These started out as notes when I happened to end up at a table with a friend’s girlfriend’s friend – someone I was unlikely to have met under ‘ordinary’ circumstances.
It’s always interesting to see where conversations go, and how they go there.
Young people in university have a certain set of stories that they like to tell. Working adults have a certain set of stories that they like to tell. All of this fit in forms of Games People Play. Most people play a social game with no real stakes. Nothing of significant importance really changes hands. It’s just, I’m okay, you’re okay. I’m a good person, you’re a good person. I validate you, you validate me. We feel warmly towards each other.
This is of course a skill worth developing. Ben Franklin understood this, and went from being an argumentative dick to being a polite person who invited people to speak their minds and encouraged them to feel comfortable in his presence. I want to be that guy. I want to have less of a need to validate my own opinions. My opinions do not have to be valid. They are flawed, imperfect, shoddy… and anyway it’s always more interesting to collect more data from other people to know what the hell is going on.
But I think that skill is just one tool in a much broader conversational toolkit (or tool shed). While it’s good to be able to be agreeable where necessary – and I can think of one recent example where being skilfully agreeable allowed me to get someone to consider a perspective that they otherwise wouldn’t have – it is not sufficient. Not for me. I wasn’t put on this Earth to be a bobblehead of agreeableness (kind of a nasty characterisation there) or a peace-and-love type figure. There are other people who are much better fits for that role, and I’ll gratefully leave it to them.
Other skills include – being able to ask probing questions. My wife is particularly good at this, although she does it with minimal if not no agreeableness. She’s almost alien in her intense following-up of questions, regardless of how uncomfortable the other person is getting. (Witnessing her in this mode makes me realise I probably would never be a great lawyer or investigative journalist – there are personality and character traits that are a plus point in those fields, and I don’t quite have those.)
Which got me thinking about what my personality and character traits are, and what contexts they are extra-valuable in. What’s an industry where, if everyone is working equally hard, my personality and character put me on top? It’s not sales, even though I’m in marketing. Is it even marketing? Not all of it. Some subset of it. Something about branding and communications. Something about thinking about things longer and harder than most people. About attention to detail, fussing over detail, being a little pedantic. Of course, those things themselves can simply be unprofessional if you’re not nuanced and refined about them, if you aren’t able to rein them in. Every professional needs to be able to rein in their character traits when they aren’t helpful. (At least, while you’re progressing in your career. Once you’re at the pinnacle of achievement, you can probably just be a diva and do as you please. But that typically takes decades of work to achieve. And even then, by the time you get there, it’s probably a good idea to be able to be tempered.
It’s an eternal question you can spend a lifetime answering – what is balance? What is temperance? Is there a right amount of “losing control”? If you’re doing it to a desired degree, are you not still in control? It’s an infinite game, endless fun, but I’m not sure if the answer even really matters (except to the beholder; to you, reader, if you care). The reality of it is that most people in most contexts only care about the consequence. Can you get the job done, and get it done well? Can you systematically get a series of jobs done well? That’s what the market cares about. Should you allow the market to define what is good, proper, moral, etc? Probably not. Should you disregard the market and just act however you please? Probably not, either. See, there’s a middle ground to almost everything.
Let’s scroll back. What are my personality and character traits? I’m scatterbrained. I like thinking about lots of different things. I like looking for interesting connections between things. My favourite thing in the world, I think, is giving someone a piece of information that they were vaguely looking for, that solves a problem that they didn’t even know they had. (The simple version of this problem is giving people answers to questions they have. It gets more complex and interesting as you get better at figuring out what they’re really asking.)
I was thinking earlier to myself today that I would like to be involved in the making of documentaries. But that’s a sort of outcome fixation. Does it have to be documentaries in particular? Not exactly. I just want to find out about things and share them with people in accessible, interesting, fun ways. I want to be an educator. I just happen to hate schools. I don’t exactly want to be a teacher, either. I want to be an explorer. I want to find out things. And yet – I don’t think I quite have what it takes to be a pure frontiersman. I’ve read about those people, and that’s not quite me. I don’t quite have that sort of brute force or critical drive. (But here I’m in less hostile territory – I could be persuaded that I COULD become someone like that, with the right coaching and development and mentorship and stepping stones. I could never be persuaded to be a good soldier or diving instructor, as much as I might admire either.)
I think I’m a sort of… early follower? The frontiersmen (and women) of the world seem to often have this disregard for marketing. They write technical papers, they present their products as-is. Some of the most intelligent insight in the world is locked up in academic papers, inaccessible to begin with, and opaquely written when you encounter them. In so many cases, the primary research has already been done – it just needs to be made accessible to laypersons. Even that I can refine a little further – I don’t want to write for laypersons. I want to write for smart, intelligent, thoughtful people.
I’d like to practice talking less and listening more.