Generative Conversations

February 07, 2023

I just had lunch with a friend. It was a couple hours long and we talked about everything from Tesla product positioning to the role of the Ten Commandments in society, from sex to the nature of Girardian terror and social media, from the idea of dematerialization to the effects increasing wealth has on consumer buying habits. I learned a lot from him - I always do - but I learned even more from the combination of us both talking things out.

Conversations with him are always like that chiefly because 1. he’s insanely smart (and I can at least keep up for the most part) and 2. because neither of us give a single shit about how right we are when we say something. There’s no caveating or hedging; we just blurt it out.

I’m not sure how important item #1 actually is. I think intelligence will just change the Set-of-Things that end up getting discussed, or maybe the diversity of the abstractions or connections made. But #2 is vital and the difficulty of doing this is really easy to underestimate.

Not giving a shit about how right you are, in part, means not caring what other people think about what you say. Mimetic impulses run so deeply in humanity that it’s really hard to counteract their natural force. This friend and I say intentionally contrarian things almost as a habit. I think this contrarian streak helps at least tamp down on the mimesis enough to see what lies underneath.

Conversations like this end up being really fun and something special. There’s debate, but the chief purpose is not debate. There’s truth-seeking too, but the chief purpose isn’t exactly truth either. The best word I’ve come up with is “generative”. The whole idea is to toss ideas around. Having people around you can learn from is special. But having people around that let you learn together is even better. We end up thinking of new ideas or combining old ideas in interesting ways and changing our frame of reference.

It’s always good natured and relaxed and fun, and these are my favorite kind of conversations. It takes a lot of trust to just blurt out a bunch of wrong stuff and see what sticks. You have to let your guard down. I’ve known this guy for 20 years now and the conversations have gotten better over time.

I have other friends that I’ve known for awhile where this sort of generative conversation never happens. There’s lots of reasons for this, not all of them bad. But the reason I really don’t like is when it’s impossible for us to (implicitly) agree that we aren’t going to give a shit about how right we are when talk.

What’s most surprising about this is that the pursuit of truth can actually get in the way, at least temporarily. That is to say, sometimes we need to set aside the short-term goal of truth to pursue a longer term thought path that will eventually meander back that way. Some people hold themselves back by being so tied to truth (or debate) that they won’t do the reframing necessary to see where things lead.

I’ve always thought of the pursuit of truth as a monotonic function. This dovetails with the Scientific Method, but even that is focused on truth at the unit level of the experiment. I need to apply the fact that it is definitely not to both my own outlook and the nature of human inquiry over centuries. And that is a conclusion I would definitely not have come to without having generative conversations like this.

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