Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Common Problems in a Discipline, a Chekhov’s Gun, and “The Two Things”


I remember being so impressed when a conductor friend of mine (the musical, not the vehicular variety) could tell which parts of a concert I had issues with when he hadn’t been at that concert: “The strings start to lag from the percussion section,” said he. “How did you know?” “Oh, it’s a common problem.” Of course, years of serving in symphonies, attending concerts, studying the scores can alert you to see such patterns, but to me, it was like magic of the profession was being revealed to me before my very eyes.

Much later, I found myself coaching speakers for a TEDx event in Denmark. I didn’t know them well, and hadn’t yet heard their speeches, but when I was asked to give some quick pointers, I didn’t hesitate when I said, “Shorter is better, and to shorten the presentation, cut few sentences from the beginning.” Other organizers who had already heard the speakers practice their speeches nodded in agreement that the speeches could be shorter, but was surprised I knew that making the beginning parts tighter would do the trick without actually hearing the speeches.

Hurray, I’ve unlocked the “magic of profession” achievement badge.

Then I thought about how some of these problems might translate to other media, venues, or professions. Pitching to investors: same thing. Entrepreneurs take too long to set the premise, dwell on the problem they are solving with their product, and not enough time on the uniqueness of the solution and why that matters, how it will make investors return on their money. I remember giving similar feedback when editing academic papers: journals have very strict page limits and I was often asked to edit for clarity but more importantly for length. I found myself cutting mostly from the introduction section.

It makes sense that this common problem (and fix) pop up in multiple places, because 1. we need to warm up to saying what we want to say, and 2. we don’t usually have/take the time to reflect on our work to edit out the warm up segments (or the process I call, “folding the (samurai) sword“). That if what you want to present is a product and not a process (of getting to the product), we must put on a filter for “Chekhov’s gun“, a principle where element must have a specific reason to be included, and everything else, cut. This process transforms the message from what you want to say to what people will remember, because each item was deliberately placed and everything else that would detract from that was removed. Chekhov’s gun is applied to fictional story telling, but it works in other narratives, formats, and disciplines.

Would knowing these key problems in practicing a profession make me better at what I do, regardless of what procession I’m in? I wondered if knowing just a knacks for improvement in each thing would make me appreciate life better. It would be fun to be able to identify them in each profession…two things people do wrong in x.

Ask and you shall receive…sort of. There is a webpage that catalogs two key things you need to know about a discipline (and everything else is not that important or a variation of the two). It would be interesting to have a similar list that’s focused on key things you can do to perform better in a particular discipline or task.

It was fun reading the list of two things in different disciplines. Some sounded like a Buddhist riddle, but I understood them and appreciated the sentiment:  The two things about being an executive assistant were “the boss is always right” and “the boss is always wrong.” In areas I wasn’t as familiar with, they fell “flat” for me. Then I realized what I appreciated was not the product of the two things as much as the mastery one must have to be able to articulate the two things.

Perhaps then, by searching for the two things, I’ll be applying Chekhov’s gun filter to my own life.

Photo: Venue for TEDx Vennelyst Blvd 2015, the first TEDx in Aarhus, Denmark.




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This entry was posted on July 12, 2016 by in Buddhism, Entrepreneurship, language, Management, Stories, TED Talk and tagged , , , .
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