Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
It’s easy enough to look back and chuckle at your own foolishness in your younger days, but sometimes I have the weird, sadistic (masochistic?) thought that I’d like to rip a little hole in space-time so that I could get my money’s worth. I’d go back and actually belly laugh and point at 12 or 13 year old Erik. Then I’d settle down and tell me to trust me because we’d be better off for it in the long run, lest you think that I’m cruel.
But I Have So Much To Offer!
What’s so funny? I have this memory of being convinced that some girl or another couldn’t possibly help but be interested in me if only she could see me how good I was at knocking aluminum cans over from 6 or 7 feet away with a bull whip. You tell me that isn’t funny — I think it’d be like laughing at Ralphie after shooting his glasses with his Red Ryder BB Gun.
So the back story was that my father, at some point, had gone to Australia or some far off land on business and brought back an Indiana Jones-style bull whip as a souvenir. Over the course of my childhood I became quite accurate with this thing, able to hit small targets and take impressive chunks out of them when I did. In my early teenage years, at the crossroads between wanting to be Indiana Jones and wanting to find young women to take on dates, this odd juxtaposition took place. As kids, we sat in school all day, confined to relatively run-of-the-mill social interactions and activities, and the lone hope you might have for standing out in such an environment was to create some sort of ruckus by misbehaving. There was no chance for anyone, least of all girls that I wanted to impress, to see the unique and clearly very appealing set of skills that I had, such as knocking over cans with a bull whip.
One of the iconic things that you hear children utter, at least in movies of the “16 Candles” genre, is “s/he doesn’t even know I exist.” That wasn’t my problem; I went to a small enough junior high school that pretty much everyone in the grade was aware of one another. My problem was that people knew I existed but didn’t particularly care. But it was a problem that could be solved if I could just devise some way that the entire school was threatened and only someone who was pretty accurate with a bull whip could save it. Or something.
I Can Guess What Interests You
I wised up. Certainly not all at once, and I make no claim to have figured out, even at the age of 34, a foolproof plan to make someone sympathetic to my cause. But I did learn that no girl in my junior high would be interested in watching me shred cans with a bull whip unless she were already interested in me for some other reason. I kind of had to wise up, earlier than some and later than others, or else I would have been the socially stunted Napolean Dynamite character who, at the age or 17 or 18, thinks that girls liked guys with “Bo skills, nun-chuck skills…”
There’s a spectrum of ages at which people come to understand this social lesson. And, I’m not talking about figuring out what attracts girlfriends or boyfriends at an age when bodies and minds are changing on a weekly basis, but rather I’m talking about the lesson of recognizing alien approaches to and outlooks on life. Children have a simple and rather solipsistic view of the world, even as they tend to have a high amount of empathy. The child will be genuinely flummoxed that you could enjoy the taste of brussel sprouts when he cannot, but is also liable to start crying if you start crying. In a way, this empathy is part of the simplicity — all for one and one for all, with the all and the one being external clones of the child.
But at some point, I figured out that me thinking it was cool to whip cans did not cause the various girl-crush of the week to agree with me. I learned that she did not empathize. Together as aging children, in fits and starts, we shed both our empathy and our belief in our opinions and values being shared by all. Budding psychopaths probably get there quicker than others. After all, they never had any empathy to start with and glib social chameleons tend to be the best at manipulating social situations to get reactions that they want. A psychopath would be entirely too busy running a series of social experiments to have private emo moments and thoughts of, “if she only knew how awesome I was.” Psychopath would think, “tricking her into thinking I’m awesome will be fun.”
I mention this because it’s not really matter of “EQ,” exactly, to adapt to the alien outlooks of others — it’s pretty much a feedback loop with the slowest to adapt being among the more introverted and leery of spending social capital on potentially doomed experiments. And so it went, and so it went. I learned, slowly but profoundly, that a lot of people wouldn’t be impressed with me, wouldn’t value what I valued, wouldn’t necessarily approve of me, and perhaps flat out wouldn’t like me. It wouldn’t necessarily be any fault of my own — it could be a matter of circumstance or misunderstanding.
What I learned from this, particularly as an introverted sort, was to spend a lot of time trying on masks of other people’s outlooks on life. Please don’t confuse this with empathy — I’m not particularly empathetic. I just got good over the years at putting myself in the shoes of others to understand their motivations and predict their behavior.
You Have Nothing that I want
In case it wasn’t entirely apparent, I’ve drifted away from talking about love interests and am just talking about life interactions. That is, I didn’t go to singles nights and try some kind of Sherlock Holmes shtick to deduce what would endear me to women. But I did carry my bullwhip and its valuable life lesson with me to adult social interactions, jobs, engagements, etc.
Why does Steve in accounting give me dirty looks whenever I pass by? I’ve never done anything to him. Well, rather than just chalk it up to Steve being a scumbag, maybe I do a bit of listening and a thought exercise. Maybe I learn that one of Steve’s big initiatives had been pushing to have the software group write a series of extensions onto Quick Books that could, ideally, be parlayed into a side business venture for the company and thus into impressive resume fodder for himself. Maybe I also learn that this initiative had died on the vine when they brought me in to overhaul the company’s software practices and that, as a result, Steve’s stock had dipped some with the company. Maybe I also learn that Steve is sort of paranoid, so he perceives this mild dip as an existential threat to his livelihood. So maybe, I am a threat to Steve earning a living. This makes no sense to me, and it would probably make no sense to most people, but none of us is Steve.
I was a pretty weird kid with pretty weird interests, so the profound lesson that I learned had a lot of reinforcement. It was unusual for others to share my outlook, and this gave me a whole lot of practice figuring out theirs for the sake of relatability. When I was younger, this skill was needed for me to form friendships and romantic relationships, but having squared those things away and as an increasingly reclusive adult, it no longer helps me attain things that I want; it helps me maneuver deftly through professional situations. I don’t want anything from people, except, by and large, pleasant professional collaboration. I’m a maker and builder and I’m comfortable with the square I’ve carved out for myself, so my days of using the skill of walking miles in others’ shoes to get things are long past. I just want peace.
So what to do about Steve? Well, the natural thing to do would be to approach him and ask him if, given his expertise, he might have some ideas for software initiatives and that I was thinking of asking some higher-ups if we could give him more of a challenge, given how marketable he is. He most likely wouldn’t assume that I’ve quietly assimilated information and made an effort to understand what life is like looking out from Steve’s brain. He’ll no doubt be distrustful and skeptical, but he’ll also probably start to adopt a different attitude toward me, if subtly. And what does any of this cost me, whether or not I follow through with any of it? Nothing, really.
I’ve come full circle. Steve is out whipping cans and feeling spiteful toward anyone who doesn’t agree with him that this is a wonderful skill. I think his skill is silly and I’d laugh at him for this privately, the way I laugh at 13 year old Erik, but I don’t want his spite. So I’ll watch him do his thing stoically and then offer some praise when he’s done.
What’s the lesson in all this? Why am I posting about it? Why did I spent so much time on narrative and so little time relating it to your life? Well, the point is pretty simple. When you have conflicts with people in a work environment — when you distrust, dislike, or even despise a colleague — fight the urge to categorize others as adversaries or enemies. Almost without exception their behavior, however capricious, childish or cruel it may seem to you, will make some kind of sense if you really get inside their head and understand how they look at the world. It may even be that you have to preface this to yourself, “if I were a petty, sadistic person…” So be it. However alien, you need to understand it. And I say this not to heal the world or advocate that you seek understanding and turn the other cheek, but to counsel you toward simple pragmatism. If you understand those around you, then you’ll understand what it is they want, and how you can steer interactions with them toward favorable outcomes.
So, take a few deep breaths and try to understand what makes those around you tick. It’s not the empathetic thing to do, but rather the practical thing to do.