There’s been a lot of buzz recently around Edge.org’s assemblage of “Laws” proposed by Interesting People. Nobody asked me for one, but lately I’ve been doing some consulting for Dick Hardt’s stealth startup Sxip Networks while I look for a gig and it refreshed my appreciation of maybe the most important lesson I’ve learned over the last couple of decades, maybe enough to pump it up and claim it’s a Law, in fact two: Herewith the Two Laws of Explanation.
What happened was, Dick explained to me how Sxip worked, and I didn’t understand, I said so and asked for more explanation, he explained again and I got some of it but not the rest so I asked about this, and so on. And so on; this went on for quite a while. And I wasn’t bothered and neither was Dick, because we were applying the Two Laws of Explanation.
The First Law · When you’re explaining something to somebody and they don’t get it, that’s not their problem, it’s your problem.
The practical take-away from this law is that for anything that’s deep enough to matter, you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining, and you absolutely totally can’t afford to get impatient or irritated when it isn’t going fast enough, you just have to explain better.
This is difficult, but not all that difficult. People who can’t get their message across usually don’t get too far in this world, so anyone who’s making an impact almost by necessity combines the articulateness and patience to (eventually) get the job done.
The Second Law · When someone’s explaining something to you and you’re not getting it, it’s not your problem, it’s their problem.
The practical take-away is that you have to be totally courageous and truthful in saying “I don’t understand; please explain again.” Otherwise you won’t get the message and you’ll be the loser.
This actually turns out to be pretty hard; a lot of people, in particular young people, find it painful to admit they don’t understand. When, sometime in my thirties, I realized that I had enough experience and accomplishments that if I didn’t get something it was OK to just say so, my quality of life got way better. And I wish that I’d had that courage in my twenties, when I tried to fake my way through a lot of things I didn’t understand; it even worked sometimes, but it really sucked.