Why the world is a mess: a theory

I’m not looking to pick a fight here about whether the world is a mess or not. I agree with Penn Jillette –  the trend line is positive. But there is a basic observation here for why anything at all involving people might be fucked up. Families, groups, companies, countries, cultures, etc.

1. People don’t listen.

I don’t mean that their ears aren’t working, I mean it’s rare for person A to genuinely try to understand what person B is trying to say. Instead they’re waiting for their chance to speak. And the fact that people aren’t listening makes the person speaking feel like they’re not being heard. So they talk louder and make more noise. But talking louder mostly makes people want to listen to you less, so the negative feedback loop ensues, leading to anger, rage, and rash acts, all motivated primarily by the absence of acknowledgment, not the facts being argued.

If ever you meet an angry person, odds are good they’re a person seeking to be heard, to be acknowledged or validated in some very simple way, and doesn’t know how to get it, so they’re acting out. It’s amazing how people’s behavior changes when they simply feel someone is truly listening.

2. People don’t read.

I have this short blog post, called how to write a book, that basically says it’s work and like all work you just go and do it.  This post gets 1000s of views daily. It currently has 420+ comments and generates lots of email. Much of it is in the form of “I don’t want to do the work. Can you tell me how to get around the work?” Which is mystifying. I’m not saying people shouldn’t look for shortcuts, but if you read even one paragraph of the post, it’s clear I’m the last guy in the world to ask. Yet they do. Why? They’re not reading, at least not in any sense of the word that involves thinking.

There is another mental process that seems like reading, but it’s really skimming, looking for the single thing you’re hoping to find, rather than trying to understand what the writer was trying to express and perhaps change your thinking about something. And in the case of my post, even if the singular thing they seek is not in the article, people ask for that single-minded thing anyway, despite how absurd in this case it is they’d get an answer. They’d rather take the time to write a pointless question, than read.

To spin the theory around into a conclusion:

  1. If people listened to each other, there would be less anger and unrest.
  2. If people read more carefully, even just a little, they’ll be more likely to get what they want, as there’s a chance they’ll recognize they’re looking for the wrong thing.

There’s this assumption in our culture that with all the TV shows, and books, and websites, we’re all reading more and listening more, but I doubt that. Its become increasingly acceptable not to be listening (e.g. staring at your laptop or phone in meetings) and not be reading (skimming how many emails, or blog posts, in an hour). And I bet any culture, a team, a family, a country, where there is more real listening and real reading, people are happier and more successful at achieving things that matter.

But I’ve yet to see someone monetize listening, or reading. So the whirlwind of commerce  naturally encourages less listening and less reading, but more of everything else.

What do you think?

54 Responses to “Why the world is a mess: a theory”

  1. Jeff

    I’ve found that if you want people to listen then you need to speak to them in ways they will hear you. And so you need to “package” your message in ways they will understand you. So, to a certain extent it’s the speaker’s responsibility to be aware of who their audience is.

  2. florian

    Reading and listening are an intellectual challenge for many out there. Not even coming close to talking about reading or listening between the lines. I fully agree! The other day I gave a speech in my Toastmasters club called “The Social Media Trap”. One hypothesis I constructed was that – inevitably – our societies’ intellect will receive a further blow thanks to Social Media. Just read about Gustave le Bon and you will understand what I mean… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustave_Le_Bon. There will always be some people who know how to read and to listen. They tend to receive the Nobel Prize – while the rest is shaking their heads thinking, “I’m sure this nerd ain’t even know Justin Bieber.” Quod erat demonstrandum.

  3. Phil Simon


    So, I skimmed this post and… :)

    On Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, they do a bit of a Seinfeld reunion. Elaine’s talking with Jerry as she’s checking her Blackberry. Seinfeld remarks something like, “Would you just pull up a newspaper or magazine while talking to me?”

    I immediately thought of that while reading your post.

    Kudos to you for starting this conversation. I for one think that you’re going to get some pretty harsh comments.

    I agree that less is more and I read quite a few books precisely because I can be focuses on one thing at a time. To me, eReaders, iPads, Nooks, and Kindles are just going to take me away from the main text.

    More than reading, though, I wonder if this 24/7 world of Twitter updates, constant liking of FaceBook, texts, cell phones, etc. is a net positive.

    Of course, some would call me a Luddite for even suggesting this.

  4. Jason D.

    I like to combine 1 & 2 and listen to audiobooks!

    And yes, I did read carefully enough to understand that’s not what #1 means…but I had to find a good way to segue into a plea to get Scott’s books available on Audible.com. Please, make it so. I want to listen more! :)

  5. Scott Berkun

    Jason: Just so you know, it’s not like it’s entirely my fault. It’s between O’Reilly Media and myself to sort the audiobook thing out, and it just hasn’t worked out yet.

  6. Scott Berkun

    Just for the record, I’m not saying I’m above either behavior. I definitely have times I’m not listening, and definitely have times I’m not reading (skimming). I want to think mostly I regret it after (why am I reading something only worth skimming, when there are thousands of well written things out there worth giving my full attention to).

    Jeff: I agree. And I think there’s a weird cycle of people choosing not to listen because often the people speaking are so bad at it, but when they default to no listening, they might just upset the one dude who actually has thought about what to say. There are very weird feedback loops in all this.

  7. Simon

    Scott I think your observations are correct, but the reasons behind # 2 may have more to do with people wanted to be saved from the difficulty of thinking, rather than face the difficulty themselves. Thinking is hard. I think the reluctance to face up with this and sit with the difficulty is why you still get questioned on that and unless a Messiah arrives people will continue being unable to find what they truly want.

    I think your distinction between skimming and reading is a valid one, and if people were more mindful then inevitably they would connect more, and be happier as a result. I think technology plays a part in this disconnect, or rather people’s approach to technology: if you approach a blog, or a book, or a newspaper with the same mentality as other media e.g. t.v. then you encourage the same passive approach if you allow it to wash over you.

    Yes, I think the culture encourages superficial reading and listening that flits between things and seems resistant to going deep into any issue, meaning that absurdly even though we’re more connected than ever in history, we’ve never been more apart.

  8. Scott Berkun

    Simon: Well said.

    But here again I find it hard to blame technology. Socrates & Bertrand Russell both complained about how hard it was to get people to think. Which is so ironic given how proud we are as a species of our ability to do it :)

  9. Scott Berkun

    Simon: Here’s a trap I think about all the time you reminded me of.

    If the more stuff there is to read/consume promotes passivity, rather than thinking, then is it right for me to make more stuff by blogging or writing? Aren’t I just another voice, another blog to read, adding more noise?

  10. cynthia

    just because someone can publish doesn’t make what they have to say interesting or valuable. we skim to determine whether to read or pass.

    who are you willing to give big chunks of your time and attention (from 5 mins to 4 hours) in order to absorb the depth of their message?

    this morning, leaving my first toastmaster meeting, i asked myself, “why would i come here 2.5 hours per week to listen to inexperienced speakers talk about something i don’t really care about? the reason i would come is so that i could practice MY SPEECH” – lol!

    we all seek people who have fascinating, thoughtful, intuitive knowledge and can feed it to us in tasty spoonfuls. when we find those communicators, we listen and we read. we do that not because it’s monetized, but because we believe it enhances our thinking and communicating and understanding of the world around us.

    Throwing in monetization is a whole ‘nother level of motivation, rewards, and gratification… isn’t it?

  11. Simon

    Yes, I think your spot on with the irony of it, but isn’t it frustrating that we as a species know what we most need to do, and yet still choose not to do it?

    Technology, your right shouldn’t be blamed, but rather our approach to technology. It’s the same fear of how technology changes us, that Socrates expressed in relation the book and its impact upon memory as Gonzales argues (http://bigthink.com/laurencegonzales).

    I think its a sad paradox of being human that we’re unfortunatley doomed to live with this absurdity.

  12. Jim Harris

    Because I read so many blog posts on a daily basis, I only have the time to read about one word per line, including comments. For example, I followed Phil Simon’s tweet to arrive at this blog post and as Phil commented:

    “So they talking like me thought I pretty because me just I is Luddite”

    But Luddite Phil does have a point.

    The Internet, and even more so the great untethering (to borrow a phrase from Mitch Joel) provided by mobile technology, has created a 24/7 world of constant information flow that is difficult to not be distracted by.

    Yes, until they start embedding the computer chips directly into our brains at birth (otherwise known as the top secret iBaby experiment at Apple), we always have the choice of turning off all the devices and giving our full attention to a book or, even better, an in-person conversation.

    However, leaving aside the seemingly innate and superhuman multi-tasking superpowers that Generation Y (now entering the workforce en masse) was seemingly born with, looking at the younger generation is a little scary.

    Have you ever seen what happens when you take away every last one of a teenager’s gadgets (mobile, laptop, gaming system, etc.)? And then try having a one-on-one in-person chat with said teenager — I recommend calling 911 in advance of attempting this experiment.

    I feel like I am being forced to actually listen and read less, and selectively listen and skim more — all just to try to keep up.

    I shudder to think of all the other blog posts I won’t get to read today just because I actually read this one and took the time to (very longwindedly) comment as well.

    (Sure, I could have saved a few minutes if I skipped making fun of my good friend Phil Simon’s comment.)

    I have historically been a voracious reader of books, but lately I have been questioning this practice. And not because I can’t sit still and focus all of my attention on reading on a book.

    I find that even when I do take the time to read a book or give an in-person conversation my full attention, I am struggling afterward to remember anything more than “that was a great book” or “that was a great conversation.”

    Perhaps, I am simply looking at listening and reading as a transaction — meaning something I need to extract value from as if I am attempting to monetize it — as opposed to enjoying the moment.

  13. Scott Berkun

    cynthia: Good point – I agree there is some level of competition here, that we are hunting/skimming to find sources worthy of more attention.

    But there is a trap in this – the fact that I’m skimming might just make it harder to connect with what it is, regardless of how good it is.

    We read Dickens because we’re told it’s important – but if he were never born, and in 2010 his stories started appearing on a blog, and were skimmed, would anyone read more than a few paragraphs? I doubt it. The process of skimming makes it impossible to recognize some kinds of value that are there. Dickens might be a lousy example, but I hope you get the point. Only certain kinds of goodness can be ascertained by skimming something.

  14. Sal

    There’s a former boss of mine who basically had a generic reply of “I don’t have time for all of this” (reminiscent of your Busy Bees article) when you’d reply to any email with more than two lines of text.

    I was once publicly berated via reply-all for not being brief enough in my emails for a three-sentence response — one sentence for each question he had asked.

    Oh it’s good to be gone from there…

  15. Simon

    I don’t think the stuff itself that creates such passivity, but rather our approach to it conditioned from other media and our inability to stop and reflect.

    It goes back to what Pirsig asks -“And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good – Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?” I think you can distinguish what’s “noise” from what has “quality”. Personally, I think your blogs argue against such passivity and rather encourage an awareness of our approach to not just tecnology, but life.

    I think it’s only a trap if you rate your blog along with the incessant trivia we’re bombarded with by Celebrity Magazines on who’s going out with whom. I think as long as your questioning society, and your blog’s value then this is evidence that disputes you creating such “noise”.

  16. Scott Berkun

    Sal / Cynthia: You both point out something I missed. There are definitely people not worth listening to. So there are negatives in the system, who when we do give our time to, we wish afterwards we did not.

    It’d have been more accurate for me to say something like:

    People are bad at deciding what to give attention to and would probably be better served by giving more attention to fewer things.

  17. Simon

    Jim you sound guilty of a practise I was guilty of and which Arnold Bennett cautioned against: “Most men take to literature like better people take to drink: their sole object being motion…”. It’s not the quantity you should be concerned with, but the quality. And as for keeping up with the ocean of information, forget it. You will never catch up, so stop trying to play the game and concentrate on quality.

  18. Jeff

    Scott, I agree, there are some interesting loops.

    Florian, it’s easy to blame the technology or tool for where we are (i.e. social media). But when I evangelize in that realm to people who are skeptical, I am quick to point out there is nothing like face to face contact with the person you’re talking with. Social media is simply a tool. There’s a lot of junk on Twitter but if you look and follow interesting people, there is some amazing connections going on. Talk about loops!

    BTW, as an interesting antidote, take a look at Slow Art (http://slowartday.org). People (strangers even!) getting together to talk about art. I call it the original social media! ;-)

  19. Kaye

    “Seek first to understand. Then be understood.”

    This saying has helped over and over in my life both personally and with my clients. People want to be heard. They want to feel like what they havw to contribute is important. They want to be acknowledged.

    So many arguments fade when you don’t feel like you need to defend yourself, even if the other person doesn’t necessarily agree.

    As a side note about noise – along with wanting to be heard we also want to be seen. We want to have value and recognition. Today so much content is generated, wanting recognition wanting to know that we’re not just sound and fury… signifying nothing

  20. Daeng Bo

    #3. People don’t look at the situation from (and respect) the viewpoint of the other person in the conversation.

  21. florian

    Jeff: I might have overreacted. I just was shocked by the fact that a whole continent (Europe) was on the ground due to the Icelandian ash cloud and 10 Trending Twitter Topics didn’t even mention it.

    Cynthia: Welcome to the club. I’m with http://www.prestigiousspeakers.com in Barcelona. I’m with you. Today a student asked me who were my role models in public speaking. I answered that I like Hans Zimmer’s attitude, the film music producer. He once said in an interview that when he was a kid everyone wanted him to play Mozart and Bach and Chopin… while he wanted to play his own melodies… Public speaking is about your own style, and Toastmasters nurtures this style. Back to the original topic, we also have a personal style of reading and listening. Great sales people are the best listeners. Great readers probably are great writers. Most important thing, though, is that we understand each other, isn’t it? Especially in a small world.

  22. Sean Crawford

    In my comment on the Obama-ipad post I said that if I feel hollow after using media then that is a sign I was using the activity as a distraction. I can’t skim these days any more than I can TV channel flip: I feel too hollow. The trick, if I find myself compulsively flipping or skimming is to say, “Stop! What am I avoiding?” Usually, then I notice I’m guilty about something- as well as having guilt about wasting time.

    People usually feel heard when I listen to them because I turn off my CPU until they are done. I wear their shoes without skimming. Then when I do boot up my critical side I have more credibility.

    For writing essays, I have read advice to stick in redundancies for those who skim. I refuse to do so. To me such people are luke warm. As the Bible says, drinks hot or cold are fine- but the luke warm I spit out.

  23. Kieleigh

    I watch my husband and daughter (not yet 5) have their stoushes and I can see all she wants is to be heard. But at the same time, neither is she listening to him, so it turns into a mirror of pushing of wills, which is lose-lose.

  24. Mark Gould

    I think the proper response to ‘tl;dr’ should be to ignore the respondent. If someone isn’t prepared to read and listen (and, more importantly, think), then they are surely not entitled to have a view that other people should take seriously.

    Unfortunately, there are too many high-profile role models of the tl;dr tendency.

  25. Jonathan Morgan

    Definitely agree: it’s a real problem (in fact, communication in general tends to be a real problem).

    Reminds me a little of:
    James 1:19-20 (ESV) 19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires.

  26. B. Clay Shannon

    You said it – people often don’t listen intensely with the aim of understanding the intention of the speaker, and it’s becoming more rare all the time to find anybody to converse with who is willing to analyze the meaning behind trends. I blame a lot of that on the “30-minute solutions” provided by tv shows and the 30-second soundbites covering news items that need to have at least 30 minutes dedicated to them.

    Oh, well, I’m starting to rant and rave, so I’ll leave it at that. My picaresque, satirical novel “the Zany Time Travels of Warble McGorkle” is basically a not-very-well-disguised indictment of modern society (it’s shallowness and materialism, etc.), so if anybody wants more “ranting and raving” I point them to that (www.lulu.com/bclayshannon)

  27. Scott Berkun

    Jim: This will sound like new age psychobabble, but I’m convinced when I read a book, or a long essay, and give it my full attention, it’s my sub-conscious mind that is likely most impacted and improved by the experience. Provided the thing was thought provoking, or forced me to ask questions, or rethink something or other, even if I can’t recall specific questions or “new data” that I’ve acquired, there is a residual impact on who I am, and how I think and feel about the world. I’d hope that some puzzles, or questions, or new frameworks of thinking about things stay with me, and that I think about it in the coming weeks and months (Brain Rules definitely had that impact on me), but I don’t hinge the value of a book on my ability to recall it. I think if I did, I’d take notes when I finished books (well, actually, I kind of do this) as recall probably has more to do with what you do after you finish reading a book, than the book itself.

    I read on line a fair amount – but I probably still average a book or so a week. I’d say the increasing availability of information has made me less tolerant of books I’m not enjoying (I abandon books much more easily now), but there is a very specific kind of pleasure and growth that comes to me exclusively from reading the same voice, on the same topic, for 5 to 10 hours, an experience that only comes from book length works.

  28. Stephen James

    It’s really about respecting other people and their dignity/authority, albeit even if that is just as a friend– which just boils down to the Fallen nature of selfishness.

    I’m surprised people took the time to comment on your post to say that it wasn’t what they were looking for.

  29. Jérôme Radix

    Why the world is a mess: the real true reality.

    1. People listen too much : they listen too much to what others have to say, everybody is listening to advices that tells us to stop doing anything, that everything is impossible or vain.

    2. People read too much : everybody read books, newspapers, blogs, iphone, ipad… That leave no time for doing anything else, no time for real action on the world.


  30. Scott Berkun

    Stephen: The curious thing is how easy it is for people not to treat others without dignity, despite how obvious it is to most of us that we expect to be treated that way.

    The easy answer to much of this is the old yarn that we are all selfish, by design. But we are also co-operative by design at the same time.

  31. Chris Mahan

    I blame the typewriter.

    My best writing is done in longhand, at maybe 10 words per minute. This allows me to condense my thought in my brain for a bit before committing it to paper.

    I also edit.

    For example, rewritten, the para above now reads:

    I write longhand, slowly, after thinking.

    Increase thought-to-word density.

  32. Mike Nitabach

    The most important source of anger and unrest in the world is not failure of oral and written communication, but rather the struggle to secure limted resources: land, food, oil, power, etc.

  33. gregory Martin

    Thank you for this thought. It is so true. Sadly,I am one of those people you mentioned above. I do look and pray that I find a shortcut. I don’t have the funds for a college education so I just fantasize about the day I meet a somebody and my work happens to slip into their line of sight. Just like that I could earn enough to pay for a college education while already pursuing my goals to become a professional writer. Is that so bad

  34. Olga Kouzina

    Scott: the more buzz, the harder it is to concentrate. Pardon me, I haven’t read all the comments, so I’m responding to your post, not comments. The human ability to concentrate gets blurred with all this content pouring in from various sources. You just don’t know if you should apply your entire attention to this person speaking or writing. Maybe that’s why skimming is a general way of reading blogs and other content: if I’m not sure what is it this new that I can learn from so many sources, I’d rather concentrate on my point and I’d skim the blogs searching for like-mindedness and for confirmations of what I’m think. Laziness and passivity are another side of the coin. Take the “how to” posts. Do you think people who read them follow the “how tos”? It’d be enough to have just one “how to” for a singly type of activity, so everyone can follow. But there’re tons of them. Also, commenting on your concern if you’re adding to the buzz: in a way you do, but there’ re some thinking people that would absorb your thoughts, your experience, and will truly act on them, not just skim.

  35. mattmc

    I believe a more core problem is the lack of open mindedness and pragmatism, with an excess of preference for confirmation bias. Even if people read or listen, they are more interested in finding things that satisfy their confirmation bias than learning something new. There is a predilection to criticize the “flip-flopper”, when a person that changes their position in response to new data is being perfectly logical. Many people suffer from an early exposure to religious thought, which biases them against empirical reasoning. We signal that people should listen to us by holding strong opinions, even to the point of saying no new data could shake our conclusions.

    Even on bizarrely contentious scientific issues, such as the climate, we have apparently intelligent people that have made up their mind that the Earth’s atmosphere is getting “too hot” due to human activity and other people that won’t accept the reading of a thermometer. Both have closed their minds to new data or even alternative methods of affecting the atmosphere.

    So, I am not surprised that people would rather ask you for information that confirms what they already think, rather than learn something new, accepting that they were wrong about something, especially when that entails more work than they wanted to do.

  36. Jay Zipursky

    I think there is an underlying reason for your theory, Scott.

    People tend to only read/listen to people that validate their world view (and distort the message of those that don’t).

    There are strong social and psychological forces at work and you need to manipulate them to make any progress. I don’t think it’s a matter of reading or listening more or less. It’s a matter of truly opening people’s minds. Ideas anyone?

  37. Drew @ Cook Like Your Grandmother

    A few people have mentioned confirmation bias, but Jay’s comment just clarified this for me. The current media saturation means it’s possible for the first time in history to read only media that confirms your bias, no matter what that bias is.

    If you believed the germ theory of disease in the 17th century you might find some obscure texts to support you, but mostly you were alone in the wilderness. To stick with that belief in the face of universal scorn, you had to have some really compelling (at least to yourself) evidence.

    Most people won’t persist with an unpopular belief. Until late in the 20th century, if your neighbors didn’t share a belief, for most people you might as well be the only person in the world who holds that view.

    Today though, you can pick any outlandish theory — the moon program was faked, 9/11 was a government plot, Britney Spears can sing — and you can find more blogs and news sites trumpeting that fact than you can read in a lifetime. Everything is confirmed. No one has to question their assumptions if they don’t want to. And frankly, none of us really want to.

  38. Christa Avampato

    Hi Scott,
    I was thinking about this idea just yesterday and wrote about it on my blog after watching more coverage on the oil spill in the Gulf – an issue which makes me ill. And then I recalled a quote by Mister Rogers that said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me

  39. Bill Acord

    I think it is time to burn it down and start over.
    I guess the one main thing that irritates me.
    You prove a truth without a doubt and people will say,
    so, it doesn’t matter. They go tripping along in live willy-Nilly.

  40. dave

    Interestingly there’s an entire page of people attempting to justify their interpretation of this blog by confirming that they can indeed read and listen!!!! Think about it!!

  41. Ichsan

    I totally agree with you, as a matter of fact it’s irritating to realize how commercial ad companies manipulate this situation for their own profit. “People don’t listen” and “People don’t read” are the main factors why the symbol/image-playing is more accepted instantly.

  42. Mick

    I agree!! I think you have hit the nail on the head.

  43. Peter

    I believe the world is in a mess, because of mans academic education.
    I have read most of the posts skimmed a few. All the posts are meaningful, one thing is clear, nearly everyone whos commented are well academically read, one person mentioned about words, sometimes you need a dictionary beside you, there are words I’ve not seen before.
    Maybe thats why people skim?
    Why the world is in a mess? 1. Academic education; man thinks he knows everything, we real know nowt. We only thing we do, (somepeople think they know everything, because of their A E), we don’t know what lifes about, we don’t know how to create lif, we don’t know ourselves. We don’t know how life started, we don’t know about space, we only think we know and because they are Professors we accept, if some ordinary person came up and said this in contrast to the Prof, they wouldn’t be heard.
    We are in a mess and have created this ourselves (the minority have, those in power) we have accelerated more over the past 100yrs. Because of greed, power, money, mixed together with academic education this as taken us down the materialistic pathway. Very few are on the spiritual pathway.
    Maybe this is moving to a new topic, but its hinted in the comments, if one is intune spiritually, instinctively they know what is right and what is wrong, false or true, this maybe why people can understand the context without fully reading it, they know within, thats not to say everybody who skims understands.
    We have moved away from our inner knowledge and the very core of life.
    We have to have leaders, thinkers, doers, clearers, we should have respect, honesty, we should have learnt by now how to unite and be as one. Until that time we will be in a mess.
    We are now in a new era, the time of awakening.

    1. Tess Bois

      I just have to comment on the argument of doing what is right based on how spiritually in tuned a person is. No one, not even the “spiritual” amongst us can tune into doing what’s right. There are so many ethical and moral considerations in each case to determine course of action, it’s better to use Aesop’s fables to determine what’s right before any sort of spiritual basis.

      I agree with the article, we don’t listen and we don’t read. If we did we may determine the thick web of lies and deceits even within our own belief system, especially our belief system.

      Once we read and listen, we can plot a course of action based on information we have in front of us. It won’t be perfect but it will be created from a desire to act from best case understanding at that point in time.



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