For 15 weeks in college, Comm Theory was the bane of my existence.
Anyone who was a Communications Studies major can relate to the seemingly unnecessary torture that came from that class. And at the same time, most of us who had to take this class probably couldn’t even tell you why it was so hard…it just was.
It’s often referred to as a ‘weed out’ class. To remain a Comm Studies major, one has to pass this class with a C or higher, and you only get two attempts to take the class. Something like 50% of students fail the first time around.
Defined by my alma mater’s website, COMM 2100: Introduces students to traditional and contemporary theories about human communication processes including the nature of theory building, and major theoretical developments within the field of communication.
We communicate…we’re humans, it’s what we do. Why the hell do there need to be THEORIES and STUDIES about this?
When you’re a Comm Studies major, you’re going into marketing or PR or journalism — something decidedly NOT in the field of science. We’re not into theories and studies.
Alas, it was forced upon us if we hoped to earn that Comm Studies degree.
We had to learn about communication theories.
Like many of my peers, I did not understand the point of the class, but forced my way through it. 9 years later, there are 3 distinct things I remember from the class:
- Cognitive dissonance theory: And I only remember enough about this one to make me dangerous and throw the term ‘cognitive dissonance’ around like I’m an mf’n scientist. (I am mf’n not.)
- Cheetle: The professor once told us a story about how he and his classmates made up a word for the orange dust left on your fingertips after eating Cheetos. I still think about this every time I eat Cheetos. (Thanks, college degree!)
- Good theories are ones that can be disproven: This one…I struggled with. I resisted this concept so much, wrestled with the logic of it for a very long time. What do you mean good theories can be disproven? Wouldn’t you want your theories to be…proven?
I’d be at work (my college job at the time was waiting tables at Outback Steakhouse, mate) or with friends, or driving home for the weekend, and the thought would enter my head and my brow would immediately furrow. WHY would you want your theory to be able to be DISPROVEN?
SCIENCE MAKES NO SENSE.
It wasn’t until this summer that I finally got an answer.
One of my clients is a scientist. A really impressive one, with a Ph.D. from Cornell.
She looks at everything through a lens of logic and data and A/B testing. I look at everything through a lens of “how does this make me feel?” and “don’t try and tell me zombies are impossible!!! It’s a LEGITIMATE FEAR.”
I decided to ask her about this whole theory thing.
“I once had a professor tell me that a GOOD theory is one that can be DISPROVEN. That’s utterly incorrect, right? What was wrong with that guy?”
A look of amusement came across her face, as often happens when we chat.
“That is actually correct. If a theory can be disproven, that means it’s testable. It means you’ve theorized what you think will happen, made observations, and collected evidence based on these observations that supports your theory. All you can do is collect a lot of evidence. And as long as the evidence is consistent with the theory, the theory is considered validated. But it can never be proven.”
For the first time, this concept actually made sense to me.
Philosopher Karl Popper famously said, “There is surely something right in the idea that a science can succeed only if it can fail.”
Failure is a sign that the process is working.
(Here’s where I take this remarkable scientific realization and make it woo woo, because #feeler.)
While I’m a very curious person, I also get tripped up a lot by fear. Whenever I’ve made some seemingly bold or brave choice, it’s usually because the idea/thought popped into my head, and I acted on a whim, without thinking twice.
Shortly after, thinking kicks in, and it’s usually in the form of crippling overthinking.
“Why did I make this choice? I can’t do this. How am I supposed to make this work — if I try that thing, surely I will fail.”
Fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, fear of failure.
But…isn’t life kind of one big experiment? Do any of us really know what we’re doing?
NO! WE DON’T!
(If you don’t believe me, try arguing with some scientists about it.)
Failure means we tried. It means we wanted an answer to something, we followed our curiosity down the rabbit hole, and maybe it didn’t work out, but we have a better idea of how we could do it differently next time.
Failure is a sign that the process is working.
(Probably writing that on a Post-it note as soon as I publish this.)
So this week, I’m going to try and test some theories. I’m going to take action on something (or things) I’ve been putting off due to fear. I’m going to work on more whim-based action, and less overthinking. (More underthinking?)
Here’s to theorizing.
Here’s to trying.
Here’s to failure.
I hope you fail this week. (If you only read one sentence of this entire post, I really, really hope it’s not that one.)