Alfie Kohn - author, public speaker, education advocate and critic of the ‘status quo’ - recently visited Adelaide during his first ever Australian tour.
I played a small role in helping to coordinate this visit and, as such, I was fortunate enough to spend some additional time with Alfie before and after his public presentation.
Since then I have found myself inundated with questions along the lines of, “So what is he really like?”
I’ve found myself both unwilling and unable to answer this question despite my enthusiasm for Alfie as an author and as a person. After letting this percolate for a little while I have been able to identify a few reasons for my hesitation.
Firstly, I only spent a weekend with him so I couldn’t come close to answering the question of who he really is even if I wanted to.
Secondly, it turns out that I don’t want to try to posit a response because the answer to the question “who is Alfie Kohn?” is not my story to share – it’s his! Alfie is extraordinarily generous in offering so much of himself through his writing and public speaking that I feel it would be somehow ungrateful of me to try to supersede this. It is also my impression that Alfie would not appreciate someone treating an encounter with him as some sort of commodity.
Those of you who were fortunate enough to see Alfie speak will know that his onstage dynamic is confident and spirited.
This is balanced by the fact that, off-stage, he is also humble and private. He seems grounded by a self-assured certainty and yet he is never more than a second away from bouncing with an irrepressible energy. As I mentioned above, Alfie is willing to share a great deal of himself - his insight, his intellect, his experiences – and yet he is unafraid to assert his boundaries. Alfie embraces his role as a public advocate but makes it clear that he is not public property. When Alfie does embrace the 'celebrity' aspect of his work it is not to stroke his own ego but simply as a means to a practical end. He references his appearances on Oprah not to brag but as a tactical shorthand to prove the validity of his message to a certain type of audience.
Is all of this a cause, or perhaps an effect, of the message Alfie espouses? A man focused on intrinsic motivation is surely likely to feel that following his own instincts, rather than bowing to societal pressure, is nothing but natural.
I don't feel comfortable undermining Alfie's right to control the degree to which he presents himself to the world. Yet I also appreciate what an incredibly privileged position I was in to spend time with someone who is admired by so many. I know how excited I was to have that opportunity and so I understand why many others are interested. I can't reveal 'who he is', but I can share what is mine by relating a little of my own personal experience...
I enjoyed a whirlwind 48 hours talking politics and parenting, comedy and coriander, dietary needs and dating. I spent a blissful afternoon strolling with a new friend through the Adelaide Botanic Gardens and I remember little of the fauna but much of the laughter. I consistently felt challenged when I was with Alfie. Certainly not in a confrontational sense but because the questions he posed were like grease for the cogs of my mind. I found him to be an intellectually stimulating conversationalist because he did not only offer his own perspective but used a style of probing (that is deliciously close to Socratic irony) to invite me to deeply reflect on my own position. If, once there, I found that my opinions were based primarily on suppositions then Alfie gently coaxed me towards developing a more deliberate and actualised outlook.
So that's how I felt when I was with Alfie, but perhaps you’re still curious about his quirks – interested in knowing about the man behind the words, driven by the same odd fascination the hustles our collective gaze towards candid snaps of make-up-free “celebs”. But these human traits are not mine to share, they are his. I feel privileged that he shared them with me and I will repay this trust by keeping them between us. If your thirst for more 'Alfie' must be quenched then you can read his blog. It is a place where, empowered by choice and control, Alfie has subtly seasoned his pedagogical profile by making public some of his personal and political inclinations.
The last and most valuable insight that I want to share, to answer the question that would be on the forefront of many minds, is this;
Yes, Alfie means what he says.
He walks the walk.
He lives and breathes the message.
He is absolutely authentic.
If you’ve read Alfie’s books then you’ve already heard his voice. There is very little distinction in tone, content or delivery from page to stage to dinner table. From his pedagogical principles to his wry sense of humour, it’s all right there in print. Alfie himself is standing before you – not even hiding “between the lines” but prominently embedded into them. His personality is the thread that weaves the words into such stunning and persuasive passages.
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They say “don’t meet your heroes”, but I’m so glad that I did. Partly because it’s always nice to make friends with such an authentic, intelligent, unique individual and partly because without Alfie I might never have discovered the magic that is Harold and Maude!