Limiting beliefs and what we offer our audiences
Updated: Mar 24
Spoiler warning for In and of Itself.
This week, at the recommendation of the great Jay Acunzo, I watched Derek DelGaudio’s show In and of Itself. It’s a stunning hybrid of storytelling, experience design, and an ineffable but truly magical third ingredient that amounts to something like… transcendental connection…???
Yeah, I know... the term needs some work.
That ingredient of the show was the one that stunned me the most, though, and I think is the main reason I’ve spent most of the 18 waking hours that have passed since I finished the show thinking about it in some form.
DelGaudio’s show was a treatise on the shortcomings of our popular paths toward identity construction, and an ode to the profound meaning and fulfillment we can offer others when we are able to see them as they wish to be seen without being hampered by prejudices that our obsession with labels thrusts upon us.
Before the show starts and out of DelGaudio’s sight, each audience member picks a card from a wall of hundreds (thousands?) that makes a declarative statement about their identity; they said things like “I am a mother,” “I am a receptionist,” “I am an idiot,” etc.
At the end of the show, DelGaudio acknowledges that most people in the audience likely chose their identity card without giving it too much thought, opting instead to “have fun” with the task by choosing something one of the less-likely-to-be-applicable cards like “I am an idiot.” But he then asks those few audience members who chose their cards based on a true connection to what was written on them, and one by one, he looks them in the eye, and tells them what he sees – which, in every instance, was exactly what had been written on the cards the attendees chose.
Unsurprisingly, the reactions were intense and encompassed a range of awe, glee, and in some cases, sadness. But it was clear that each of the attendees DelGaudio “saw” in this way – from “the good time” to “nobody” – felt a deep gratitude at having been recognized as the people they saw themselves but may not regularly be affirmed as. And the reception of this form-bending take on the theater show really drove home how impactful these sorts of disruptions to the status quo can be when they nourish some core human need.
Another example from In and of Itself: about 15% of the way through the performance, DelGaudio asked for a volunteer who would be willing to leave the show early and return tomorrow. The volunteer who was selected was given a hulking book by another attendee – the one who had been kicked out of yesterday’s show – that was full of others’ writings. They were then instructed to leave the show and write in the book how they imagined the show would end. The show now becomes collaborative, and it takes place beyond the theater where it started.
I have a feeling that paragraph felt like it made no sense to anyone but me and anyone who’s already seen the show. But I mean, shame on you if you’re reading this without having watched that phenomenal work of art first!
The part of my work that people see happens on stages. And typically, it’s a pretty unilateral experience: I speak, I perform, and the audience listens. But In and of Itself has me wondering just how much more meaningful my work – and your work? – could be if we committed to breaking the format in order to deliver something that gets closer to these core needs that all human beings have.
As someone who speaks about the intersection between art and innovation, it amazes me how a show like In and of Itself is able to reveal how many more ways there are to mess with what we produce and how we live than are readily apparent. Most of the insights I share most obviously apply to how we approach our relationships, our routines, and our ambitions. But it’s incredibly easy for us to become those fish that are unaware of the water we’re swimming in.
My homework for myself is to explore how I might create an experience that breaks the unilateral and contained format of the typical keynote. Maybe one that unites audiences from different engagements; maybe one that finds some way to continue itself when my sixty minutes are up.
My homework for you is to try to explore how you might do the same.
If you’re a marketer, what assumptions are you making about the limitations of an email campaign, and how might you reach closer towards the part of your users that makes them feel human?
If you’re an executive, what assumptions are you making about where a leader must “sit” relative to the people they lead? How might you more closely integrate those people into a single part of your decision-making process that offers them more meaningful autonomy and/or contribution?
If you’re a spouse or partner, what assumptions do you make about what your relationship “is not” simply because of the dynamic you’ve built to date? What do you refrain from sharing or proposing? And what might be waiting for you on the other door of those explorations?
Enough rambling from me. I’m off to noodle on my homework some more.
Go watch In and of Itself.
And then, show someone that you see them.