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Why you should stop asking, ‘What’s the takeaway’?

The assumption that the substance of a book, or a lecture, or a film is in its synopsis is one of the most foolish assumptions of our age

The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman famously told an interviewer that he couldn’t explain magnetic attraction in terms of anything that the interviewer found familiar. Photo courtesy: Caltech Archives
The theoretical physicist Richard Feynman famously told an interviewer that he couldn’t explain magnetic attraction in terms of anything that the interviewer found familiar. Photo courtesy: Caltech Archives (Caltech Archives)

A buzzword is a phrase that people do not take seriously when they say it but give it inordinate respect when they hear it. For instance, people who are highly creative are never the ones who call their thinking “out of the box" because they do not think in any other way; and in any case no one really knows what “the box" means. And, I believe I can prove that no one who has ever used the word “disrupt" at a conference has ever disrupted anything. But there is a catchphrase that people take very seriously even when they say it and it goes like this: “The takeaway is…"

A takeaway is not only the gist of something, but also a gist that will be of some material use. Its influence is more vast than we realize and its destructive power is underrated. It makes us presume a hierarchy of usefulness in a book, lecture or even a film, which converts an intellectual exercise into something merely transactional.

The takeaway phenomenon has contributed to the exodus of avid readers from fiction and poetry, to a genre that has not had the sense to give itself a proper name—“non-fiction". An increasing number of people today seem to read for very clear material ends—to gain specific information that will help them professionally, or to get richer, or to live better and longer, or to appear smart. Even a global magazine called Delayed Gratification, a part of the slow journalism movement, which means long articles, has a “Cheat Sheet" on the last page that gives a takeaway of every article in the issue in case you have, “no time to read the entire issue, but want to appear as though you have".

Writers and intellectuals, or entrepreneurs who are misunderstood as writers and intellectuals, have responded to the modern global demand for the “takeaway". This has altered mainstream intellectuality.

The biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by the popular biographer Walter Isaacson was a truly intellectual effort but he pitched the book to prospective readers by adapting the large tome in The Wall Street Journal as “The Lessons of Leonardo: How to Be a Creative Genius". The subtitle said that Leonardo, “was not superhuman", and “following his methods can bring great intellectual rewards to anyone." Thus a perfectly upright writer begins to make spurious claims as he goes about explaining how “the genius" of Leonardo can be “emulated". He used subheads like, “be curious about everything"; “observe attentively" and “indulge fantasy". It feels as though Isaacson asked himself, “What is the takeaway of my book?" And he arrived at that corrupt thing called “the gist".

The assumption that the substance of a book, or a lecture, is in its synopsis is one of the most foolish assumptions of our age. The substance of an intellectual body of work is usually all of it. And the best thing to do with it is to simply enjoy all of it instead of stringing it upside down and torturing it by asking the pettiest question an intelligent life can ask—what is the takeaway?

An intellectual exercise is conducted for no reason other than enjoyment; and its most stirring feature is the absolute anonymity of its moments (unless you get to write a column about the nonsense of takeaways). It is doubtful that there is even a single person in this world who has become a “creative genius" after reading Isaacson’s biography.

But the lure of the takeaway will always work its magic on people. They even read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers expecting to adopt something of the book in their lives even though the actual “takeaway" of the book is that most people who read the book will never be outliers because that is the very substance of the word.

The rise of the inspirational talk industry, too, is aligned with our decay into the takeaway culture. People deduce many meanings from motivational talks, but what every guru or expert is actually saying is: “Why can’t you be like me? Why can’t you be like me?". It is a futile exhortation because you can’t be like him; your neurological system and circumstances and even nationhood are different. But people keenly collect takeaways and imitate the suppliers of those gists, leading unnatural lives, and then one day they will listen to another talk about why there is a yawning emptiness inside them.

I feel it is richer to watch the most “useless" clips. One of my favourites is an interview of the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman where the interviewer asks him to explain “that feeling" between magnets and Feynman refuses to answer, saying that at every stage of his answer to the seemingly simple question on magnetism he would have to explain whole fields of science, and that there is no such thing as a simple answer. Everything is simple once you know, he says, but until then everything is too complex. It is fascinating to be reminded that nature does not reveal itself through language. There is no takeaway in the clip beyond the fact that his monologue, of about 7 minutes, is in a way about the pointlessness of takeaways.

We tend to underestimate the value of our amateurishness. We earn as professionals, but we enjoy life the most as amateurs—as ordinary musicians, artists, cricketers and chess players. The same beauty of ordinariness underpins reading for reading-sake. What we enjoy the most are subjects outside our domains.

If I may introduce you to my recent consumption of rich and useless information which will never make me a better person: I learned recently that according to a theory, the neurons of the human brain probably emerged from various primordial microbes that then concentrated in various parts of the brain; and that all evidence points to the fact that, contrary to what many scholars have been telling us, barter followed the invention of money and not the other way round; and that it is highly possible that there is not a single person on earth who fully understands Blockchain technology. Also I stumbled upon something that made me wonder whether yet another governor of the Reserve Bank of India will quit without paying me back what he himself has claimed on my cash, “I promise to pay the bearer the sum of…". And I started wondering what will happen if every central bank governor in the world fulfils the promise he makes on currency notes. I found the answer but I will not tell you because you will then think this piece had a takeaway.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets @manujosephsan

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