How to tell your own story with Baratunde Thurston (Transcript)

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ReThinking with Adam Grant
How to tell your own story with Baratunde Thurston
July 18, 2023

[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist, and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.

My guest today is Baratunde Thurston. He's an Emmy nominated writer, cultural critic, comedian, and bestselling author. He's worked for The Onion, produced for The Daily Show. He hosts the podcast How To Citizen and the TV show America Outdoors, and he writes at on tech, race, democracy, climate, and culture. Wow.

Baratunde is also one of my favorite speakers. He's earned more standing ovations than I can count. Here's a little taste of him at TED.

[00:00:50] Baratunde Thurston:
My parents gave me an extraordinary name. Baratunde Rafik Thurston. Now Baratunde’s based on a Yoruba name from Nigeria, but we are not Nigerian. That's just how Black my mama was. Rafik is an Arabic name, but we are not Arabs. My mom just wanted me to have difficulty boarding planes in the 21st century.

[00:01:20] Adam Grant:
So I think the last time we saw each other was about a year ago in California.

[00:01:26] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:01:27] Adam Grant:
When I sat in the audience and watched you speak, and again had the reaction of no matter how many hours and weeks and years I put into speaking, I will never be that good.

[00:01:39] Baratunde Thurston:
That's a high compliment ‘cause you're a good speaker.

[00:01:42] Adam Grant:
I’m curious: how much of this is natural and what parts have you worked on? If you tell me all natural, I'm just gonna watch you and try to learn from it. If you tell me there are parts you practice, then I have questions for you, right?

[00:01:56] Baratunde Thurston:
Um, it's a mix and I'm try, I'm trying to be thoughtful about what I think the mix might be. I'm 45 years old. I was born in 1977, and I've been on stage in some form for most of my life. I remember my first school play. It was like this Olympics of the Mind skit that we did where we were Smurfs. I did the youth orchestra program in Washington DC where I grew up and played upright bass. I played Suzuki violin, and I did musicals in middle and high school into college, and a kind of student leader of some kind.

So I was giving addresses or speeches are sitting on panels, and I was drawn to it. I was really drawn to it, and I think I can select a few moments where I leveled up some. And it wasn't just from, like, natural ability, it was like I was trying really, really, really hard. One was standup comedy or in the early two thousands, my friend Derek Achong, he said, “I'm gonna take a standup comedy class, and I'm gonna do an open mic.”

And we all thought, “Good for you. We can't wait to see it.” And he never did it. But he planted a seed in my head when he said that, and I did it. That set me on a course for a decade of like grinding away in comedy clubs in all over New England, the ground round like steakhouses, sports bars, Chinese food, restaurants, hotel lobbies, real glamorous stuff.

This is how you forge your blade. The other shift that happened was around that TED Talk, a woman at TED, Helen was my talk coach, which frankly I didn't think I needed. I was like, “I do so many talks all the time. That's cute, TED. Or you think you have notes for me?” Like I know who I am. I've done comedy, I've done corporate presentations and everything in between.

Cool. But with Helen, the value was she told me, “I want you to push yourself. Do something uncomfortable, get more vulnerable.” And my wife, Elizabeth, independent of Helen, said the same thing. She was like, “This is a potentially massive moment. What do you want to be known for? How do you want people to feel you?”

And so I dug below the thing I knew and the thing I know is good. It pays bills. I enjoy it. People like it. But these other women in my lives were like, “Go harder, go deeper.” And so what, that talk became was much more vulnerable, emotional. I delivered that TED talk. I went to the backstage, and I exploded in tears.

The first time that it ever happened, I moved myself. And I was like, “What? What just happened?” And there was so much emotion and so much energy and so much release. It was almost like an explosion. My body couldn't contain it anymore, and I just wept hard, like so hard backstage. And that was a change because of some mentorship, some coaching, some feedback, and some love, you know, from other people.

[00:05:15] Adam Grant:
Wow, okay. There's so many things to react to here.

[00:05:18] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:05:19] Adam Grant:
So much of the speaking we do, and so much of the storytelling we do, not only do we not know the individuals in the room that well, but it's also unclear what's my role, what's my contribution? What do they already know? What am I bringing to this experience?

And I think what you gave me last year was an answer to that question, which was to say what you can always bring to an experience is a story from your personal life.

[00:05:42] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:05:42] Adam Grant:
That other people find moving and relatable and I think that was, was a little bit of a frame shift for me to say I don't necessarily have to know what the audience wants from me. What I do have to figure out is what have I lived that's relevant to them.

[00:05:57] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:05:58] Adam Grant:
And relatable to them.

[00:05:59] Baratunde Thurston:
Yes, that is exactly, that is exactly it. I had always felt like doing comedy about myself just wasn't me. Like I watched other comics do it and they talk about their sex lives. They talk about the drugs they've done and the crimes or the depression or whatever, and I'm like, “I talk about the outside world. I'm trying to make sense of that. I'm trying to make—“

[00:06:21] Adam Grant:
It’s not about me.

[00:06:22] Baratunde Thurston:
You make sense of this. Now you don't need to know all my business, and what I learned through all those reps… I just can't even describe the number of stages and rooms and distraction and cigarette smoke and hecklers and ethnicities and non-English speaking and cities and consonants… Like that amount of practice, I underestimate sometimes what it's done to me and like how it shaped me, but the lesson that I learned so much was what you described. Offer something from yourself that lets people connect to you and find a connection. It doesn't matter how small. My agenda needs to take a backseat to our connection and the sources of that are okay, something personal, something universal, and then something shared.

Even just the wait to get in the convention center, the cold temperature of the air conditioning. It's too cold in here. What are they trying to do? It's a walk-in freezer or a salon in the Hilton? And so you just give a little something and you get a lot, and now there's a bond. And with that bond, you can achieve much more.

Just a little peek behind the veil of professional presenter. It's like, “Oh, he's a person. I'm a person.” That's all.

[00:07:44] Adam Grant:
Who knew?

[00:07:44] Baratunde Thurston:
Like so many of us just need that. I just need a signal that you're also a person. We get disconnected from our leaders, business and political, ‘cause they don't feel relatable. And we love and adore folks. Even really abusive or selfish people who we feel a connection to, they're relatable. We watch garbage television about trash people because we relate to them in some way. They've shared something and it's like, “Aw, they're just like me in some way.” So giving that little thing, it pays off.

[00:08:19] Adam Grant:
Either that or there's some schaudenfreude, you're like, I'm so much better than them.

[00:08:23] Baratunde Thurston:
That's, we also, you know, love watching people, you know, crash and burn and fail. That's a whole ‘nother dynamic.

[00:08:29] Adam Grant:
Your career as a public speaker is very much one anchored in storytelling, and the storytelling you do is much harder because it's autobiographical. I've generally found, like, the most difficult stories to tell are my own because I know too many details. And it's harder to figure out what's interesting to the audience, whereas a story about somebody else, I know what hooked me on that story.

[00:08:52] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:08:52] Adam Grant:
I know why I care about it. I was an audience member when I learned that story. But if it happened to me, I don't know if you'll care about any of it. I don't know if it has any relevance to you, and this is really important, not just as a public speaker, but also in shaping identity.

In psychology, there’s a really interesting body of research on life stories as a window into our happiness and or wellbeing. And there's a particular arc that struck me. I think this is originally Dan McAdam’s research, but the basic finding is that if you ask people to narrate the story of their lives, some people end up with contamination narratives where they kind of go downhill.

Not surprisingly, those are depressing, and other people end up having pretty consistently positive journeys. And those people do not end up as happy as the people who lived a redemption narrative where they started out with some kind of difficulty or struggle or obstacle, and they feel like they conquered or overcame it. That upward trajectory actually seems to be, in some ways, more satisfying, more fulfilling, more meaningful than just a, a good trajectory.

[00:09:59] Baratunde Thurston:
Alright, here's a story. I did a podcast many, many years ago, and the host was obsessed with the sob element of my story if you look at it on paper. So I'm born in ‘77, a single mother. My father at the time of my birth is alive, but decreasingly a part of my life. He was exiled from the house for other terrible offenses, and he ended up being shot and killed. And you know, I'm in Washington DC, and it's the eighties and it's the rise of the crack epidemic. And there's policing and there's gangs and there's shootings, serious beat downs happening right in our front yard.

And we're not in the worst neighborhood in the city. We're not in the most challenged neighborhood in the city. And there are statistics, you know, a Black man born in this period, or Black boy born in this period has greater odds of going to prison or jail than going to college. So that's a lot of signal, you know, of nudging you in a certain direction.

And I think this particular host was obsessed with the absent father story and it's like, “Man, that must have been so hard. How was that for you?” And I was just like, “Dude, I'm good.” You know, like I've had a lot of time to deal with this. Like apparently this is really traumatizing to you, but like, I’m totally, like, at peace.

And it's just enjoying my life. I was like working at The Onion or something at the time, or maybe just after, I hadn't really accepted the negativity of my life experience as, like, the headline or like the defining feature of my life. So yeah, I guess if you looked at it that way, you could say, I really defied the odds. Huh? Woo. Lucky to be here.

But I was just, like, living the whole time. I was very confused and a little annoyed by that host because I thought they were projecting something onto me, and that might have been the case. But there was also the case that there were parts of my experience and story that I hadn't really dealt with, and I just moved on quickly, thinking “I'm good” without actually sitting with what does the absence of my father mean. What does his exile before his murder even mean? What was the positivity with which I projected, um, a narrative onto my mother in her role in my life. Sacrificial savior, heroic, good? I also hadn't examined that. That interview I'm referencing was over a decade ago, and in the decade plus since, I've been able to see and been willing to sit with the negativity, the hurt, the pain of some moments of my life, and it just adds richness, appreciation, depth, and it almost gives me like a little mission to work on.

Where to just say, “I'm good,” it’s papering over a lot of detail. It's a high altitude fly over. It's a low resolution picture. There's a lot of metaphors. I could keep going, but I'll pause and just say it's not as full as it could be. And so I look back at that interview, which used to annoy me so much, and I'm thinking, “Oh, maybe he sensed something. Maybe he was like Helen and my wife with a TED talk.” Trying to push me to be more intimate, more vulnerable, to go deeper than where I was comfortable, and I had found a really comfortable pocket within my own story.

I don't think of my story as redemptive. I've increasingly explored healing in my story, which means I've had to acknowledge hurt, and I think a lot of the way I survived through circumstances that were not ideal is to quickly move past the hurt. I can handle it. I can just handle it. I can take care of myself. I remember once my mom, there's probably so much in this story I'm about to tell you.

It was a Sunday evening, and the lottery was a big deal. I was under 12 years old. My mother told me, “I'm leaving town. I'm going to to the Pennsylvania border to buy a lotto ticket.”

Just the fact that, like, my mom would just, like, leave town to go gamble on an opportunity for a cash infusion. It was like that was, okay my mom's gonna play the lotto in Pennsylvania. Totally normal. I'm riding my bike in the neighborhood, I'm hanging out with friends and I see my best friend’s older sister who I have a huge crush on. Michelle. She's in a car, and she's driving down the street just in front of me, a little pre-horny boy. Like excited to like see the woman I have a crush on and like, maybe if she sees how fast I can ride my BMX, she will ditch her grown-ass boyfriend and choose me. There's no like full plan, but I'm chasing the car and I'm not catching up ‘cause it's a car and she moves off into a greater distance and I, something goes wrong with my bike and I skid across on my face and then I see blood.

I come up like a zombie, just blood pouring from my face. I am one and a half blocks from my house. I limp home. Mother's still not home, but I've got keys. I'm like a little grown person. She's a single mom. I'm used to this. I go, I clean out the wound. I get the first aid kit, I apply the ointment. I make myself an ice pack.

I'm starting to feel chills. I'm probably going into shock. I get in bed, I wrap myself in blankets, and I just wait for my mother to come home and she does. And I tell her what happens and she's like, “Are you okay?” I'm like, “Yeah, I'm fine. Like, I'm good. I handled it.” Oh, that's like a very important moment. I'm excited in the moment immediately about my ability to solve a problem, to withstand pain and to keep fucking moving and, and also to reject assistance. Right?

[00:16:35] Adam Grant:
What's the cost of so quickly seizing that independent, resilient narrative?

[00:16:42] Baratunde Thurston:
Lots. Lots. An inability slash unwillingness to fully know myself. At times in my life, I've only been willing to know the withstander, the perseverer, the resilient one, the strong one, the diplomat, and not the wounded warrior. And not the non-warrior.

So, I have had a lot of time in my life committed to fixing, easing, solving for me, for people in my life, for my mother. A lot of energy spent thinking about: is she okay? It was very transparent and obvious to me that she wasn't. And she's the only person I have. So if she's not okay, I'm not okay. If she freaks out and flips out, that's all on me.

I need her to be very good because her goodness is inextricably linked to my own sense of goodness. Her safety, her survival. That's all me. If something happens to her, I'm done. If she decides she's done with me, I'm done. So there is a lot of peacemaking going on and not a lot of acknowledgement of rage, of disappointment. When I so quickly move to resilience, I miss a chance to fully feel into my needs.

[00:18:21] Adam Grant:

[00:18:23] Baratunde Thurston:
When I, when I crashed that bike, I needed help. I really did. There's no sane world where a 10 year old kid is just like, “I'm good,” after an accident like that, but I was wired all at that age. Conditioned self-sufficiency, don't be a burden, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Those are all strengths and they're all worthy of some kind of celebration. We've set up a world where like, “That's pretty damn noble, kid. Look at you. You’re tough.”

[00:18:49] Adam Grant:
Yeah, but they can be overused to your own detriment.

[00:18:53] Baratunde Thurston:
It’s sad. It’s also a sad story. Once I open that door to that feeling of disappointment or hurt or pain, it leads to another door with more hurt and more pain and another door because there a lot of doors I never opened. There's a whole house that I never entered on, on the block that is my life. What is my internal architecture? What are my true wants and needs? And if I haven't examined those painful parts, the parts that hurt me, then how much do I know t the pleasure parts too?

[00:19:28] Adam Grant:
Hearing you reflect on this makes me think about something that didn't crystallize and probably should have sooner. So I think part of what you're describing is emotional intelligence. And normally when we talk about emotional intelligence, we think about it as a bundle of skills that go together, right? So emotional intelligent people are genius at recognizing emotions. At making sense of them and at regulating them.

I had this weird experience about a decade ago where I was doing a study on emotional intelligence. I gave a big sample of people a test to try to measure their skills and then predict their job performance and a bunch of other dynamics at work. And I found that there was effectively no correlation between how good they were at managing and regulating emotions and how skilled they were in recognizing and making sense of emotions.

And it didn't hit me at the time, but as I was listening to you, I realized: I've gotten feedback multiple times in in my life that I'm so quick to regulate emotions that I don't always even fully process them.

[00:20:34] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:20:34] Adam Grant:
And that can make me not only worse at navigating my own complex experiences, but also it makes it harder to understand what other people's emotions are.

I'm like, “Wait, why?” Like, why are you mad?

[00:20:45] Baratunde Thurston:
What was that? Yes. Where did it come from?

[00:20:45] Adam Grant:
Why are you mad at that thing that hap—like it doesn't matter, like make it go away? If it's not consequential and/or if you have no control over it, like don't bother to emote in this situation in the first place. And people look at me like I'm an alien.

[00:20:59] Baratunde Thurston:
Why are you emoting?

[00:21:00] Adam Grant:
You just really captured why that happens, right? Because your, your task when you go through pain is to make it go away and reduce it or minimize it as quickly as possible. And that means you don't understand your pain and you don't understand other people's pain as well as you could.

[00:21:16] Baratunde Thurston:
We are in many ways in this disconnected world where facts differ amongst subgroups of people. That's gonna increase in many ways. We will customize experiences. We'll have bespoke content and entertainment experiences due to AI and other technologies, and so we'll have less common ground, but those emotions are binding, right?

If I am in touch with my emotions and my full experiences and my pain in this case, then I can identify with yours. Our facts can be miles and miles apart. Pain is the same, and that's a bridge we can work with. That's a bond we can build on and travel together and maybe arrive at some shared informational reality too. But sharing emotional reality is still a real possibility for us.

[00:22:11] Adam Grant:
So you're saying that the, that an antidote to a lack of cognitive shared reality is emotional shared reality?

[00:22:19] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:22:19] Adam Grant:
That we might not agree on all of the same facts, but that we can move toward understanding each other better if, if we have some common experiences that we recognize.

[00:22:29] Baratunde Thurston:
That is exactly what I'm saying. You know this more than most, we're not rational beings. We're not pure economic actors. Like we're just balls of chemicals and emotions interacting, and then we write a story to make sense of that stuff, and we try to make ourselves feel better about some of these things. We write the logic after.

[00:22:51] Adam Grant:
The idea of starting with shared feelings as opposed to trying to establish shared thoughts, it completely reverses the way that most of us tend to approach these kinds of debates and divides. And it reminds me a little bit of what psychologists and political scientists have been doing around deep canvassing, right?

I'm amazed by these randomized controlled experiments where just having somebody knock on your door and ask you questions, right, and really listen to you, makes you less extreme in your ideological positions. More nuanced and more caring and more thoughtful. I'm like, “Okay, that's an example of trying to establish shared emotional reality.”

[00:23:26] Baratunde Thurston:
So I'm gonna go way out on amateur psychology limb here, but maybe not that far. You tell me. You’re actually the credentialed one. We say we want a lot of things. We want justice, we want freedom. We want opportunity, we want righteousness, but I suspect strongly that a core need of ours below all of that is belonging.

And we will choose belonging at the expense of our values, our stated values in many circumstances, maybe even the majority of circumstances. How could someone do that? Okay, so if you're just operating at rational brain level, it makes no sense. It was against their community, but there was some belonging.

How do terrorist cells work? How do gangs work? How they recruit into belonging. They create bond. They create family ties and a sense of loyalty. It's double-edged. It's like, “Oh, cool. We can use emotions to build connection and sense of belonging.” Great. what kind of emotions?

[00:24:29] Adam Grant:

[00:24:29] Baratunde Thurston:
It’s like what kind of glue is this? And you know, it can build armies that raise nations and pillage. It can also build a shared sense of humanity that collaboratively achieves much greater things that we could do on our own.


[00:24:46] Adam Grant:
So there are a bunch of other themes I wanna talk about, but first we need to do a lightning round. I always love the balance in your talks of rich storytelling and quick wit. So this is your window for quick wit.

[00:25:05] Baratunde Thurston:
Oh boy. On-demand.

[00:25:06] Adam Grant:
You host a great podcast, How to Citizen, where you remind us that it's not just a right, we were born into, or a portal we pass through, but it's a daily action. What's the most important thing for us to know about how to be a good citizen?

[00:25:22] Baratunde Thurston:
When you think about citizen as a verb, it opens every action that we take to contribute to our ability to live together better. Citizenship is a complex and loaded term. Democracy is a weighty but often meaningless term. And when we strip some of those away, I think what we're trying to do is live together and we just trying to do that better.

[00:25:51] Adam Grant:
Tell me what the worst advice is you've ever gotten.

[00:25:54] Baratunde Thurston:
Just work harder. It strips so much context from the world and life. To do that as if work is all measured the same as if kind of diminishing the value of rest will help long term in life. Just like “Hustle harder, work harder.” I find the unidirectional of that very unhelpful, actually.

[00:26:18] Adam Grant:
Agree. What is a book you think we should all read?

[00:26:20] Baratunde Thurston:
See No Stranger by Valerie Kaur. K-a-u-r. Valerie is a, a Sikh religious leader, S-I-K-H. Civil rights lawyer, activist, damn near prophet of our times. She's something special amongst humans. And the core message of her book is that a stranger is a part of myself I do not yet know. So she is trying to create new bonds, new senses of shared reality and belonging amongst even opponents who she refuses to call enemies. Her movement is of revolutionary love, love of self, love of others, even love of our opponents. There's a lot of wisdom in her work.

[00:27:02] Adam Grant:
Wow. Hadn't come across her. Excited to check it out. Thank you. Is there something that you've recently rethought?

[00:27:08] Baratunde Thurston:
I just had a very moving experience watching a talk by Tristan Harris and his colleague, Aza. I don't know Aza’s last name, unfortunately. They called it “The AI dilemma”. It was a masterclass in argument and they've made a strong case.

I'm rethinking how we address the potential harms of this thing, and have I been conditioned myself to just be like, “Well, we can't possibly just stop and decide to figure things out before we resume,” because market forces or innovation or impracticality. But Tristan and then my friend Molly Crabapple, who initiated a petition on behalf of illustrators to cause for like not using this stuff if you are in a media publication and value your own creativity and intellectual property.

[00:27:59] Adam Grant:
Uh, Aza Raskin, is that the name?

[00:28:01] Baratunde Thurston:
Yeah. Yeah.

[00:28:03] Adam Grant:
I think one of the things I've learned from you is you're very careful about deconstructing words and their meaning, and I think it's one of the reasons that I feel like I need to stop and listen when you say a sentence because you've actually thought through what's going into it, as opposed to talking first and thinking after the fact. Do you have a process when you're deconstructing a word that you like to go through?

[00:28:30] Baratunde Thurston:
As a kid, I was very sensitive to being misunderstood, and I mean, I hated it. I hated when my intentions were not received accurately. And folks assumed or misunderstood or maliciously misinterpreted what I meant. And so part of how I think I developed to deal with that is, well, I just have to be very clear about my intentions, which means I have to be very clear with my speech. And so I've gotta think about these things and leave less margin for error.

My whole world is words. I write them, I speak them, I do them on camera and TV shows. I love words, so I also think there is a, almost a gardener's sense of reverence. Words have life too, and so I want to be like a good steward of words and not abuse them or misuse them.

[00:29:29] Adam Grant:
It shows. I don't wanna speak on behalf of words, but if they could speak, I feel like they would appreciate it. Is there a question you have for me?

[00:29:37] Baratunde Thurston:
I see you as someone who's on a constant journey of curiosity. And you remain so open and inquisitive at a point in life when many people are starting to shut the doors and make more statements that end in a period rather than those that end in a question mark.

And that doesn't seem natural, to me, for most people. So where does that come from for you, your consistent persistent curiosity across time?

[00:30:14] Adam Grant:
It comes from three places. One is just interacting with people who have that curiosity and finding it contagious and saying, “I want to be more like that person.” And every time I have that reaction to someone—sometimes they're charismatic, sometimes they're brilliant, sometimes they're knowledgeable, sometimes they're kind—they’re always curious. No matter what else I admire about them, the people I admire always want to know more. And so I'm trying to follow in those footsteps of role models.

I think secondly, for me, curiosity about ideas and curiosity about people is like the way that some people feel when they go to a museum or a symphony. I have that about thoughts.

[00:30:57] Baratunde Thurston:
That's, that's cool.

[00:31:00] Adam Grant:
The shivers on your spine or the goosebumps—

[00:31:03] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:31:03] Adam Grant:
—that you get when you're appreciating art, I don't get those with art. I get those with ideas. I think the last thing is that I chose to become a teacher in part because I love to learn.

[00:31:12] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:31:12] Adam Grant:
And to me, curiosity is the foundation of learning. So if you're not curious, you've stalled your own growth.

[00:31:18] Baratunde Thurston:
Yeah. And teaching, you’ve gotta remain curious in it.

[00:31:23] Adam Grant:
I wanna talk about some of the current things you're working on right now.

[00:31:27] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:31:28] Adam Grant:
You wrote, I thought, a really provocative and challenging piece a few months ago about whether the next Tina Fey is gonna be a bot. Talk to me about that.

[00:31:36] Baratunde Thurston:
So I wrote this in Puck. It's a new media company. I'm a founding partner and writer there, and it's a chance for me to go long in words.“Will the next Tina Fey be a bot?”

No, we have an unchallenged, assumed motivation for much of AI development, and that unstated assumption is that more, faster is better, that we will need to increase output and throughput and generate more. This is generative AI and it can generate a script, and it can generate a painting in seconds. Yay? Like to what end? And so that same impetus, right?

That is the impetus that drove fossil fuel extraction. That's the impetus that drove forced labor and enslavement. That's the impetus that drives a lot of things that when they're unchecked, are very, very harmful. I'm in this space of thinking a lot about capitalism. We're like, “Okay, great. We can generate a Bible-length text in a few minutes. Why?”

We are industrializing creativity. We’re industrializing art. We're just ratcheting it up. Who's gonna process all that? We're gonna need AI to, like, summarize the crap created by AI. We already can't finish Netflix. With AI, the ability to generate and create things seemingly out of emptiness is actually based on data sets that someone chose.

And those data sets are super limited. They're largely English language. They are generated in Western worlds of thought. They exist in documentable form. They can be scanned and ingested by a machine. So now we are being told you can write anything with this, but it can only generate based on what's ingested and it's only ingested this narrow slice. So we are reducing humanity.

[00:33:57] Adam Grant:

[00:33:58] Baratunde Thurston:
We’re hitching ourselves to this vehicle, dragging us at exponential speed into the future built on a slice, a tiny representation of our past. And we will create on that new narrower foundation. So we're shrinking. As we grow in population and technological capacity, we are shrinking ourselves down.

[00:34:21] Adam Grant:
So interesting.

[00:34:21] Baratunde Thurston:
That’s not innovation, right? There's something else going on there. So that's some of the critique. I'm also thrilled and excited about a few things, but that's where my head's at in this second.

[00:34:32] Adam Grant:
When I think about creativity, I always think of Karl Weick’s definition of putting old things in new combinations and new things in old combinations. And if you start there, generative AI is pretty cool.

[00:34:44] Baratunde Thurston:
Very cool. It can do a lot so much faster.

[00:34:45] Adam Grant:
Right? Because they can do a lot of things—

[00:34:48] Baratunde Thurston:
Yeah, yeah. At your fingertips. Yeah.

[00:34:49] Adam Grant:
That can be put in new combinations. And you know, there are also potentially new things getting added to the data set that could be put into old combinations. But—

[00:34:58] Baratunde Thurston:
Yeah, it's a remix machine.

[00:34:59] Adam Grant:
Yeah, exactly. But you wonder, to your point, how many things are being missed and the fact that even if I give it the same prompt, I get a different answer every time, makes me realize, well, I'm not gonna prompt a thousand times. Like, generative AI is exciting as an input to human creativity, not a substitute for it.

[00:35:17] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:35:17] Adam Grant:
You’re in your second season of a PBS series called America Outdoors. What have you learned from not only spending more time in nature yourself, but also spending time with people who make that a big priority?

[00:35:31] Baratunde Thurston:
I love making the show so much. It is How to Citizen outside. It's people deeply invested in relationships with nature and with each other through nature. I have loved seeing the country with these fresh eyes, with other people's perspective on our common ground, literally common ground. I have loved the reminder that we are a part of the natural world and that it is here to do more than serve us in an economic sense, that we can also serve it.

So much of what we've done as humans is separate ourselves from nature. We use technology to separate ourselves from nature, and when we reconnect, we find a different generative power, a humility, a joy, a connectedness, a sense of belonging, and when we can recognize that we are able to belong not just to human cohorts and groups, but to a larger system of life, that is really satisfying and it's really beautiful and it gives me a lot of hope and continued momentum to do all the things I do.

[00:36:48] Adam Grant:
Sign me up for more of that in my life.

[00:36:49] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:36:50] Adam Grant:
Thank you. This was awesome.

[00:36:52] Baratunde Thurston:
Thank you. Hell yeah.

[00:36:58] Adam Grant:
It never occurred to me before that being too quick to regulate an emotion could actually interfere with recognizing it and understanding it. I'm now wondering if before I start managing an emotion, I should ask, “Where is this emotion coming from? And is now the right time to begin trying to shape it, or do I need to let the story unfold?”

ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Our fact checker is Paul Durbin Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown.

[00:37:50] Baratunde Thurston:

[00:37:50] Adam Grant:

[00:37:51] Baratunde Thurston:
Oh shit. That's the name of your show.

[00:37:57] Adam Grant:
Well, I mean, it's, it's intended to have a double meaning, right? The show is also just about thinking, thinking, so, yeah. Yeah.

[00:38:03] Baratunde Thurston:
That was slow lightning. I feel like I’m not—

[00:38:04] Adam Grant:
No, you're, you're the first person to, to make that connection right there. I like it.