Why jokes work and the Zone of Genius?

Why do jokes work?

I don’t know what the phases of joke telling are for most kids, but my son seems to be progressing to a new one. Not necessarily a good one, just a new one. A few years ago, it was making up his own jokes that really didn’t make sense, but he thought they were silly, or something, so he would laugh hysterically at himself. Sometimes we would laugh, but we were really laughing at the absurdity of his joke telling ability, not the actual joke.

Lately, he is trying to retell every funny moment he sees or hears, from TV shows to Zoom conversations with friends. Unfortunately, he doesn’t recognize that telling a joke about a joke is rarely funny. He also struggles with the timing and rushes through to the punch line, so his audience never gets to anticipate the humor or build up to the laughter. I tried to explain break this down to him the other night and he seems to have received the tip, but I’m no comedian, so I’m not sure it was the best advice. It may have spared us from a few unnecessary, unfunny stories though.

For a few reasons, I’ve always enjoyed listening to podcasts by comedians. They are funny, of course, but I enjoy it more because of their conversations about their craft, particularly improv comics. I have always felt a connection with the way these comics discuss their work to teaching in a classroom. It’s not that far of a stretch, but obviously, teachers improvise every day. There is a whole other blog post about the importance of developing your improvisational teaching skills and the limitations of remote teaching in that regard, but I’ll save that for another day.

Today, I was listening to Pete Holmes podcast. (Quick summary: it is usually a two hour interview, so I only choose the ones that I’m really interested in; he often delves into the religious/spiritual realm, which I enjoy; he argues that the second hour is when you really get to dig deep.) In his interview with Fred Armisen, Peter discussed a piece of feedback that his producer once gave him about his stand up routine. The producer said:

That joke works because you’re there. Because you’re actually there.

Pete went on to share his reflection on this feedback: “You’re sharing your being with them in that playground that you’ve established.” In the moment he gets the audience to laugh, it is a result of his preparation and staying in the moment to execute – developing the joke in his mind, on paper, and then with the audience by being with them. 

Jokes are not just good because they’re good jokes. They are good because the comedian is delivering them the way they need to be delivered. The content, the joke, has to be good, but the execution is essential. If my son delivered the same joke, I am confident it would not work. What works, what makes the audience laugh, is the relationship that is built between the comedian and the audience. It is the understanding, the anticipation, and the timing that makes the joke successful.

To be successful, we all have to develop understanding, anticipation, and have the right timing. Whether it is teaching in a classroom, managing an office, coaching a sport, cultivating a garden, writing a book. Over time, we get better at those things and we can feel successful often without even thinking about the elements. Lately, I’ve put time into thinking of what drives my success and it has the potential to help me feel even more successful.

Where is my Zone of Genius?

Fortunately for me, I had a long car ride today to listen to the podcast, but I also took some time to turn off the noise and just think. Recently I finished the book “The Big Leap” by Gay Hendricks and I am trying to go back to really think through the big questions that he asks. In the book, he introduces the idea of a Zone of Genius, a place in which you are doing your best work. It is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s theory of Flow. By identifying your zone of genius, you are better able to set priorities and eliminate parts of life or work that get in the way of your flow.

Hendricks does well to introduce these ideas, but the book can’t answer the questions for me. I’m glad it doesn’t, but the work isn’t easy. I’ve been thinking about these questions a little at a time for a while now, and still don’t have a solid understanding of what my zone is, or even what it might be. Am I working in that zone now? Do I even have the capability of genius? His questions were a little more helpful than mine:

  • What do I most love to do?
  • What work do I do that doesn’t seem like work?
  • In my work, what produces the highest ratio of abundance and satisfaction to amount of time spent?

At first, they seemed pretty simple. But as I explored them, I realized there are many layers and those layers are difficult to unfold.

I have been an assistant head of our lower school for three years now. Whenever you have the word assistant at the beginning of your title, it seems to invite people to ask when you will just be the thing that comes after assistant. Logical, but kind of annoying. Regardless, I’ve had trouble wrapping my head around the best next step for me. As I ran through the answers to these questions, something dawned on me. My biggest challenge is my growing distance from kids as an administrator. Can I continue to impact students’ learning experiences if I can’t be there with them?

When I started teaching, it was all about creating meaningful experiences for the students in my classroom. I was in the room with them every day, developing the relationships, the understanding, and the timing for students to discover their Aha moments. Whether it was in a lesson or an individual conversation, the teaching worked because I was there. I was “sharing my being with them” in the learning playground that we established together.

I started to develop a love for collaboration with other teachers, which is what led to becoming an administrator. The ‘classroom’ has changed, but the relationships, understanding, and timing are the same. Now those elements happen with teachers, and only occasionally students. I get to help teachers develop an ideas into something that will create Aha moments in their classrooms. Sadly, I miss out on seeing most of those learning epiphanies in the classroom, because I have other roles to fill. Thinking about moving to some other position means putting even more distance between myself and the Aha moment which was so inspiring when I was in the classroom.

Seeing a student enter their own momentary zone of genius is empowering, but it is really just the payoff after the work. What makes it so empowering, though, is knowing the amount of work you put into making that moment happen. You see the epiphany and it proves the work was worth it.

If I am doing my work as an administrator right, however, it is possible to create more of those moments for students. I won’t always see the light bulb go off for a student, but I will see it in teachers and they will transfer that to their students.

…as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.              – Marianne Williamson

I chose this administrative path because I want my light to shine differently than it was in the classroom, and I have to let go of that previously empowering result as my motivator. The love is in the work, not just the result.

Answering these questions today helped me get more comfortable with my distance from the classroom. I still haven’t found my zone of genius and honestly, it might be a while before I do. I think I’ve cleared the first hurdle, though, and I’m ready for the next.

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