Humor engineer Andrew Tarvin presents Humor at Work at TEDxOhioStateUniversity (Transcript)
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Andrew Tarvin – Humor engineer
Have you ever been in a class that was so boring that you fell asleep and started to dream about happiness and milkshakes?
Only to be woken up by a professor reading slides to you? I’m here to tell you that when you enter the corporate world, it doesn’t get any better. But the good news is that it can.
The problem with people in the corporate world is sometimes they’re so focused on the bottom line that they just focus in on efficiency. And I love efficiency, I’m an engineer, I’m obsessed with it. In fact, I was even born three weeks early because apparently, even in the womb, I said: “I’m ready to go right now!”
But the problem is that just because something is efficient, it doesn’t mean that it’s effective. Just because something saves time, it doesn’t mean that it actually gets results.
And if you’re thinking: “Why should I believe you, skinny Hugh Jackman?”
First of all, you don’t have to remind me that I’m skinny. I’ve been skinny my entire life, I was born 8.3 pounds and then stayed that way till I was 15 years old.
But second, it’s because I’ve actually been there. The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I interned at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati. And at the end of the summer, I had to give a presentation to a review board that would ultimately decide whether or not I could get hired full-time at the company. I slaved over a presentation that I ended up thinking was killer. Killer because it was going to bore them to death.
So the night before my presentation, I decided that I needed to change everything. And so the single most important presentation I’d ever given in my life started with this slide.
I can tell you from personal experience that creating an entire presentation in Microsoft Paint is not very efficient. But it does get people to pay attention.
My presentation ended with what I think was my greatest masterpiece, an ‘M.C. Escher meets Keith Haring’ style drawing of the review board that day. And yes, those are visually accurate stick figures of each one of the senior leaders that was going to decide my fate.
After I delivered my presentation, I went up and talked with each of the people, and one of the associate directors pulled me aside and he’s like: “You know, you’re pretty good at PowerPoint.”
I said: “I’d like to think that I excel at it.”
He was like: “Was that a Microsoft Office pun?”
I replied: “Word.”
Two days later, I found out I got the job. I’d never really realized that most people think that humor and work are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. To reference Animaniacs, people think that humor is Pinky and work is the Brain. In reality, you need to bring both of them together in order to actually try to take over the world.
Because people who use humor at work are more productive, less stressed, paid more and happier, which is something that I never learned in any one of my college classes. Because our classes teach us the skills we need to do a job, but no one really teaches you the skills that you need to enjoy that job.
And it turns out, as Americans, we are not very good at it. 83% of Americans feel stressed out at work. 55% of Americans are unsatisfied with their jobs, and 47% of Americans struggle to stay happy. Of course, it’s even worse in Disney world where statistically, only 1 out of 7 dwarfs are happy. But still, 1 out of 2 people are still pretty scary.
A few years after my internship, I was working at Procter & Gamble in New York City. And I was promoted from analyst to project manager, and I still used humor in the workplace.
I was a project manager, I got to name my projects whatever I wanted. So instead of the standard “Retail Sales 2.0”, I named them things like “Project Awesomization”.
I also taught improv to all of my team members so that they can improve their leadership skills and start to brainstorm and think faster on their feet. Whenever someone new would join my team, I’d have them fill out a personality assessment like Myers-Briggs or more importantly, “Which Star Wars character are you?”
If you’re wondering, I’m an INTJ R2-D2 a shock to none of you.
But after one of my weekly status meetings, one of my co-workers came up to me — it was Sarah, a.k.a. Ewok — and Sarah was like, “Drew, I just want to thank you.” I had no idea what she was talking about, so, of course, I said, “It’s about time.”
“Why are you thanking me?”
And she said, “It’s because of this project, it’s been fun.”
I was like, “Finally! Someone else who appreciates the joy of Bayesian probability and predictive analytics.”
She was like, “What are you talking about? No, not the project itself, but they way that you managed it. Before I joined Project Awesomization, I was thinking about quitting because I was so stressed out. But then I joined your team, and it was different because we had fun. And somewhere along the way, I realized that no one told you to use humor, you just decided to, so thank you.”