(last updated on April 29, 2014)
I didn’t always like people. When I was a kid, I thought people were mostly sources of confusing advice and judgmental scowling, sowing confusion and guilt upon my understanding of the Universe. It’s not so surprising that I went into computers; I found computers were a source of needed predictability (so long as you understood a few simple rules), and mastery of computational machinery offered that locus of control I wanted to have over the world of causal relationships. Eventually this mental discipline helped me to understand people. Most people, I came to see, were just as confused as I, though perhaps they were better at managing it. Assured that I wasn’t alone in my cluelessness, I came to enjoy the company of people—tentatively at first, but now with a growing sense of wonder. The sheer diversity of people’s experiences is mind-boggling.
These days, what’s important to me are the connections I can make between my work and the lives of other individuals. Projects that benefit people only in the abstract don’t feel real to me. I find that I need to see the faces of people reacting to my words and my creations to feel a sense of accomplishment. One of my working theories, which I’m starting to actively test, is that I need to be around people who have that same emphasis on making personal connections, finding meaning in the making of a personal impact on a daily basis. In the past, I’d just assumed that talent was the critical ingredient in partnership, but what I really seek is the creation of empowering culture in the context of creating meaning.
While I was at the gym today, I was looking at the strangers around me and it occurred to me that while I’d finally admitted that I like people, I didn’t exactly know what that meant. And I know that I don’t like everybody. In the past I’d qualified this by just saying I liked positive-minded, self-empowered, conscientious and kind people, but I am starting to think that this is an inadequate definition.
I thought I’d try to make a list of things I like about people to see where that goes.
People who Deal Well with Perplexing Moments
There are times when a person becomes momentary perplexed. Suddenly thrust outside the realm of the everyday, the moment of perplexity is forced on a person, who must confront new aspects of reality on-the-spot. This is one of those moments when character becomes most visible, and in that moment I can extrapolate a sample history of a person’s character development from the age of 6 to the present day. Of course I’m probably wildly wrong, but it makes for an entertaining distraction. And over time, the impressions can build to a fairly accurate impression.
When faced with the unexpected, some people get mad. Some people freeze up. Some just try to deal with the anomaly as if it hadn’t occurred, using the same patterns that have served them in the past. Others are conditioned to look to another authority for guidance, and many just let the moment slip by unchallenged. My favorite reactions, though, are from the people who dare to test their skill against the unknown with the best of humor, seizing the opportunity to have a little fun, learn something, or break the monotony. That’s awesome.
The practice of Design can be seen as a methodical manufacturing of perplexing moments. First, the perplexing moment is defined as the design challenge. Next, as designers we attempt to rise above the confusion that the unexpected has brought upon us. We force ourselves to engage with the perplexing moment with the totality of our character and life experience, in search for that response that transcends the ordinary. What we create is powerful and new. I love being in that moment, especially when it’s shared with people who practice a complementary form of mental jujitsu.
People With Routines
On the opposite end of the unexpected is the observance of daily routines, each with a predictable call and response to action. There’s a restaurant in Fort Point Channel near the Financial District in Boston, the A-Street Diner, where I occasionally had lunch when I was working in the city. What amazed me about the place was the efficiency of the lunch-rush ordering line. The employees expected you to know what you wanted to order at what counter, and there was a kind of thrill I got from learning how to play my part in keeping the line moving. Conversely, I get a little nervous when I don’t know what’s supposed to happen in a procedure. Taking a bus in a new city, for example…do you need to have exact change? Is there a ticket? Do you pay first, or after? I don’t know why this makes me nervous, or why I find such things so fascinating. Probably it’s because I have a desire to just fit in.
There’s a comfort in walking into my local Starbucks every day. It’s not that I like the coffee or the food, which is unexceptional. However, I love the routine of interacting with the people behind the counter. They’re familiar faces to me now, and the ritual of ordering something every day helps establish a bond that, bizarrely, is the foundation of my local community. I’m like an actor in a production of Small Town Commerce, and we each have our lines to deliver. It’s a show. For example, my best friend Erin orders a drink every morning, the 5-Pump Non-Fat No-Whip Mocha Grande 2-Splenda-Stirred. It took a few months for me to master this order without blowing my lines and sounding like a noob. Sometimes we’d get a new person behind the counter, and the momentary look of panic would often lead to one of the veterans coming by the register for some quick on-the-job training in drink customization. Erin’s drink is part of the history of this place now, in the minds of maybe two dozen people, and it makes this Starbucks feel like home.
People with a Past and Future
I like to find out where people come from, and where people are going. Not everyone has both a past and a future. Some people just are in the place that they are, for no reason in particular other than this is where they ended up. It’s interesting still to ask them about the events that lead up to our shared geographic location, but such people sometimes have a sad marooned-at-sea look about their eyes that is a bit depressing. Their futures are nebulous. Conversely, some people only have a future, having not learned anything from their past. Their futures are a little scary to me, because they’re not anchored. The futures these people describe are sometimes fantastical and sometimes pragmatic, but because they have no past it’s hard to imagine how they’ll get to the place they’re describing. It’s perhaps a sign of an imagination that was allowed to grow in an unruly and undisciplined fashion.
My favorite people are the ones who’ve made some sense of their past, and have set their eye on some distant landmark. They can tell you where they’ve been and what they thought of the experience; they’re happy to save you some trouble if you happen to be headed in that direction. They can also tell you something about the place they think they’re going, as best as they can reckon. They’re excited and optimistic, and they’re pleased as punch to tell you about it. I can spend hours with people like that.
I’m starting to think it isn’t so much “people” that I like, but certain attitudes. Extrapolating from the three things I’ve listed about, apparently I like to face challenges together, participate in shared communities, and be on a journey that’s going to go somewhere interesting.
There are at least two more elements–authenticity and heart–that I believe are underlying characteristics, but I’ll reflect on that another day.