How Anthony Bourdain Taught Us to Move from FEAR of Other Human Beings to the Bravery of Meeting People Where They Are
3 Powerful Lessons Anthony Bourdain Taught Us About Teaching
How being otherfull changes everything
To begin, I have no idea how to talk about suicide. I‘m sure that I’m not alone in feeling that way when it comes to talking about this and other don’t-embarrass-us topics like sex, race, gender, death, and poverty. Look, we can claim we’re all getting woke in the 21st Century. But for some things, it’s still very much the Victorian era here in the home of the free and the brave.
I’ve had my share of brushes with suicide. A good friend of mine killed himself in high school; a dear friend has lost a parent to it. And, like probably every single teacher you know, I’ve seen a more than a few of my students and grads leave a bewildered wake of anguished family and friends behind. It’s an awful, awful business.
I’m not here to talk about suicide — but I’m not sure I can talk about Anthony Bourdain without mentioning it. His loss hit me personally, like it did to so many others. His work inspired me to start writing about the power of teaching more than a decade ago. Bourdain’s death sucks. For those who knew the man, worked with him, shared their lives with him, for his family and his dear friends, we can only offer our weak condolences. To all those left behind by suicide, I wish whatever healing, truth, and peace they can find.
I wanted to write a few words about why I think Bourdain was such a powerful influence on so many people. Why so many people felt an intimate connection with this self-admitted crusty old soul. Why people the world over gravitated to his storytelling, his humanity, and his passion. Why they wanted to literally do what he did, eat what he ate, listen to what he listened to, watch what he watched, and read what he read.
For me, it’s simple. Anthony Bourdain was an amazing teacher.
I can’t claim to know about him as a man in his personal life, but his influence on millions through the page and screen reveals his keen understanding of how to teach like a master.
Here are three things Tony did — and that you, dear reader, if you have any desire to teach, lead, or influence, should do too.
1. Bourdain met people where they are
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. Walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food. It’s a plus for everybody.” -Anthony Bourdain
Great teachers must first be great learners. Becoming a visitor in another town, country, or culture is an act of humility, especially if you do it with a true dedication to discovery. Leaving your own dialed-in comforts and boundaries forces you from your easily-overlooked dictatorial power. You have to leave having your bed the way you like it, your bathroom routine, your coffee style, your “I’m the master of my own world, damn it, and I like it the way I like it” world every human craves. Every one of us loves to be King (or Queen or whatever-title-ya-like) of our own realm.
However, in my experience, most of us travel in bubbles in which we try to recreate our home lives around us as we go. We don’t go to be changed. We go to be handled. To see things from a safe distance. To be fêted and fawned upon.
We say things like: “They don’t even have HAMBURGERS?!” “This beer is fking WARM” “where’s the air conditioning?” and “A barefoot lady cooking in the kitchen?! Umm…NO.” As travelers, so many of us suck.
Hell, I’ve taken high school students from Long Island on tours to three different continents and more than a dozen countries. Those kids will turn down the best morcillayou’ve ever had in your life in order to stuff their faces with vending machine Pringles and Coke. Unless it’s instagramable, they couldn’t give a rat’s arse about going into that 1000 year old church or taking that tango class. And before you laugh: how often do you go out of your way to go somewhere to be uncomfortable on purpose? In a way, going places to do things you already love is like watching a movie you already have watched. It’s fun, maybe — but it has no chance to thrill you. No chance to change you.
But when you travel to discover, with the notion that you aren’t the middle of the whole universe, you become a learner. The people and their culture become your teachers — and you get the keys to their locked doors. That’s when you get to the good stuff and experience the real people.
And that’s how great teachers get it done: great teachers see their students as their teachers.
Teachers College at Columbia University’s Chris Emdin in his electric book For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too talks about what he calls “Reality Pedagogy.” Emdin highlights the paradigm-shifting power of teachers who study their students’ “neoindigenous” culture with respect and curiosity.
“…the brilliance of neoindigenous youth cannot be appreciated by educators who are conditioned to perceive anything outside their own ways of knowing and being as not having value.”Great teachers pay attention to their students and relentlessly try to see the world through their students’ eyes. They are always prepared to leave their own point of view to learn. That kind of “travel” is humanizing, liberating, and transformative.
2. Bourdain ate what other people ate, no matter how funky
“I was in Liberia, and I think it was a tribal situation. They were eating out of one bowl full of unrecognizable protein. It was hot, very poor hygiene, definitely iffy. To be polite, I joined in. I had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen.” When the inevitable occurred, “it was really touch and go,” Bourdain [says] with solicitous understatement, so as not to trouble a delicate stomach. “I was crawling around praying for the better part of 48 hours. It was bad.”
-excerpt from “Anthony Bourdain Will ‘Try Anything Once’ — but He Isn’t Calling in Sick”
I was a picky eater when I was kid. Butter noodles, pizza, and fries or die! I lived in a small world, indeed. That is, until I went to Kenya as 21 year old privileged white boy at the end of college. At that point, I’d never had curry, Chinese food, or even that alien green paste called “guacamole.”
I was a wise-cracking idiot, joking about the “Ebola stew” that was put in front of me at our first meal. The school leader of my trip, a missionary Catholic priest named Father Don, put me in my place. “Mike, you are embarrassing me, our hosts, and yourself. These people are PROUD of who they are and the food they put on the table. You look and sound like a child.”
My face turned purple. It did the trick: not only did I knock off the bad comedy, I started to eat everything. I ate it all: antelope, ugali, goat— and I suddenly transformed from a tourist to a traveler. I was no longer eating — I was discovering. And many trips, tours, and experiences later, I’ve never been the same.
Look, we live in a Risk Manager’s World (sounds like the name of the worst amusement park ever). In education, everyone is afraid of live shooters, low test grades, and lawyers. But great teachers know that the real danger is an unwillingness to try new things. We have to tell our students “What you like is an important part of who you are — but it can become a prison.” Curiosity is the required special sauce for learning, the most powerful cure to the disease of stagnancy, ignorance, and boredom. To grow, you have to eat stuff that you don’t want to — just to see what happens.
When we truly encourage curiosity, we help our students see other worlds and, in turn, learn more about their own world. It takes courage. We must help others be brave in their curiosity. Lots of learning requires discomfort and risk. Sometimes you get sick. And it’s almost always worth it.
3. Bourdain let other people tell their own stories
“A journalist has to have an agenda — who-what-why-where — and I don’t want to ask those questions,” Bourdain said in a 2016 Eater interview. “That’s a prison to me. I’m not here to ask you specific questions, I’m here to ask general questions. What’s your life like? Tell me a story.”
When Tony traveled to a far away place to eat some exotic food, he was clearly not there to simply have a meal or two. He was there to hear the stories. To listen. “It’s not about what I eat,” Bourdain would say. “It’s who I eat with.” He seemed to relish the chance to explore the culture, politics, and the people of the places he visited. In the end, the food was a pretense. It was a reason to be somewhere to hear the stories of other people.
“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”
— Tahir Shah, in Arabian Nights
I’m not certain, but it seems to me that Bourdain knew the greatest paradox of teaching: you can’t teach anyone much of anything. Teachers certainly don’t teach subjects or skills. They teach people how to learn — and they do this best by modeling. Your job, when you teach, is to walk the walk: to be a “lead learner.” You have to listen. You want to move the world? Be movable.
There was a power to Bourdain’s sincerity that speaks to the greatest power a teacher can wield: genuine and passionate interest in other people. I call it being “otherfull” and I can think of few people who presented a better professional example of it than Anthony Bourdain. Because he started with respecting that other people’s stories were important, almost everyone opened their doors to him. They wanted to teach and learn from him.
“[I’m] definitely not a teacher, definitely not an advocate or a journalist. ‘A storyteller’ sounds good to me.” -Anthony Bourdain
Imagine a world in which every teacher — and every leader — was driven by being otherfull. A world in which we relished other people’s stories and let them impact us as much as we want to impact them.
I hate that Anthony Bourdain is gone and the way he left — but, man, let’s remember the way he lived and learned. You want to have an influence? You want people to follow you, learn from you? Get out of the center of everything. Be curious.
Lose those reservations.
Sources not already linked above:
Mike Kleba has been teaching high school English and Theatre for nearly 20 years. He’s taken a year sabbatical from the classroom to help lead DegreeCast, a search engine for higher education. Co-founder of Teachernomics.com, Kleba has spoken on stages around the world about the importance and power of teachers in leadership. He believes that humanity’s most important asset is the imagination.
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is a Tony-winning producer/writer/actor & CEO of TheDreamUnLocked: Boutique Coaching for Actors, Writers & Dreamers