They Just Don’t Get It

You’ve probably heard it. I know I’ve heard it in various contexts. It usually goes something like this:

“He doesn’t get it. You can tell; he just doesn’t get it.”

It seems to me that there are basically two worldviews from which this kind of thing emanates. One is what Robert Pirsig would call the “classical” worldview. This view looks at how things work—what you might call underlying form—and the people that tend to hold it seem to have an intuitive understanding of systems, their workings, and their inputs and outputs. The other worldview is what Pirsig would call the “romantic” worldview. This view looks at experience—the esoteric—and the people that tend to hold it seem to have an intuitive understanding of people, relationships, and other organic structures.

When my friend the IT pro tells me someone doesn’t get it, I’m pretty sure I know what he means. He means that person doesn’t understand the causal chain that holds the system together. He means that person doesn’t know how it is that they managed to turn that box into an open SMTP relay. He means they don’t understand what inputs to deliver to the system to get the desired outputs. He means they don’t understand some or all of what happens to the inputs once they’re inside the system.

When my friend the advertising creative director tells me someone doesn’t get it, I’m pretty sure I know what he means, too. He means that person isn’t grooving. He means that person isn’t able to perceive the subtle elegance of human desire. He means that person is uninitiated into the arcane college of the storyteller. He means they lack a sensitivity or familiarity with the archetypes and other patterns that speak to something that is profoundly constitutional about the human being.

This particular creative director I’m thinking of has said things to me before that expose his bias regarding the approaches taken by people like my IT friend. And the IT friend has said things that expose his bias regarding the approaches taken by people like my creative director friend. They don’t know each other, but I’m sure they’d like each other quite a lot. But when considering how to approach some problem, they would employ significantly different strategies. And they’d probably be, at minimum, skeptical about the other’s strategy.

What is interesting to me is that my creative director friend—and the understanding suggested by his approaches—has a value that is extremely difficult to quantify. It’s also difficult to demonstrate. There is a reason why Shakespeare resonates through the centuries in a way that his contemporaries do not.  This reason is accessible only to those that “get it.” But this getting of it is something that happens in an esoteric way. Systems aren’t like that. That you do or do not understand how a system works can be empirically demonstrated; that you do or do not understand Shakespeare’s endurance cannot.

I think that when a creative says, “they don’t get it,” there would seem to be a special significance. The creative is trying to address some tangible goal, but the tools she wields are subtle and arcane. These tools hold the power to affect many, including those who won’t or can’t acknowledge their value.


Creatives can’t go around bitching about this and act like that is tantamount to a solution. Creatives can and should learn about and create new tools for demonstrating their value. Creatives need to learn more about systems and earn some respect. But they also need to experiment with and champion new kinds of systems that are consonant with the creative worldview. They need to work to introduce creative approaches into the decision making processes that otherwise go generally unaddressed by creative firms.

Managers, engineers, executives and other systems thinkers can’t go around bitching about people not getting their systems and act like that’s tantamount to a solution either. They need to try to learn a little something about art and its relationship to volition. They need to mentally provide for the possibility that something they don’t understand and can’t quantify really can be powerful. And they need to reach out and collaborate with creatives around the question of where and what to measure.

I don’t think I’ve adduced some profound solution here. I think it’s really rather a bare minimum. Because for both parties, “they don’t get it,” can just be a big cop out. It gives rhetorical cover to a sense of superiority and most importantly, it justifies apathy in the face of creative challenge. If “they” are going to “get it,” it won’t be because “we” complained that they don’t.

Update 4/27/10 2:45pm CST:

Friend and smart person, Brad Nunnally, notes a far more compelling post than mine what seems to have some connection. It is written by a Mr. Andrew Hinton, and entitled, “Why We Just Don’t Get It.” This bit seemed particularly salient:

Recently I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues about why certain industries or professions seem stuck in a particular mode, unable to see the world changing so drastically around them. For example, why don’t most advertising and marketing professionals get that a website isn’t about getting eyeballs, it’s about creating useful, usable, delightful interactive experiences? And even if they nod along with that sentiment in the beginning, they seem clueless once the work starts?

Or why do some or coworkers just not seem to get a point you’re making about a project? Why is it so hard to collaborate on strategy with an engineer or code developer? Why is it so hard for managers to get those they manage to understand the priorities of the organization?

And in these conversations, it’s tempting — and fun! — to somewhat demonize the other crowd, and get pretty negative about our complaints.

While that may feel good (and while my typing this will probably not keep me from sometimes indulging in such a bitch-and-moan session), it doesn’t help us solve the problem. Because what’s at work here is a fundamental difference in how our brains process the world around us. Doing a certain kind of work in a particular culture of others that work creates a particular architecture in our brains, and continually reinforces it. If your brain grows a hammer, everything looks like a nail; if it grows a set of jumper cables, everything looks like a car battery.

You should, y’know, read the whole thing.