To Be the Fool—in Literature and Life

Rejecting winning in a world that prizes winning

Grant Faulkner

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A few years ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to relinquish my need to be right.

We’ve all been there, right? Whether in a casual conversation or a meeting at work or in a political “discussion” on Twitter, we insist on our version of events, arguing ardently for our opinion.

The need to be right is fundamentally a part of being human because we yearn to be seen and understood, but it can lead to lifelong grudges and even wars (another fundamental part of being human, unfortunately).

I made my resolution because it occurred to me that when you fight for your position in an unyielding way, you usually don’t convince the other person of anything. You’re right all by yourself, and sometimes you’ve made the world a little worse for trying to make another see how right you are.

It was a fascinating resolution because it was an exercise in humility. Every time I felt the need to do battle, I paused, stepped back, and let it go. I gradually learned that it could be a joy to shrug things off. I didn’t have to deal with all of the emotions that come with digging into a position, and I tended to open up and listen to others more. Instead of arguing, I asked questions. A potential debate became a conversation. It became fun to let others be right.

(This all comes with a big caveat, of course. You have to fight for what you think is right when it comes to serious matters like social justice, inequity, and any harmful behavior another person is doing. Also, if you’re one who needs to practice the art of speaking up for yourself, take this with a grain of salt. I’m not arguing for people to silence themselves.)

Enter the Fool

I’m thinking of all of this because I’m thinking of the benefits of being a fool and the Fool’s long literary history. In literature, the archetypal Fool babbles, acts like a child, and doesn’t understand social conventions (or at least pretends not to), so the Fool can speak the truth in ways others can’t. You might say the Fool is the ultimate storyteller: they take risks to tell the tale only they can see.

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Grant Faulkner

Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, co-founder of 100 Word Story, writer, tap dancer, alchemist, contortionist, numbskull, preacher.