Humor 2.0

I did not anticipate Humor 2.0 would show up so soon! Go figure!!

In 1986 I was awarded a three-year Kellogg Foundation Leadership Fellowship, a life-changing opportunity and experience. Among other adventures, Kellogg required that we take (and explore the outcomes of) a huge battery of self-assessment tests. They also included in our fellowship a one-week intensive at the Center for Creative Leadership, involving even more self-assessment, with both qualitative and quantitative outcomes. All this created in me a comfortable curiosity about self-assessment, infused with a strong dose of skepticism so I would not treat any outcome like a final and complete explanation of anything.

This background experience and persistent habit of action (and caution) shaped my response to coaching training where many coaches opt for extensive self-assessments for their clients. In addition, the coaching training itself created opportunities for such self-assessment. One day a classmate recommended a test available on-line, free and uncomplicated, providing insight into one’s greatest character strength. Of course, I was interested.

So, I took the test. I was looking forward to the outcome, hoping for something nice and substantive like “courage” or “integrity” as my primary character strength. I took the test, hit done, and waited for the outcome. The one-word report came back quickly: “Humor”!

I was not thrilled. I muttered about it internally: “Humor is a capacity, not an indicator of character!” I decided perhaps this resource had a useful definition of humor, checked it out, and it was even more deflating. Their definition was flaccid and empty, as if having this strength indicated that one could tell good jokes. Now I was verging on outrage.

It took me a while to move away from this experience, far enough to grapple with both the message it offered and my response. As a personal response to the story I shared in Humor 1.0, I had spent a good deal of time trying to understand humor. For me, the key factor in humor is the identification of the incongruous nature of competing dimensions of human existence, the juxtaposition of what we hope and pretend to be true alongside what actually is true. It depends on seeing, feeling, and knowing dissonance, and accepting it as reality. It is the ultimate resource for disrupting “Let’s play pretend”.

Returning to an earlier lesson, “You laugh at what your no longer fear”, for me humor emerges from that moment of recognition where I see that what I have been pretending is true in order to suppress or manage my fear is actually false, and the juxtaposition of the two realities is actually funny. It is why we laugh when a very pretentious person who is attempting to lord it over others falls or fails. At some level, the human spirit prefers the truth, even if it disrupts the protections we use to manage our fears.

What I began to respect in myself and others with a capacity for sharing humor was the skillful identification of a deception used for self-protection that, if looked at compassionately, is actually fairly funny. The fact that I pretend I control everything is funny when I stand in the rain soaked, without an umbrella, because I just knew it would not rain on my parade! When I trash others to make myself feel superior, this behavior, mimicked and mocked, is funny. Complex and sophisticated rationalizations, revealed, just look ludicrous and make me laugh. My strained excuses for why I fail to show courage look like silly paper airplanes swirling around a playground when clearly identified as the nonsense that they are. This list gets long fast.

So, over time I have made peace with this “humor” report, taken pride in the many ways I work to use my humor helpfully, and refined it to decrease the risk of damage or harm. Most often, I present an observation about a social pattern designed to reveal its embedded self-deception, doing so with a light touch. I have learned that no matter how hard I try, if I am very accurate in my humor, there are some folks that are fairly unhappy with me. This I have learned to view as a validation. So, I keep at it, working to be a woman of character. A very humorous woman of character.

“This I conceive to be the chemical function of humor: to change the character of our thought.”

- Lin Yutang -