Show, Don’t Tell
So the seer spoke as untroubled he held his all-bronze shield. No symbol was fixed to his shield’s circle. For he does not wish to appear the bravest, but to be the bravest, as he harvests the fruit of his mind’s deep furrow, where his careful resolutions grow.
Aeschylus, “Seven Against Thebes” ll.590–594
The word show is a slippery fish. It’s a term of abuse for those whose action seem to be a pretense: He’s just being showy. It’s also a noun for an intentional pretense: That was an excellent show. And strangely, as I am meaning it here in the title, it’s a term that denotes clarity and the very lack of pretense: show me the evidence. Such is the nature of words.
On closer examination, there’s even an interesting play in the history of the word itself. Show evolves from the Proto-Indo-European root skeue- meaning roughly “to pay attention to, to perceive.” Showing comes out of this truthful looking, though over time we’ve inverted it to become the object of the looking. Show also relates to another PIE root, deik- which means more closely “to show.” This root helps relate our term to the Greek word dokein, which is translated as “appears” in the passage above. As in the passage, this root of the word tends more towards pretense rather than truthfulness or clarity. In it’s origins, show hints at our current slipperiness of usage, and if we’re honest, it points to one of the core human difficulties we face in attempting to show.
Interestingly enough, this has been a constant topic of conversation with my colleagues in the field of design and development over the years. In the last year alone, I think I’ve turned this title’s phrase over with one friend or another at least a half-dozen times. When we sling this mantra at each other, we’re wanting it to mean in the way of clarifying one’s perceptions about you and your work. Telling, in this way of putting it, represents that shadowy side of showing: all pretense, usually in the form of empty promises, half-baked excuses, and self-deceptive descriptions. We’re wanting our work and relationships to be the kind of human actions that clarify in their lack of pretense, showing the truth of the matter at hand. We think those are the kinds of decisions that we’ll look back on without regret.
This is, of course, a lofty goal, and such loftiness, which itself skews towards showiness, must be met with the question of actual practice. What does it mean for one’s work to show — to demonstrate what’s really there — rather than show — to create a pretense? The good news, perhaps, is that the answer to such questions is never simple, it’s one that is constantly redefined in every minute and grandiose decision that we face. In the context of our creative work it might be manifested like this: we meet our agreed-upon deadlines, we communicate the truth about blundered scheduling estimates, we own even our most egregious mistakes.
Of course, we are only human. We get this wrong a lot. On our own, we tend heavily towards showiness; it’s probably a defense mechanism for the inherent difficulties of going at it alone. But I think this is why we choose to work together: because in the aggregate, we more easily find the courage and encouragement to show rather than be showy. Together, we can more easily avoid appearing to be, and instead, we can simply be brave and so much more.
Adapted from a post originally appearing on http://punkave.com.