maybe try paying attention, dude" I'd think, scowling in the front row. He cracked jokes, he annoyed the teacher, he didn't give a crap about annoying the teacher, and he asked more questions. He was the kid who just never learned to shut up.

After a while, though, something weird happened. Almost all the questions were good questions. It caught me off guard. I started realizing, "wait...I don't know the answer to that one." Then I'd listen carefully for the answer to a question I hadn't been smart enough to ask.

My understanding is that Fadden later double-majored in Mathematics and Economics

~

I learned to juggle in sixth grade. Our math teacher taught a juggling class, and he taught dozens of middle school kids during and after school.

Later, it got even better. A guy named Robby, one of the head clowns at Barnum & Bailey, quit the circus to come teach at our school.

I ate it up. Robby didn't teach us circus tricks so much as he taught us how to perform. He didn't care about the tricks. He cared about entertaining.

Robby taught us to move, with economy. He taught us physical clowning, but more importantly he taught us psychological clowning. He taught us to go play with the rules of the world. He taught us that things like raw wonder could be transformed into a damn funny bit. He taught us that a clown gets to explore the boundaries, and break them.

One day the kids in the juggling club were on a field trip. We were at a mall. We had a formal show, but before the show we were supposed to just wander around the mall and juggle. I was juggling knives. A handful of people watched, then moved on.

Robby came up to me and said: "Chris, juggling is boring. Here's what you do. Go out, juggle for a minute, then drop one of the knives and shout like you've been cut. Grab your hand. Make it big, over the top. Give it a beat, then reveal the gag." His eyes sparkled, as if to say: "It'll be hilarious!"

I walked back to my spot. I did a few throws of the knives. Five, six, seven. I saw Robby watching me, silently urging me to go for it. Eight throws. Nine. Ten.

I took a breath. Eleven throws. I would need to yell loudly. What would be the right timing? Fifteen throws. It's not a big deal. I mean, people will just turn and look at me. Twenty throws. Just need to drop the next one and shout. Twenty one. Next time! Twenty two. Okay, next throw! Next throw!

I breathed out, caught all the knives cleanly, and walked to him.

"All you have to do is do it, Chris!" he said.

I went back to my place, started again.

Toss, toss, toss, toss, toss.

Stopped. Breathed out again. "Sorry," I said. He smiled and groaned.

I juggled just fine, but it wasn't my job to juggle. It was my job to entertain.

~

When I was 26 years old, I wrote to a mailing list of professional sound designers to ask if they might want to try a program I wrote for sound designers. I was not a sound designer.

Surprisingly, I was not ignored. People wrote back. Professional people. People who'd been working in their field longer than I'd been alive. People I would tell my wife about over dinner, voice nervous with excitement.

Every email I got back was a gift. A little more insight. Another question answered.

I knew nothing, they knew everything. I didn't know what I was doing, so I asked questions. Miraculously, they answered them.

I tried things. Lots of things. Some of them were bad ideas. It didn't matter; there was nothing to lose. Everyone knew I was a kid. Everyone knew I was trying something I'd never tried before.

Enough time passed, and I stumbled my way into a product. Still, with every email that came in, I felt visceral gratitude. "You reached out. You asked me a question. You care. Thank you. I will try so hard to make this worth it for you."

I think back to this period a lot, now. It's eight years later. I've answered tens of thousands of emails. "I" eventually became "we", and together we continue to answer thousands upon thousands more. The product grew, matured. Often I am still among the youngest people talking on our mailing list, but now I'm part of a company that makes a product that runs an industry. Tens of millions of dollars worth of performances rely on our software to work correctly. Jobs are built on knowing how to use the tool we make.

We're expected to know what we're doing. Which, most of the time, we do!

And yet.

I found myself feeling something new the other day: A hesitation. A fear of being stupid in public.

What if I ask a question to a customer and look stupid? What if I make a bad suggestion? What if I say something that's flat-out WRONG?

~

It's inevitable that my relationship to my work will change over time. But a few things I'm trying to keep fresh:

Start by being thankful.

When in doubt, ask more questions.

Work harder to be open than to be right.

Sometimes it's my job to be stupid in public.

~

Post Script

Saturday May 31, 2014

Yesterday I shared this story. Today, in the middle of a visit to my old home in Louisville, I went to the local weekend farmers market.

I literally haven't seen or talked to Fadden since high school, but there he was:

Chris and Fadden at the market

I asked him what he's been up to, and it turns out, he got a masters degree in statistics and works doing probability math for his job. (!)

I told him how literally just yesterday I'd been telling this story about our high school calculus class. He laughed and said, "I still do that! I'm the guy on the phone asking eight thousand questions! I can hear them rolling their eyes at the other end of the line! But you have to. If you don't it's the fastest way to make your projects fail..."

At this point we were interrupted by my two-year-old wanting to get down and go play with the kids instead of talk about math.

Such a tremendous pleasure to bump in to you Fadden, and thanks again.

Chris Ashworth is the founder of Figure 53
@Chris_Ashworth