Some things I’ve learned about the human animal:
We are who we are. We each have our addictions, good and bad. The poet ee cummings said*
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
But we cannot be everybody else. While our individuality is constantly under siege, and while many of us spend our whole lives acting and talking and trying to think like everybody else, deep inside we are, alone, uniquely and unchangeably ourselves. We have not the faintest idea what others are really thinking and feeling — (Shaw: “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred.”) Most of the time we’re pathetically unconscious of what we ourselves are thinking and feeling.
Our bodies, far more than our minds, tell us what to do, and what not to do. We plan, but we eagerly throw those plans over in favour of whatever appeals to us on the spur of the moment — we are by nature improvisational, not anticipatory or methodical. That’s why the most successful products are ‘iterated’ with customers, getting it right eventually, and not designed by creative geniuses in the lab.
Some of us are morning people; others, no matter how they might try to change, are not.
We have short attention spans (Neil Young: “I am a child; I last a while”), and that is not a new phenomenon — ‘broad and shallow’ has Darwinian advantage over ‘narrow and deep’.
While we have different talents and strengths, we are not designed to be specialists.
Most of us have short memories, because that helps us to cope — we need to put both good and bad memories behind us. (Neil Young again: “It’s easy to get buried in the past, when you try to make a good thing last.”)
On any issue we are at first open-minded, but once we’ve made up our mind (and we do so quickly and emotionally, more than rationally) any subsequent idea that does not ‘fit’ with this belief will bounce off and not even be heard.
The more we know about things that affect the future, and about ourselves, personally and collectively, the more pessimistic we become. (Einstein noted the same thing.)
We learn best by doing and by direct observation. That is why the education system and the information media teach us so little.
We care about things that are personal, actionable, here and now, far more than things that are conceptual, ideological, far away, in the past or future (Frederick Barthelme on advice to writers: “We can’t care about sand mutants; if you do, or think you do, kill yourself”.)
We are designed to be motivated by fun, not by duty — whether we’re gathering berries, deciding who we want to make a living with, or assessing who and where and what we love, when it becomes work instead of fun, everything inside us tells us it’s time to move on.
By nature, by metabolism, I am a sprinter (200m in 23s flat, no training, on a lark), not a marathoner (10km in 37m5s, best time after two years of daily training). I work best in fits and starts, not at a steady, consistent pace. I get up and move around a lot. I change my mind. I start over. I like to finish things, like to check them off the list, but I often abandon them instead. I give up easily (“more trouble than it’s worth”). I have little patience or stamina. Also I’m not very observant: That is probably my coping mechanism, because much of what I do observe distresses me enormously.
And I’m intense. That’s probably a consequence of the fits and starts thing — always trying to make up for lost time. I try too hard. People find that unnerving: It comes across as desperate, uncontrolled, un-self-confident, untrustworthy. In this terrible world we are always constantly ‘selling’ ourselves to others, and trying too hard repels ‘buyers’ — they want the ‘sales pitch’ to be effortless, so the ‘product’ sells itself. And ironically, intense people who try not to try too hard come across as disengaged.
So those of us who are intense need to get past this, and learn to try not to try not to try too hard, if you can follow that. Trying too hard is pushing yourself or your idea on someone at a bar or at a proposal meeting. Trying not to try too hard is endeavouring to come off casual, acting like you’re having fun with an interesting idea without being overly serious or pressing about it — relaxed, comfortable, self-confident. Doing this successfully is an acting job — being what you are not. You can, of course, make this easier by practicing a lot, so that each of your ‘lines’, your sales pitch, is so well rehearsed it becomes effortless. Paradoxically, when you do this, your intensity gets out of the way and allows your enthusiasm to show through, so you come across as more engaged — whereas if you’re merely intense acting like you’re not, you come across as less engaged, careless, seemingly indifferent. A shrug when what is called for is a laugh.
But what if your enthusiasm can’t show through because, at heart, you’re really not that enthusiastic about what it is you’re trying to do (sell a project you don’t really care about but need to pay the rent; pick up someone in the bar who would actually fall for your act)? Maybe this is why you’re so intense about it in the first place. So now you have to fake not only comfort and casualness but also genuine interest. I’ve observed lots of sales pitches, of all different kinds, and I’ve never seen such an act succeed. Your facial expressions and your body language and your tone of voice will always give you away, no matter how well you rehearse your lines. Humans, and all animals, are very good at picking up on this.
So the only answer is to try not to try not to try too hard. In other words, be yourself. Be authentic, genuine. Throw away the script and express what you feel, here, now. Others may not like that, but they will respect it. If they do like it, they will ‘buy’ your sales pitch. If they don’t like it, they weren’t going to buy anyway.
I think that’s why blogs have it all over video gaming and most other social networking tools. These other tools involve making up or disguising or exaggerating who you are. That may be fun for awhile, but you just can’t keep up that pretense through thousands of posts over years on a weblog — you have to be authentic. That’s why business blogs that exist to sell you something by pretending to be personal and casual come across so badly, and are a terrible idea.
So suppose you are looking to meet someone, and happen to find yourself alone in a restaurant near someone, also alone, you are overwhelmingly attracted to. If you were a non-human animal in such a situation, you would initiate a simple approach, and mutual sniffing and body language would immediately signal to you, politely and without fanfare or embarrassment, whether the object of your affection was interested or not. As a human, when you approach, your body and face are already signaling your interest, and the body and face of the object of your affection are signaling a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ right back. Before you say a word, the decision is already made. So, assuming that (thanks to our dulled human senses and the miracles of modern perfumery) you can’t ‘read’ that decision, it really doesn’t matter what you say. You don’t have to try hard, or try not to try too hard, you don’t have to try at all. Just be yourself and do what you want to do — it won’t change the outcome.
In the years before AIDS, many of us learned this astonishing lesson, and it wasn’t because people were more promiscuous then. We just learned that not trying worked, night after night.
Same with your sales pitch to a co-worker or customer. Communicate the idea as clearly as you can, as simply as you can. Your use of media doesn’t matter, the arguments don’t matter. The listener will have decided ‘yes’ or ‘no’ within a couple of minutes, maybe even less, based on ancient baggage in their brain that you have absolutely no impact on. You don’t have to try at all — it won’t make any difference. If you lie brilliantly, you might dishonestly get a ‘yes’, but how long before it gets found out and turns into a no, leaving you to pick up the mess behind the bridge you’ve now burned?
So trying not to try not to try too hard gets reduced to just not trying and being yourself. You can’t keep up the pretense of being anyone else for long, and, unless you work on a stage for a living, it won’t get you anywhere anyway.
* Here’s cummings’ entire, extraordinary advice to poets; thanks to Michael Herman for this extract:
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy, but it isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or
believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being
can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know,
you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make
you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight;
and never stop fighting.
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder
than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as
easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the
time – and whenever we do it, we are not poets.
If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you
find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something
easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing, but glad,
to feel and work and fight till you die.
Does this sound dismal? It isn’t.
It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.
March 23, 2006
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