I don’t buy into the cult of productivity—that industry of tips and lists and stories and blog posts and books that combine the obvious with the stupid in the most obnoxious way possible. I’ve just never felt the need to squeeze usefulness from every second of my life (the key, it seems, could be butt clenches). I also don’t like wasting my time. And in my experience, there is no bigger waste of time than office meetings.
I don’t mind that meetings are often dull and tedious—so many things are and it doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary. The bigger problem is at the end of a meeting, everyone in the room can agree on something and you can go your separate ways, confident in the work you are about to do. But then a few days later, you realize that each of you left with a different idea about what you decided and none of you are pulling in the same direction. So now you need another meeting.
The reason for this problem is obvious: you work with idiots. Every single day you are surrounded by them. You talk to idiots, you email with idiots, you Slack with idiots. Your boss is probably an idiot. The guy at the desk next to you is probably an idiot. And, bad news, you’re most definitely an idiot, too.
There are few things that make a person feel more important than using totally unnecessary words.
We all have biases and make assumptions. And most of us lack the self-awareness to think we’re anything less than brilliant, when really, most of us working in one of those modern jobs (some terrible mix of marketing and design and technology where people use the word “innovative” a lot and there’s probably a foosball table in the office) are barely competent because these professions didn’t even exist five years ago. Of course, there’s miscommunication!
It doesn’t happen to me in every meeting, but it does happen more than I’m proud to admit. Or at least it did. Then I discovered the wisdom of Billy Beane and figured out the one productivity trick that is universally valuable. Seriously, you’ll want to write this one down. Here it is: at the end of every interaction you have with someone, look them in the eye and ask: “What the fuck are you talking about?”
When Michael Lewis wrote Moneyball, the book explored how the Oaklands A’s baseball club managed to stay competitive against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, despite a comparatively small payroll. It’s the story of Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, deciding to use the advanced baseball statistics other teams were ignoring. He found value where other teams weren’t looking and exploited it. It’s a good book—you should read it; a lot of businesses could benefit from Beane’s approach.
But when Moneyball the book was turned into Moneyball the movie, creative choices were made. They added drama, renamed characters, changed events, and went about the business of creating a Hollywood movie with a bankable star. Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane spends his time on screen mostly snacking and staring into the middle distance because I guess that’s what they decided best visualized what the actual Billy Beane was going through. Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane also asks a lot of painfully simple questions, most of which are variations on “What the fuck are you talking about?” It’s amazing and, once I noticed it, it changed my life.
While Moneyball the book is about finding value in unexpected places, Moneyball the movie is about communication. Brad Pitt’s character learns a new language that everyone around him (except Jonah Hill) can’t understand, much less speak. Meanwhile, the things those other characters do say usually make no goddamn sense at all, but those characters all pretend to understand each other and agree that the way things have always been done is still the best way to do things.
If you work in one of those marketing or design or technology jobs, imprecise and confusing language isn’t new to you. In some ways, it’s the entire point of our careers. We’re the people who say “utilize” instead of “use,” “ideate” instead of “think,” and “omnichannel” instead of “kill me, my life no longer has any real meaning, and I want to die now, please, you’d really be doing me a favour.”
Your boss is probably an idiot. The guy at the desk next to you is probably an idiot. And, bad news, you’re most definitely an idiot, too.
The only thing we love more than obfuscation is feeling important. And there are few things that make a person feel more important than using totally unnecessary words.
It’s fine. We’re human. We’re flawed. We’re idiots. And therein lies the real beauty of using “What the fuck are you talking about?” as a life strategy—it forces people to cut through their own bullshit and challenges them to take a good, hard look at their own assholery and move past it for everyone’s sake.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. But at the very least it forces them to explain themselves to you like you’re the idiot. Once you get over everyone else speaking to you in a condescending tone, it’s fantastic.
I started using “What the fuck are you talking about?” at the office and found it so profoundly useful I’ve started saying it to my friends and family. I use it with my kids daily. I use it with my wife occasionally. I use it at work constantly. (I should note that there are ways to say “What the fuck are you talking about?” without actually using the words “What the fuck are you talking about?” I’ll leave it to you to figure out what they are, but don’t be afraid to mix it up a bit.)
You probably think I’m kidding; that I’m just trying to make a broader point about clear and direct communication. You’re thinking: “I am now ready for the moral clincher of this wonderful thinkpiece. Please enlighten me as to the way to run effective meetings so I can go about my day designing marketing technologies or marketing technological designs or technifying designable markets.”
What. The. Fuck. Are. You. Talking. About?
This isn’t an allegory, I’m being literal. Just try it. “What the fuck are you talking about?” will change your life.