“This is the bit that gets heavy,” comedian-turned-philosopher Robert Coyle warns the crowd.
There are about 20 people who have given up their Saturday night to come to his weekly talk in the Accents Coffee & Tea Lounge on Stephen Street Lower. The show’s title and subject each week: Being Wrong Is Right.
Coyle continues: “Everyone in this room is going to die.”
It’s just under an hour into the talk—a one-man crusade to make the world a better place by making its inhabitants happier people—and so far, it’s been going well.
The audience has been engaged, even captivated, by what Coyle has to say, nodding when a good point is made, chuckling when a joke is cracked.
Only one woman, after fighting the urge, has dozed off. She has dark, wavy hair and is sitting near the front. To be fair, the brown leather couches in the downstairs lounge of the coffee shop are dreamily comfortable.
But Coyle’s grim reminder of our looming and inescapable doom brings a sudden change in atmosphere to the room, a sense of uneasiness; there is shifting in seats, particularly in those occupied by the greyer cohort. The woman who’d drifted off is now fully awake.
“No one tells you this,” Coyle continues. “And you’re going to be in your body when that happens.” (He’s talking about the act of dying.)
His point, of course, is to get a move on, get the finger out, start living your life, be the person you want to be now!
It’s an obvious point to make, and his talk seems full of obvious ones like it. But Coyle doesn’t claim to be breaking new ground. People know this stuff when they hear it, he says. “It’s just that no one is saying it.”
Shaking the Fear
The clue to what Being Wrong Is Right is all about is in the name: the talk explores the value to be found in allowing oneself to be wrong.
“People are terrified of being wrong,” says Coyle. “So much so, that it stops them from developing as people.”
Once you allow yourself to be scared of being wrong, you’re no longer interested in hearing new evidence or seeking information, he says. Ultimately, you get further away from truth, further away from being right.
“You have to live in a perpetual state of being wrong; you’ve got to be open to being proved wrong, and balance it with I know right when I see it,” he says.
To hammer home his points, Coyle relies, probably too often, on famous aphorisms. The one that sums his theory of being wrong best is Samuel Beckett’s: “Every tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What legitimises Coyle’s talk is the fact that he threads it with his own interesting life story, from his middle-class upbringing to his private school years, his career in advertising and his decision in 2011, at the age of 40, to become a comedian.
This decision was made when he and his wife Fi went to see a comedian they were very fond of. The first half of the show was very funny, Coyle says, but the second half was terrible.
“I could write that crap and be paid for it,” Coyle recalls saying to his wife.
“Go ahead then,” he remembers her telling him. “I dare you.”
It took him a year and a weekend comedy course to finally do it. All that day before the show, he says, he was petrified.
“I had five shits that day,” he says. To which the woman sitting next to me, says, “Oh, lovely.”
He was eighth on the bill, and he can still feel now what he felt then when his name was called.
He got out on stage full of adrenaline, his pulse beating in his neck, consumed with the two primal triggers of fight or flight.
“And then I reached out and touched the mike,” he says. “And I knew, I should have done this twenty years ago.”
“Rob talks too much”
For years before he found comedy, Coyle says he was going through life, as many of us do, in a state of numbness and apathy. An avid music fan, it had been a long time since a song had made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
Feelings of joy and ecstasy that he assumed had been consigned to his youth, held only in memory, were released when he stepped out on that stage.
They’d been trapped in the first place, Coyle says, because of a fear of being wrong.
Sometimes this happens as a result of external forces.
“Every fucking school report I ever got said ‘Rob talks too much’,” he says. “So this thing, that was inherently me, was given what I call zero validation.”
It’s not surprising Coyle ended up in advertising where a great deal of his work involved pitching and presenting to clients. But the full extent of ‘Rob talks too much’, the full extent of Rob, was suppressed until comedy came along.
It was through comedy, being on stage, that he got to experience the flow state, the thing he believes can make all of us happier people and the world a better place.
Again, the flow state was not an original concept of Robert Coyle’s.
It was something he experienced, a feeling of pure bliss for a couple of minutes during each of his sets, when the challenge of being a comedian blended seamlessly with his skill to deliver the material, at which point his doubts, his thoughts, his fear of being wrong, all evaporated.
As Coyle describes it, he stopped being a comedian and became comedy.
The flow-state theory was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Croatian-born psychologist who specialises in the study of happiness and creativity.
In his seminal work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi argued that people are happiest when completely absorbed in an activity for its own sake, where time flies and the ego ceases to exist, where every action follows inevitably from a previous one.
In a 2004 TED Talk, he uses examples of famous composers and writers who describe such an experience in the production of their work.
At certain points they reach a stage where their whole being is so involved in the process, where they are no longer consciously thinking about the activity they are performing but become the activity itself.
The best word to describe it is ecstasy, which is derived from the Greek word ekstasis, which meant to “stand outside oneself”.
Robert Coyle believes the path to happiness for the individual lies in these protracted states of euphoria offered by the flow state.
He encourages the audience to find what it is that will make them happy, what it is they think they’re good at, and start doing it. Not for any given end but for the love of the activity itself.
You don’t have to be Mozart, Joyce or Messi to tap into the flow state, he says, you just have to find something you love to do and do it.
Coyle’s talk finishes just before 10pm to lively applause. It’s a “pay what you think, if you think you should pay anything”, and he has a little plastic bin which gets passed around.
A few people get up to leave but most stay for the Q & A session, which drifts away from the main theme towards an open discussion on world affairs and the ugly state of neoliberal capitalism.
I get talking to two young journalists, Brendan and Jane, after the show. Both say they really enjoyed the show.
Recent graduates from the University of Limerick, they’ve only been living in Dublin a few weeks.
It is talks like this that make Dublin an interesting place, says Brendan. There’s always something different to do.
And that’s exactly what Coyle’s Being Wrong Is Right offers: something different and interesting to do on a Saturday night.
Give it a go. You won’t regret it.
Then again, I could be wrong.
Being Wrong Is Right with Robert Coyle takes place every Saturday at 8.30pm in the Accents Coffee & Tea Lounge, Stephen Street Lower, D2.