On Bullshit


Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt authored an impactful treatise in 2005, titled "On Bullshit." His discourse lasts only 67 pages, however not a word is wasted and because of the depth offered, it is a slow read.  I reread it every year, sometimes twice. It provides me clarity in a rapidly increasing blizzard of noise which is modern society.

My favorite passage in on page 63: 

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.
This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled – whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others – to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.
Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.

Frankfurt's words are crisp and sharp because they ring true. Far too often I have been a bullshit offender, we all have, if nothing else than by circumstance of participating in the world. But I have become aware of such a failing and now practice discipline to withhold my opinions on topics of which I am lacking domain knowledge. Which are many.

Why? Frankly, an uninformed opinion does not matter. It is more noise in a sea of static.

I am human. I still slip and provide my opinion in areas outside my small circle of expertise. But when I realize it, I seek forgiveness, course correct, and listen to the informed party so I can learn. To reference the Dali Lama, "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new." 

A long time ago I decided I wanted to learn as much as I could about areas that interested me, so I made listening my first impulse. This statement could be taken as somewhat ironic as I've produced for 3+ years a long-form podcast with my friend and partner at HPW, Steve Magness, now have launched own podcast, and am blogging, tweeting, and of course, coaching every day. Obviously, I talk a lot. But it is confined to an area I've spent nearly half my life studying, participating in, and seeking to get better at. 

Yet, I waited over 10 years to offer my perspective regarding readying distance runners for competition in public. Only after a decade of non-stop coaching at a variety of levels, intense study at the feet of coaching masters, and hundreds upon hundreds of athletes coached — a few to the spotlight of success and acclaim, most to a level of personal improvement, and some, truthfully, not all that well — did I decide I had something to say and it was worth saying. 

By no means am I the expert, nor desire to be. I am not a guru, nor want to be. I am not the coaching authority, nor am pompous enough to think I ever will be.  Rather, I'm on a path of (slowly) gaining expertise and sharing what I learned along the way for others to interact with, and hopefully, benefit from. My lack of knowledge keeps me humble and grounded.

I am forever learning, seeking out more informed parties, asking questions of mentors, while on a journey to improve, refine, and add dimensions to my craft. Coaching is my life's work. It is not a lackadaisical hobby of which I haphazardly partake. It is every day. All day. Until there is no more breath in my lungs. I'm serious about it. I've made that choice. And am happier for it. 

And since making an impactful contribution is important to me, I speak on occasion about what I have come to understand, nothing more. 

To do otherwise and pontificate needlessly would only add to the bullshit. 


Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here. // jm 


Jonathan Marcus