May 22, 2005  ·  Lessig

My son has an imagination. At 20 months, he spent an hour playing a game in which his stuffed boxer (as in the dog) played with his plastic spider. The spider would ride the dog. The dog would sniff the spider. And all the time my son was split with laughter. (more in the extended entry below)

I don’t know whether he was supposed to have this sort of imagination before 20 months, or after. I don’t care. It’s the weird thing about watching a kid grow up that each new capacity is celebrated as if it had been in doubt. Of course, I had no doubt my kid would laugh at his dreams, as I had no doubt he would walk, or learn to say “daddy.” But the absence of doubt doesn’t make the experience any less extraordinary. Watching it happen is the amazing part. And hearing about it happening is pretty amazing as well.

Hearing about it, of course, is how I experienced it. My wife described it to me last week — me in Bulgaria, she about to go to bed in San Francisco, us talking as we increasingly do, on iChat. I didn’t see my kid enact his play with dog and spider because I’m on the road again, this time for just about a month — a month in which I will yearn for fast broadband in Australia, Germany, Bulgaria, Norway, and South Africa. A year ago I would have said I had no hobbies. Now my single hobby is making iSight movies — stringing together clips of images captured what iChatting, sometimes funny, sometimes beautiful just because of the pixilation.

I can’t adequately describe the depression of this sort of travel. I won’t pollute this blog by trying. Suffice it that I am away — as no doubt many are — way too much. In the last year and a half, I have spent 170 nights in a hotel; 300 thousand miles in the air. This year promises even more. Most of the travel is Creative Commons related, though a good deal is just me asked to speak to some conference, convention, or collection of souls.

This trip is fairly representative. I went to Australia to deliver an Alfred Deakin Lecture on Innovation. While there, I also spoke at a “Future Summit,” and met with some Creative Commons activists. In Berlin, I gave a public lecture at the German Bundeszentrale f�r politische Bildung. I was also able to meet with some young German academics, and academics wanna-bes, as well as with the iCommons staff (which lives in Berlin). Bulgaria was the launch of Creative Commons-Bulgaria — three lectures in one day, a day of meetings with the lawyers who had ported the licenses, and with the press that was trying to understand them. Norway is a lecture which I will comment on in another post, and then a few days in South Africa to launch CC-SA, at what promises to be an extraordinary conference (“Commons Sense” which is the title I wanted for the book that became “The Future of Ideas”). I was meant to go to India but the logistics of the trip became too difficult and expensive, so I’ll return on Memorial Day, after almost 29 days on the road straight.

I enjoy these lectures; I believe in the cause. If you’ve seen me talk, you know I’ve developed a particular style. I’m a teacher: it is a style designed to explain. I am just beginning to feel like it works; just beginning to feel that I’m explaining my ideas in a way any intelligent sort could understand. It has taken a very long time, and my mind is filled with memories of the worst examples of me trying to explain. They haunt me like broken promises. They push me to make myself understandable. Each speech builds on the last. Each is changed by what happened in the last.

I’m not great at this. My ideas are still too confused; my arguments are still incomplete; I recognize every time I speak where I’ve not been understood; there is literally one time in the last 5 years when I went to bed feeling that I had done really well.

Yet though I’m not great, as I get better , there are interesting, sometimes frustrating, effects. First, people can’t really believe I’ve prepared the lecture they hear just for them. This, for example, happened in Melbourne. I am wildly too thin-skinned, so I make it a rule never to Technorat what people say about my lectures. But someone who worried that I didn’t doubt myself enough sent me this link to a comment about my “rhetoric” and “stump speeches.” The writer, decently, and with balance and perspective, criticized my failure to prepare a special talk for the Deakin lectures.

It was in fact a liberating criticism. First, in fact, I always change my talks. I am obsessed with the fear of repeating a talk. I therefore spend an unbelievable amount of time reworking what I have done to make it make more sense, or more sense of an audience. That was true in Melbourne, as it has been true everywhere. Of course, there are chunks I remix — usually the parts that work best. But if you followed me around for months at a time, you’d be less bored than if you followed, say, John Edwards, and not because I’m a better speaker than John Edwards (I certainly am not).

But second, the criticism made me realize how absurd it is for me to feel this obligation to say something new or different at each event. My life has been filled with absurd rules I’ve imposed upon myself, which later I can’t begin to understand. This now strikes me as another example of such an absurd rule. It’s not as if I speak to crowds of 10,000 at a time. I don’t give lectures on national television. It’s not as if the message I’m trying to convey is the subject of national advertising campaigns, or political movements. And so I don’t know why my talks have to be more original each time than, say, a candidate for political office. I have a set of views I’m trying to persuade people of. Why must I do that in different words?

(The best example of this stupidity is the first talk I did that got translated to Flash!. This was a keynote I gave at OSCON in 2002. I had prepared it for OSCON. When Leonard Lin prepared this version of it, I told myself I could never give the talk again. And so I haven’t. Not because this presentation of this message was particularly good. Not because I couldn’t improve it. But just because I was haunted by this rule — don’t repeat a talk — the origin of which I can’t now fathom.)

Berlin also produced its own interesting criticism. One of the questioners — a friendly, and supportive questioner — criticized me for the “strength” of my rhetoric. While he appreciated how “understandable” I had made the arguments, and he regretted that professors in his own country seemed focused exclusively on making their points incomprehensible, he worried that I presented the argument too strongly. “Too persuasively.” It was “rhetoric” he suggested. A woman sitting next to a friend called it “propaganda.”

This is a fascinating criticism, because it wasn’t motivated by disagreement as much as by a difference in cultural style. Peter Baldwin, from UCLA, gave a talk responding to mine. His was perfect from the perspective of this style — advancing a point, but then insisting he didn’t necessarily believe the point he was advancing; never quite committing, yet conveying a great deal of truth on the way. I regretted not getting a chance directly to discuss this point in the question session that followed. No doubt the reaction was partly a function of me, and partly a function of the audience. I was extremely keen to understand the latter. One person I asked afterwards said, “We’ve been seduced by rhetoric once. We don’t trust it anymore.” That was an astonishing thought, but again, I can’t quite resolve whether it reflected well the reasons for the reaction. There is much more to learn here than I had time to reckon.

But my purpose in writing this particular missive is not to report on my travels. Nor is it to respond to critics. It is instead to resolve, here, in public, something important about commitments and value.

I want to do this less. I need to do it less. I want to know my boy through his hugs, and tears, not through the smiles he gives me on an iSight camera. I want to relieve my extraordinary wife from the burden of single-parent parenting. I want a week when I don’t remove my shoes for kindly folks called the TSA. I want more nights when I don’t struggle to decide whether to spend $5 to drink a bottle of water.

And so I am resolving to do this less. Less. Not never again, but less — if I just add up my commitments already made, my life will still be insanely busy. (In my OSCON speech, I said I was giving up giving lectures. That was a misstatement. What I meant was I was giving them up while I prepared for the argument in the Eldred case. I hadn’t at that point resolved to retire).

But now I have resolved that I need energy elsewhere. This movement is important and critical. And you can’t begin to imagine the reward in watching it flourish around the world — especially in places like Bulgaria. A wide range of extraordinary souls are succeeding in getting others to understand. That is something I never would have predicted five years ago, and it is reason for this to go on.

Yet it needs to go own with others. Or with less of me. Or at least, less of me in person. I’m happy to help that change occur. I am severely restricting the invitations I will accept, and I am in the process of wrapping every presentation I have made in a form that can be shared. I hope to put them all at the site, OurMedia, in a context in which anyone can do with it what he or she wants. Remix it. Replay it. Criticize it. Synchronize the slides with the audio (where I’ve been able to locate the audio.) Port it to Flash! Or to some free software equivalent. Copy the message; ridicule the message. Whatever. I’m quite sure people could do better with this than I have. I am asking that they do. Take it and make it better. Or take it and twist it to make it worse. Free culture needs both. And it needs me less.

This is exhaustion, no doubt. I responded to that at first by resolving to be stronger. Then it was homesickness, plain and simple. Something I’ve not known for 30 years. But whatever it is, or will become, we each must draw lines that respects those things most important. And I want more time to explore with my kid the many possible toys for a boxer.

  • Robert Brook

    A rather obvious choice, but well done. The right thing. Enjoy!

    Now you – like me – can begin to discover quite how much work mothers do…

  • Ian

    “The greatest challenge to any thinker is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.” -Bertrand Russell, who also said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
    I appreciate your work. The dialogue you bring about is, to my knowledge, the only sensible discussion of copyright taking place so publicly, and this is crucial to what’s in the process of being decided right now, about where all of this will go. I’ll be starting law school soon, and I’d like you to know that for myself and others the time you’ve taken to explain hasn’t gone unnoticed. Thank you.

  • Branko Collin

    Dude, if you want to do this [the touring] less, then please do it less. Don’t fret.

  • Fred Blasdel

    Thank You.

  • Phil Palmer

    I remember when your son was born (only because mine was born at the same time and we coincidently chose the same name). I have recently made a change of lifestyle to allow me more ‘boxer’ moments with my 2 boys. I can highly recommend it. They say this time is fleeting…

  • Robert Merkel

    Oh dear. All I wanted to do with that post was provoke a little debate amongst my small circle of friends about public rhetoric in the abstract; in the process, it seems I’ve managed to unfairly insult both Joi and yourself.
    My apology to Joi in the comments needs a remix to apply to you, it seems…

    As I explained to Joi in the comments, the reason I didn’t comment much on the content of your presentation itself is that the idea of less restrictive copyright regimes is very old news to me; like I said, I’ve written free software, and contributed extensively to the Wikipedia. But it was probably news to most of the audience. By putting those ideas into the public debate so effectively you are performing a hugely valuable service; if I could, I’d send you to every Rotary club in Australia and get you to repeat the same talk you gave at the Deakin lecture, word for word. So, if that’s what you are setting out to do, you certainly don’t need new words for every lecture.

    But from my *personal* perspective, after the talk, I was a little disappointed that you hadn’t much to say about the Australian media and cultural landscape, which has some big issues of its own at the moment which sometimes intersect with copyright issues (for instance, the unlocking of the public broadcaster’s archives in a manner similar to what the BBC is exploring). From my selfish perspective, I *know* what you think about copyright, in general. I wanted to hear what you thought about applying it in the Australian context.

    In any case, discouraging you from your incredibly valuable work was about the most suboptimal outcome from my post I can possibly imagine, and I’m waiting with some considerable trepidation for the lynch mob to arrive :) But, if you’re feeling burnt out, do yourself a favour and smell the roses. Give your family a hug – they’re the only one you’ve got.

    When the itch returns, one thing that has occurred to me is that maybe it’s time for the “sensible copyright” movement to have an organizational home, beyond Creative Commons (which is incredibly successful, but by design limited in its purpose), That might something you can help initiate without putting up with what Bruce Schneier so aptly calls the “security theater” of the TSA.

  • Sam Simon

    The truth is that the decision is much more complicated than the cheerleaders would have you believe. How long do you plan to cut back for? I can guarantee you that the time at home that may be most critical could easily (if not probably) be the period between the ages of 13 and 17.

    And what does being at home watching the 20 month old play really mean for whom? The kids? You? Your wife? My “children” are 34 and 35 — a pediatric dentist (girl) and a lawyer (boy) . Both happily married. I often thought I was being a bad parent because I traveled and worked so much — and those teen years were hell. What turns out most important in my view is the values you communicate to you children — including the value that you have something very important to give the “world” and you didn’t shirk that duty. You do important work, work which is helping shape a more just society — a society which you might prefer for your children.

    All this is to say, I don’t know if on balance your decision is “best” for your kids or society. Clearly it is your decision to make and you have to be comfortable with it. I just don’t think that the decision to spend more time at home with the baby is automatically the “right” one — or to be applauded.

    Actually, I think you should talk to a lot of parents and decide if in fact this isn’t the time for you to be spending more time on the road; and cut back later — years where your presence might actually be more needed at home.


  • orcmid

    I guess there’s no right answer, only questions. May your choice fill your heart and nurture the soul. Thanks for letting us into a piece of your world. We’re honored.

  • Greg Phillips

    I spent about one third of my time on the road during the first three years of my middle daughter’s life. She still gets anxious when I have to go away for a few days, eight years later.

    You think you’re travelling too much. You’re right. Cutting back is absolutely the best thing to do. There are other ways to get the message out; other people who can carry part of the burden.

    Your son will only be young once. Don’t miss it.

  • Asheesh Laroia

    Recently, you surprised the core group by declining to be on our Board of Directors. At least, you surprised me. Now I think I understand, You wrote:

    Yet it needs to go own [sic] with others. Or with less of me. Or at least, less of me in person. I’m happy to help that change occur. I am severely restricting the invitations I will accept

    Without your work, the world would be a different place – a worse place. For a student like me, it’s really heartening to see the human side of people who have contributed as much as you have. Thank you for all you have done. You deserve to have a fulfilling life, however you believe you will find it.

  • Peter Rock

    This, on the surface, sounds paradoxical but…

    The CC needs you, so perhaps you should consider spending more time with your family.

    A happy and fulfilled Lawrence Lessig lecturing sparsely is likely to be a more influential Lawrence Lessig than one who speaks almost daily yet has a conscious cloud looming about.

    This is not advice – I am in no position to offer you advice.

    Just another angle to consider.

  • Frank Bennett

    Makes good sense.

    Reminiscent of a favorite document by another influential member of the Stanford faculty.


  • Ian Kerr


    it was very generous of you to share with your audience in this way.

    it “remixed”, for me, a lyric i used to listen to as a college freshman by canada’s “power trio”:

    It’s cold comfort
    To the ones without it
    To know how they struggled
    How they suffered about it
    If their lives were exotic and strange
    They would likely have gladly exchanged them
    For something a little more plain
    Maybe something a little more sane

    We each pay a fabulous price
    For our visions of paradise
    But a spirit with a vision is a dream
    With a mission

  • Joi Ito

    I was just babysitting Master Willem this morning. He kept pointing at the iSight saying, “papa!” I think he misses you too.

  • Steve Wetzel

    Thank you!

    Your ideas and passion have helped form a new context for debate and discussion on copyright and creative works.

    You have touched untold thousands of lives in such a short period of time. You have done well. I am personally indebted to you.

    -Stephen Wetzel
    Free Software Magazine

  • Edward Vielmetti

    Travel less, use the net more to get the word out. And see your kid more to boot! Sounds like a good plan. I turned down a good job that would have been 80% travel a few years ago in order to strike out again as a telecommuter, and haven’t looked back (much) since. I miss the travel but I would miss my kids more.

  • Michael Parekh

    Thanks for a truly touching and candid post. As an intensely private person, this is a difficult post to write publicly, but some of the things you touched on truly hit home.

    I very much empathise with your travel exhaustion having spent almost a decade globally evangelizing the commercialization of the Internet as a Wall Street Internet analyst.

    The travel was most defintiely in the red zone, burn-out territory, with the need to be on the road for over 60% of the time, year after year.

    In retrospect I’d inadvertently, and almost involuntarily postponed having a personal life in terms of getting married and starting a family for those years.

    Most of my close friends and family told me what a mistake I was making. Of course I didn’t listen to them, since it was too easy to continue an un-ending series of commitments wrapped around a cause and a firm I truly believe in.

    I’m very glad you’re making this re-commitment to family and self. It was only in hindsight that I realize how much of a difference it makes in rejuvenating one’s creative juices and energies…Duh…on me.

    By the way, on the issue of self-imposing a rule of trying to do a different presentation to contextually fit each audience in different parts of the world…

    I did the exact same thing…again, the number of times it seemed to be noticed and appreciated were depressingly few…it made me feel good initially that I was making the effort…

    after a while, I realized it was much more effective to try and leave more time for formal and informal Q&A…that generally was appreciated much more in the end.

    thanks again for all your hard work towards a critical cause, and a great post…

    Best of luck.

    michael parekh

  • Ed

    Just read the New York Mag piece – good grief. Am moved to respond as a reader, parent, grateful citizen…. I hope the author was/is the friend the piece implies, and it reflects your experience & views accurately. As a parent (of a slightly older kid) it reminds me how delicate the whole issue of when to ask, what to say, how to be open to signs of pain/trouble when a big instinct is just to give them room and not intrude no matter what ones own sense of their emerging sexuality/issues/experience might be. I had great parents who in theory were open to talk – but we never did… I’m hoping this generation will be more comfortable, confident, surer of choices. Though the cynicism and false sophistication of the web gen is scary sometimes. Re, “priorities” – you seem to have amazing ones, professionally and personally. Hope your kid gains in these years of you being home more the confidence and trust to share all he needs to if/when he does. Hats off for your work on this case; I hope the case is successfully resolved, for the sake of the law and the people it affects. And hats off as a parent and person. (Shame about the school, but Greenblatt is clearly more liability than insurance to them…)

  • Joergen Ramskov

    Thank you for all the hard work you’ve done! You’ve done more than anyone could expect from anyone! Being home, watching your kid grow up is very important!

    Thanks again.

  • jb

    My life has been filled with absurd rules I’ve imposed upon myself, which later I can’t begin to understand. This now strikes me as another example of such an absurd rule.

    hehe. this is so lessig. you make me laugh when you do this how-depressed-i-am entry (i know its not funny, but it is funny anyway).

    anyways, for free-culture’s sake, you need some slack. go let him play with dog and spider and law professor, please. we can take care of ourselves…or i hope, or we need to try it, at least.

  • GOB

    The Beatles stopped touring eventually, too, and produced some of their best work as a result of staying home, being dads, and getting even more experimental with their studio art.