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The Late Movies: Merlin Mann's Greatest Hits

If you don't know Merlin Mann, you're in for a treat. In the most recent edition of his Bulk Bag Newsletter, Merlin ran down five of his favorite talks, all available in handy online video format. I have rearranged the videos in chronological order (Merlin put them in order of awesomeness), so you can get a better sense of Merlin's public progression from "tips and tricks guy" through "realizing the entire internet has somehow become a tips and tricks guy" to his current position of "heart-on-his-sleeve brilliant rambler."

Merlin is a polarizing figure in nerd circles -- people tend to love him or hate him, and I think a lot of people (probably on both sides) misunderstand him. He's best known for his Inbox Zero talk (which is widely misunderstood to be about having zero emails in your inbox), and the majority of his deep thinking is about the problems of creative work, though many who follow him are not themselves in creative careers. Merlin has a tendency to ramble and riff -- which you may find charming or infuriating, depending on whether you get the jokes and like the guy. One of his most compelling (and/or confusing) traits is an increasing tendency to make meaning out of meaningless words and jokes (like "blue-sky solutioneering"), occupying an existentially and linguistically awkward space in which it's up to the listener to determine what, if anything, a given statement means -- some jokes are jokes, some jokes are sincere statements. It's an exercise for the reader to discern the difference. I think this is great; your mileage may vary. Watching the videos below, you can see this clear progression: he starts with a fully prepared, "professional" talk that's light on digressions, but as time passes he wings it more and more, showing more emotion as he goes.

I think Merlin is the single most interesting Internet Person I've run across. He is incredibly vulnerable, and he shares that vulnerability in a way that demonstrates fortitude. He's also a terrific singer and guitarist, but you wouldn't know it. Check out these videos, and beware the sporadic f-bombs.

Inbox Zero, 2007

Creating a distinction between "checking your email" and "processing your email." In retrospect, this talk is Merlin at his most practical and systematic -- he's talking about managing a particular technology (email) with a particular system (Inbox Zero). If your inbox doesn't represent a pain point for you, this talk probably won't matter much for you. But if, like me, you get hundreds of emails a day and live in an indetermine "world of pain" when surveying that influx of crap, this is a way to deal with it.

Worst Website Ever - 'FlockdUp,' 2008

In this talk from SxSW 2008, Merlin shares his "worst website ever" concept: FlockedUp™. It is a beautiful six-minute riff of meaninglessness, using the terminology of bizdev BS. For example: "FlockdUp™ is really uniquely positioned at this juncture to suck all of the oxygen out of this vertical. [A full two minutes of corpdork pseudowords continue.]" Featuring FlockBux™: "Like Money, but Monetized.©"

Makebelieve Help, Old Butchers, and Figuring Out Who You Are (For Now), 2009

Slightly NSFW (for language) at the beginning, somewhat rambling, and super-honest. On internet-based lists: "Little nacho chips of information that are really addicting." In general, this is a discussion about self-help, "life hacks," what real help is, why "knowledge work" is hard and encourages a particular form of help/hack-consumption, and (wait for it) old butchers.

Time & Attention, 2010

I'll let Merlin explain:

One afternoon in New Jersey, I was anxious, and screwed, and under a lot of pressure.

First, the gig started really late because of three different grave technical problems. But, I had to get up there and Do My Thing. Unfortunately, my slides wouldn’t work, the mood in the room fell somewhere between total death and roiling hostility, and, so, I had to wing it. For 90 minutes. Lotta winging here.

This is basically where Merlin talks about the underlying issues (time and attention) that were the underlayment for most or all of his previous work.

Scared Sh*tless, 2011

At Webstock last year, Merlin gave a highly emotional talk about being scared. Note that this came shortly before the apparent collapse of an Inbox Zero book deal that had been occupying him more than full-time for years. (While discussing Springsteen's Born to Run saga: "Why is this meaningful to me? Ask me in a few weeks." Ahem.) Also, that mic is really not fitting in his ear properly. I just want to warn you again, this is really emotional and might make you cry if you watch for long enough.

More Mann

Check out the excellent podcast Back to Work.

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Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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People Are More Likely to BS When There Are No Consequences
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Bullsh*t isn't hard to sniff out: It proliferates on college campuses, political debate stages, and online dating profiles. Now, Poynter reports that researchers are closer to identifying what motivates people to bullsh*t in the first place.

In a new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Wake Forest University psychologist John V. Petrocelli defines BS as "communications that result from little to no concern for truth, evidence and/or established semantic, logical, systemic, or empirical knowledge." To assess what makes people engage in such behaviors, he conducted two experiments. For the first one, participants were asked to fill out a survey. One had a disclosure saying they weren't required to list their thoughts, and one lacked the disclosure. Petrocelli found that subjects who felt like they had to come up with answers were more likely to make stuff up, suggesting that BS is often the result of societal pressure.

For the second experiment, undergraduate psychology students were asked to complete a similar survey. This time, participants were either given free rein to write what they wanted or told their responses would be recorded and assessed by an expert. Once again, the participants who were given the questions with no conditions were more likely to let the BS flow uninhibited.

To Petrocelli, this indicates that bullsh*tting is something people tend to do more when there's no one around to call them out on their bullsh*t. He writes in the paper, "When receiving a social pass for bullsh*tting is not expected to be easy—when people are held accountable or when they expect to justify their positions to people who disagree with their attitudes—people appear to refrain from bullsh*tting.”

These findings provide some hope for people who still value honest, transparent discourse. Bullsh*t isn't inevitable: It only flourishes under the right conditions. The best shield against BS is an ability to recognize it and hold people accountable for it. Unfortunately most people aren't great at recognizing nonsense when it's passed off as something profound.

[h/t Poynter]

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