Thursday, February 16, 2017

What Rabbis, and Maybe Others, Should Learn

Tyler Cowen interviews Rabbi David Wolpe:
COWEN: How would you alter or improve rabbinical training?

WOLPE: I’ve given this a lot of thought. Let me just mention one area. When I speak to rabbinical students, I tell them all the time that the single most valuable commodity you have as a rabbi . . . you can answer that yourself, and then I’ll tell you what I think: your voice. Most people are going to come in contact with you when you speak to them. Not all of them, but most. There’ll be more people who come to your services than the number of people at whose bedside you will sit as they die.

And yet, most rabbis — most people — don’t know how to speak.
This remains my single piece of career advice, should there actually be any young people reading this blog. Learn to speak.


G. Verloren said...

While that's certainly good advice for rabbis, since pretty much the entirety of their vocation is based in addressing people, I'm not entirely sure it offers much to people who intend to take on careers that have nothing to do with public speaking.

If you want to build rockets, you need to learn physics and chemistry, and you probably don't need to be a terribly good speaker. Take Richard Feynman, for example - an utterly brilliant astrophysicist, but someone who was constantly tripping over his words, cutting short his own thoughts, revising his statements mid-sentence, and generally being just a little bit awkward in his speech. And yet, his sheer enthusiasm, his incredible breadth of knowledge, and his quick, analytic, and flexible mind quite effectively made up for whatever shortcomings he had in the realm of speaking to others. He wasn't elegant or eloquent, but he was accurate and sensible. And besides - he spent most of his time crunching numbers and talking theory while dealing with other scientists who themselves weren't exactly the greatest of speakers.

Now the counterpoint to this might be someone like Carl Sagan, who had an incredible gift for speaking. But Sagan wasn't your traditional scientist - he worked far more in the realm of spreading ideas and acting as an interdisciplinary liason than he ever did as a laboratory specialist. Both roles are invaluable to the pursuit of science, but they're very different endeavors and they call for very different sets of skills and abilities.

To return to the topic of religion, it's the difference between being a preacher and being a church administrator. If you're the person giving sermons, obviously you need to be good at speaking - but if you're the person keeping the church's books and managing funds, your ability to speak is largely irrelevant so long as you're a competant accountant and budgeter. (And likewise, you obviously wouldn't expect a rabbi to be able to do your taxes.)

Sure, knowing how to speak well is something anyone can make use of. But you could just as easily advise people to take up mathematics, or to learn to speak French, or to take up knitting. All of those suggestions might be generally good advice, but they're not particularly useful pieces of advice except to people who plan to specialize in those fields somehow.

John said...

I have several times been to a conference that the Park Service holds every year, where scientists funded by the NPS present their results to senior management. It's about half biologists and have a mix of other stuff. So there are all those field biologists who would rather be with bears than people, but if they want to keep their funding they have to get up and speak. Once there was a guy who restored bronze statues. I thought, you might think that by going into bronze statue restoration you could avoid public speaking, but you would be wrong.

G. Verloren said...

But your examples are all in fields where people are reliant on being given funding, rather than in fields where they make money for themselves.

If rather than restoring bronze statues on the government's dime, you instead create bronze statues in a private foundry, you're effectively never going to speak publically in your entire career.

John said...

I don't think so. I bet if you make bronze statues for private clients you have to visit those clients and give sales presentations. Certainly architects have to, and so do sculptors who install works in front of buildings. The people I know who do things like remote sensing for archaeological sites or paleobotany regularly go to conferences and give talks, so that they put themselves out where people can see them. Everybody has to drum up business.

I'm sure it is possible to do all of these things without public speaking, but I still say public speaking skill is a big advantage for people in a huge range of fields.

leif said...

in my experience the public-speaking-related skills that matter most for people in fields that reward research and deep thinking such as atomic physics, are 1) being able to get up in front of an occasional crowd of peers and their spouses and say what you've been up to; 2) not forgetting everything you thought they needed to know; 3) occasionally presenting to and convincing those who give grants (e.g. the NSF); and 4) not completely forgetting names, especially of those people you have known for 40 years. replacement of stuttering, stammering and nervousness with grace, coherency and some peppered humor counts but isn't strictly required.