More of a Talker

On Talking and Doing

March 3, 2021

This content was originally sent as a newsletter

I’ve been thinking, on and off, about a conversation I had in middle school.

I had a middle-school shop teacher. This is a rarity in the US, today! Excuses for this sad fact: a shop is dangerous, a public school shouldn’t teach the trades, and the space and money aren’t available anyway. Even at the time, my middle-school shop teacher was the last one in the whole state.

He was also one of the smartest, most capable, most interesting people I’d ever met, at the time. I’ve never been particularly prone to hero worship, and I was not blind to his flaws even then — but I certainly was fascinated. Everything we built in class, he designed himself. We cast aluminum to make trebuchets, we made gumball machines, after school a group was attempting to build a car.

One day I was describing to him a plan for a simple robot — a photo-vore. I was a bright kid, but not that bright, and my plan was not really workable; the actual control circuit was very hic sunt dracones. I knew a sensor and transistors were involved, and that’s about it.

He said “You’re really more of a talker than a doer, aren’t you?”

Written down, it looks like a diss. But it wasn’t said with any contempt — more like confusion, or curiosity. (He was never unkind; I saw him angry only once, and that was about heinous disregard for shop safety.)

I had no idea what he meant, and was a little bit hurt, but had just enough emotional intelligence at the time to recognize he didn’t mean it to hurt.

Did he mean it as a challenge? “Stop talking, go do it!” I didn’t know how to do it! That’s why I was talking to him!

There was no follow up. I continued to enjoy his class. I never managed to build that robot, but years later, when I knew more (and more information about DIY robotics was available) I built others.

But over the years and years since then, that phrase has stuck in my mind like a koan (“like drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out”).

When I plan, I plan with words. Words are how I understand the world. I recognize music by the lyrics. If you asked me to throw the opening pitch at a baseball game, I’d go read about how to pitch before I did any physical practice at all.

This is not a good or a bad thing. It’s a mixed bag. I’m pretty good at communicating ideas and plans to other people. Not perfect, but pretty good. But there is a corresponding negative tendency — words are good and fun and I can happily spend a long time only talking and never doing.

I think that my shop teacher was inclined in a different way. He related to the world physically. His plans were not checklists, they were drawings and prototypes. He taught us how to do things by showing us how he did them.

“You’re more of a talker than a doer, aren’t you?” might have been the recognition of something he found somewhat alien in me. I was not rambunctious in middle school — I was a know-it-all, but not a loudmouth — and I think maybe he hadn’t realized until that moment some subtle difference between us.

As I have grown as a person and as a maker-of-things, that question has come back to me again and again. I have learned how and when to stop talking and start doing. To other more-talker sorts of people, that can look like a magic trick. I have better learned to recognize when someone is frustrated by communicating-in-words about a plan instead of performing the plan. These are learnable skills; and I have seen that there are commensurate skills that have to be hard-won for doers.

Instead of an accusation or a challenge, it’s become a gentle reminder: you’re more of a talker than a doer. Keep an eye on it.

Like any concept that pretends to divide human personalities into categories, some caveats are necessary, here:

  • I don’t think there is a tribe of talkers and a tribe of doers. Instead, a spectrum, or a tendency.
  • I don’t think doers can’t talk, or can’t love words. I don’t think talkers are useless and can’t get anything done.
  • I suspect that if this is a valid model at all, it is not a dichotomy, or even a 1 dimensional spectrum, but has other dimensions I don’t know about.
  • It looks suspiciously like the mostly-disproven “learning styles” model
  • This whole idea might be some mixed-up combination of extraversion and conscientiousness from the Big 5. I don’t think that models it very well, though
  • yes, it’s possible my teacher meant no such thing, and this is my version of “don’t play the butter notes.” I don’t mind.
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