Why People Need Poetry (Stephen Burt’s TED Talk)

I’ve actually said before that this would be a TED talk I’d give. It’s a simple idea that I find to be truth — poetry would help us as a people understand our world, our selves, and our capability to produce and find beauty.

I would’ve used different poems, but Burt does a good job breaking down the wall of answering the ‘what does this mean’ question. It can mean whatever you’d like. He’ll show you how a critic might interpret a poem, but ultimately that’s not the point.

Just as we use music to inform, increase or unlock our feelings, poetry too sits on a mountain waiting to be discovered. Our schools have done a poor job of keeping it as a pillar in a curriculum, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less effective.

Click the picture below to hear the TED talk!

burt poetry ted talk

Let’s Stop Evaluating on Averages When the Mode Means More.

Original Post [Medium]


Full post:

There are times I watch my sister — a 5th grader — mull about the world and I marvel at her energy. She bounces around, she sits, runs, does twirling back-handstands off the couch onto the ground, plays games, plays the Viola, does her homework…etc. She has the capacity to do, variously, in one hour what I can in a day. Sometimes, it feels like there are five of her around me.

And while that youthful energy astounds me, there’s something else I wonder sometimes. How could her teachers possibly center in on the real her?

Looked at another way, youthful energy is just another way of describingmassive inconsistency.

And we all have that. Days where we swear we aren’t ourselves. We feel like our minds somewhere else. Or the work we produced is unrecognizable weeks later. “That’s not me,” you say some foggy mornings. And you mean it.

And yet, from basic education on up to corporate education, we’re evaluated in a way that suggests all of these inconsistencies tell the story of who we are. You take Geometry and you get a ‘B’. You bust yourself for sales one quarter and you earn a 91 on your employee report.

These are the final demarcations of your actions for a period of time. This ‘B’ represents your knowledge of that semester’s Geometry cirriculum.

But there was always that one section in Geometry you really got. And that one section you never did. You aced one test but failed another….One month of your quarter you killed it. The other was bleak. It’s been like this —this pitter patter of performance— for decades now.

And we’re grading as such. On averages. What all of these wavering scores equal out to when added up and divided by the # of evaluating presences.

This average is allegedly our story. Who we are. How we perform.

And yet what that gives you is a number that you never really are. It’s a balancing act, but it’s not your common state. It’s a number that tries to describe who you are, by not describing who you are.

And it’s doing us no favors.

We started this whole thing with an assumption:

Scoring things on a percentage scale should give us meaningful data. That the % you score at is the % you attained of perfection.

But that assumption has led us awry. It supposes that we could be described in this range somewhere, and that, in that description, it could prescribe us a marker. But we’ve seen that with averages, this marker is incomplete.

Wouldn’t you rather, on a scale that demarcates your approach of perfection, know where you stand on a consistent basis?

Isn’t the whole point to prescribe a reality? To understand a being and their place?

Who you are is not who you never are. It’s who you are most of the time. Who we expect, and, yes, might not always get, but when we aren’t getting this “you” it’s our perception of missing that consistency.

Anecdotally, have you ever tried to score something consistently on a 1-10 or or 1-100 rating. Chances are, if you have, you’ve discovered something peculiar. Most of your grades come out to fit inside much smaller range.

Take IMDB movie ratings, for example. Each movie on there is scored on a 1-10 scale by viewers and users. The top-rated movie is the The Shawshank Redemption. Great flick. My favorite movie of all time —City of God— comes in right after. They both scored a 9.2 from user voters.

And, yet, the stunningly underwhelming 1999 feature Forces of Nature with Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock (which you may find yourself watching at 3am on Comedy Central on lowly Tuesday nights) has a rating of 5.3.

Now, I’m more than willing to bow to the “voting effect” (in which people that like the movie are more likely to vote and vote high), but still. We’re talking the difference between a masterpiece and a flop at only 3.9 points. Less than 40% of a difference on the scale.

The same is true in our education system. An A+ is a 100, right? But an F is anything less than, usually, 60%. Again, 40% differential between the best you can do and the “rest”. And then you have the drop-off where, in this system, a 12% is the same as a 51%, bell curve not involved.

This is bad. This is, quite simply, a lazy way to tell the story.

And yet this is what we permeate and perpetrate. A’s through F’s.

Here’s another one:

Margaret is a student. She takes five tests throughout the course (sounds familiar from your University days, right?). She scores a 92%, another 91%, a 87%, 80% and then, and then, on her last exam, she gets a 40%.

What’s her average? Well, if all is weighted equally, it’s a 78%. Person A scored a C+.

But Margaret’s work in the class suggests much more than a C+. She aced two tests and nearly a third.

We’ve seen this. And if we haven’t seen it, certainly we’ve been riddled by fear of it.

Average-based grading systems both take into account the extreme examples (of both poor performance and stellar), and forget about them completely in the name of finding a middle ground.

So as an evaluator, you’re seeing inconsistencies play into a score without even being able to recognize the inconsistencies.

Consistency is how you evaluate things in your own life. Take your car for example.

If your car gave you a different output each day, even if it was mostly on the positive side, you’d go a bit crazy. Not knowing is an enormous human fear. Not being able to count on something we utilize is tough. Really, really tough. Say your car is an all-star 25% of the time, decent and average another 40%, and the other 35% it broke down, leaked, etc…you’d start slamming your hand on the dash.

But, it’d still average out to being okay. It’d still, by average, be a “good car”. Well, a good used car.

What you ask for when buying something is consistency. What is this product going to give me day and day out.

Same with a person who works with you, for you, or above you. It’s not going to win anyone over if you say Tom is uber-productive on Tuesdays and the rest of the week, well who knows. You can’t rely on Tom in a standard environment. [And that is what I’m going for here: standard environments. The education system, for instance, I’d like to see to measure on this rather than just total output or a ROWE type assessment]

I’ll take the Tom that I can measure accurately. As a teacher, I can see where he is and work with him on improving. But without knowing where he’s at, well, it makes that latter part nearly impossible.

I’m in a position where part of my job is to evaluate people. My team wanted to bring some objectivity into our evaluation systems and for a while we used a 1-10 system.

Guess what we found? 90% of scores were between 6-8. Worse, a rare “4/10″ on a task could bring an average down egregiously. The stray and inconsistent “10″ made candidates appear better than they were.

One day, I happened to meet an old teacher from my high school. He told me of a new grading system he was implementing that was loosely based off another teacher’s idea on an “evidence-based” assessment system for grading.

It struck a chord in me. It made more sense than 1-10, more than A’s, B’s and F’s.

So we adapted it. We use a 1-4 system now. No “.5′s” allowed. You have to pick 1, 2, 3 or 4.

We look in three different verticals for each evaluation. Each vertical gets a 1-4.

From there, we use a “Double Mode” system.

The mode, for those that can’t quite bring that to the front of the mind, is the most common number.

The mode is, in short, the measure of consistency instead of amalgamating inconsistency as an average does.

We find Mode1 — the most common number. And then we find Mode2—the second most common. Together, these give us our score and paint our picture.

This is how this person performs most of the time. And that information is greatly more important to know than where work averages out to.

We’re working on telling a story by prescribing a consistency to our people. It’s working so far and we can read into those we’re evaluating so much more fully than before (with averages).

It begs the larger question. In our wide systems — education, employee evaluation, etc..— why strive to paint an incomplete picture. Just because it’s easier?

Let’s ditch the system and work a la mode.

2013: in Review

Is it fair to label something as a paradox? It seems all one need do is find an occasion and search for a way in which it opposed something else. Meaning that, unless life flows peacefully along in a smooth consequence of evolution, everything is paradoxical.

This is especially true if that thing in examination is an entire year.

And, yet, it has not left the warm library of the mind: 2013 was a year of paradoxes for me.

I don’t want to stretch the metaphor into uselessness but in my mind the paradoxes are as follows: this was the healthiest year of my life, yet I faced my worst bodily injury. My employment situation was the most stable, yet my location was as unstable as it gets. I, for really the first time, did something new with my hair, then cut it all off (for good). I wrote more in 2013 than in 2012, but with my Macbook crashing, I lost almost everything I had written up until November. So, more words, less that remain.

I’m sure there’s more, but again I don’t want to batter the metaphor down to a pulp. 2013 is and soon will be a was. And what it was was an interesting year. I traveled to 5 different countries — 14 states (quick count) and countless airports. With the exception of some convalescence time in the suburbs of Chicago, I didn’t stay in one place ever for longer than three weeks.

2013 was on the move. Always.

Places I stayed for at least a night: Buffalo Grove, New York City, Martha’s Vineyard, Philadelphia, Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, Madison, Austin, Las Vegas, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Eugene, Vancouver, Santiago, Valparaiso, Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Playas del Coco, Nuevo Arenal…..

Professionally: moved into the Head of Learning at Zirtual. Built a team around that. Worked with more Big Buddies, certified 100+ ZAs, continued to evolve our education program. Really great stuff, all fueled by my passion which makes working so much easier.

Relationships: got to spend a solid block of time (3 months) with my family which was great. Asidfe from being a relaxing time, it was great to slow things down and spend some quality time with them. All the traveling can get in the way of that sometimes…..Friendships were kept and new ones were formed. I think 2014 will be a year I really try hard to keep my relationships solid. To really put myself into them — I don’t know what form that becomes, so we’ll have to see.

What else?

Check out my full 2013 in Review post here!

What I Bookmarked in 2013

I don’t bookmark too many sites. For articles, I try to throw them into Pocket. Other sites will get a note in the notebook or an email to a friend. For some reason, though, I don’t hit that star in Chrome too often.

And when I do, there are a variety of folders that things go into. Writing, sites of Zirtual interest, education material, etc…..For everything else, there’s been a folder simply called ’2013′.

At the end of the year, here’s the randomness that made my bookmarks.

Find The Conversation Concept Map — perhaps still the best designed website I’ve come across. A great database of articles on various topics, but an even better aesthetic.

Reddit ‘what are the best websites for NOT wasting your time’ thread — self-explanatory

Letters of Note – great blog of correspondences through the years. Lots of famous back-and-forths here for the literary minds & historians.

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling — self-explanatory

GetInspired365 — new inspiration for each day

37 mind-expanding subreddits — for the Redditor in me.

The Complete Guide to Interval Training — early seeds of a healthy year. workouts on the go.

The Sad, Beautiful Fact That We’re Going to Miss Almost Everything — great NPR article on living in the age where anything can be in your hands in minutes. Daunting, mystifying, yet wonderful.

Maggie Appleton — great artist I discovered. Love her sketches with quotation additions.

Jason Collins is the Envy of Straight Men Everywhere — a good reminder of the first openly gay professional athlete. Big step for sports in 2013. This is author Sherman Alexie at his finest — shoving our own presumptions and cultural norms in our face.

The Big Dot — more people live inside this circle than outside of it

Radical Openness — video on new paradigm. Dig it.

How Do You Define Yourself? — Alan Watts asking the important question. He was good at this.

Mindful in May — a month of mindfulness. Good links to be found here.

What? You Didn’t Fall in Love with Rome? — great little sentimentality trip here. I know not everyone loves the eternal city. But their wrong. Simple.

Ernest Hemingway’s Reading List for a Young Writer — self-explanatory. and how.

Reddit’s r/malefashionadvice The Basic Wardrobe — good for dressing on the road. plan to follow this more in 2014.

The Dark Side of the Digital Nomad – blogger Mark Manson on some things you lose out by living on the road.

The Inside Story of the Moto X – goes into the phone Google released this year, and some of the reasons for its acquisition of Motorola. Good read.

100 Alternatives to ‘So whaddya do?’ — good list of interesting questions to spark a conversation other than, well, the standard.

Vancouver pic – this is nice to look at it. Can’t wait to make it back to all the glass.

Milesimizer — helps determine whether to use miles or $ when booking plane tickets

Note to Selfie — great article on why using social media doesn’t take people ‘out’ of the moment. A truly potent analysis of the world we live in today.


And that’s all. 23 sites. Not the best or the worst  I’ve found. Just the ones that found their way to the 2013 folder.

A Simple Education: Love, Learn, Sell

Education is going to change.

As all things evolve, so must this massive system left to us by a wayward Empire that we see only small traces of elsewhere. There will be a shift in education that eventually will affect each young person, though I, and we, can’t quite be sure of this path of change. It could be something like:

  • An evolution of the early education system that permeates through the later years
  • A bubble bursting and radical changes take place quickly
  • A bankrupt-ed, graduating class rebels, demands change in the University system and that change trickles down

……or a variety of other ways.

When it changes, what will it look like? Well, I think we first have to ask ourself what do we want it to look like. I have an idea — almost too small in its scope but one that might serve as a framework on which to build a larger, more operative system.

It’s basic, not entirely copacetic (or possibly even believable), but it’s something may fuel the conversation of change.

It comes down to three words:

Love. Learn. Sell.

That’s it. Three steps. Chronologically. Easy.

Let’s break those down a bit.


Children are the world’s greatest lovers. No, I don’t mind that in a sexual manner. I mean in the context of curiosity, of innocence, of unadulterated (notice the components of that word) passions and enthusiasm.

Children, for the most part, see the world around them and want a part of all of it. There is no limit to their adventuring, no bridle on which they have to conform to the shoulds of the world (unless we make them, and we do).

So, let’s them love.

In the context of education, this means finding something they like. Something that speaks to them. That makes their hearts pitter-patter, skip a beat. Stop in the presence of that first thing that clicks with them.

This will be their first professional path. It may come at age 10. It may come at 24 or 63 and it certainly does not have to happen only once — but finding something you love starts the educational process I’m proposing.


What’s an education without some learning, right?

This is the crux of the process — of course. How could it not be? But we’ve taken learning into a new realm. We’ve made it forced observation. We’ve made it deductive reasoning. We’ve taken the specific out of learning — in favor of liberal arts attitudes, applications, and aesthetics. We think we give kids the toolbox they’ll need to succeed in life. But that toolbox is older than the pre-Lindbergh. It’s out-of-date and, as such, ceases to be a toolbox and instead just becomes a box.

In this, it is the love that dictates the learning. First step & second step.

The second step is composed of a very specific educational experience — directly related to what that student has found that he/she “loves” from the first step. It harkens back to the apprenticeship model, though it doesn’t have to be so one-side as that.

A University system can still exist here — with classroom curriculum being focused on some of the more non-specific material about that “love” (let’s say the love was architecture, the classroom portion could be geometry, for instance). From there, the student works with an expert in that particular field. A sort of job training before the job exists. An internship program at the heart of education — or apprenticeship systemized as part of the education system, not divorced from it.

Learning, however, is more of a means than an end and instead of sending a student into the world with an degree notifying some kind of educational aptitude, there’s one last step.


Sell, in this case, isn’t as simple as the push to exchange some kinds of goods or services.

Instead, sell in this education schematic refers more to fitting oneself into the world’s ecosystem.

Students, after their “learn” step, need to confer their own place in the wider atmosphere or marketplace. If they want to be entrepreneur, so be it. But sell the world on your abilities and make it happen.

If a student wants to join a big firm, that’s great. We’ll need that to happen. In this case, the “sell” might be something akin to the standard job interview we have now.

But, that job interview-ish selling will have come after the first two steps, which confirms (1) a genuine interest in that job/field and (2) a specific education pertaining to that work.

In the “sell” step, through some kind of internship or apprenticeship previously, students learn where to sell themselves and how. It’s no secret that getting a career going in different fields can be specific to that field. An entrepreneur may not have to wait three years to “move up”. And businessmen are judged on their punctuality; which artists, for instance, might not be.

The “sell” is the last part of the three-step education process and the bridge to the next part: a life based around a passion and career.

And so the education system closes itself. It can be reopened at anytime, in one’s seventies if need be. Older students, too, will want to learn how to sell themselves back into the market.

Three-steps. Basic. But it can start a larger conversation on both the macro and micro level.

It’s time for education to change and adapt to what we need. The first adaptation can be simple: a push for online learning, for instance. But it can also be a mindset shift. We want education to be whole — to provide all that is needed before the next step. As it stands, it provides too much, holds too many back because of it, and that information is vague and opaque.

Let’s change that.