Most of us have developed a variety of different ‘bios’ for different purposes. We have one for work, that basically describes our acquired skills and experience and what we ‘do for a living’. We have one for meeting new people socially, whether that be on a dating site or just something we relate at cocktail parties or potlucks. (For most of us, thankfully, that is no longer mostly about what we do for work.) It is more likely to be aspirational — what we want to do in our future, and who (known or not yet met) we hope to do it with, though it likely also includes some data like our marital and family status. And then we have a third ‘bio’ that is the story we tell ourselves, and selectively our loved ones, about ourselves. It’s about how we define ourselves: what we love and care about, our purpose and intentions, our philosophy or worldview, and the adjectives and other ‘labels’ we assign ourselves.
Trying to combine these three bios is a messy business. They have different ‘audiences’ and there are many things about us each audience just doesn’t want to know. And most interestingly, each has a different predominant tense: the work bio is past-tense focused (what have we shown), the relationship bio is future-tense focused (what are we looking for), and the self-bio is present-tense focused (who we really are, right now). Sadly, because most of us live such busy and struggling lives, the third bio is probably for most the least developed, the most unknown.
When I was interviewing people, or looking for suppliers at work, I looked at their (mostly past-tense) bios, but I found I really didn’t care about them very much; people selling their services generally know if they have what it takes, and tend to self-select out of the application pool if they don’t think they have what’s needed. So when I was interviewing, I generally took it for granted that the applicants were qualified. What I wanted to know was a bit about their aspirations (to know if they would likely stick around long enough to have been worth hiring), but mostly I wanted to know about who they were right then — what they cared about, what they had passion for, what their personal ‘purpose’ was. That’s what differentiates people most, and what I wanted in work colleagues was shared passion and purpose. Those are the people we want to work with, and who will want to work with us.
But it’s awkward getting to that: We can’t just baldly ask someone, in an interview (or a cocktail party or potluck) what they care about. It sounds too nosy, too personal. Besides, many people really have no idea what they care about, what their personal passions and purpose is, so asking them is just putting them on the spot.
Likewise, when I belonged to OKCupid, the alt-culture dating site, I looked at their (mostly future-tense) bios, but I found I really didn’t care about them very much either; they were useful for eliminating inappropriate potential partners (in my case, those looking for the one perfect person to “complete” them, or looking to have children, or demonstrating a high level of neediness, or lack of intelligence, creativity, curiosity, self-knowledge or self-awareness) but not for identifying people with whom I might have an extraordinary connection. The list of what people like to do ‘in their spare time’ is not very helpful, either, since it really relates to their past story and what they’ve stumbled on that they’ve found valuable enough to continue doing. Knowing someone likes birdwatching or hang gliding or even shopping doesn’t really tell me if I’m going to enjoy their company. No, again, I want to know what they care about, what their ‘purpose’ and passions are — not whether they like seeing a rare Meriwhether’s Falcon, but rather whether they like studying birds’ behaviour to see what it teaches us about our own. Not whether they have liked something they’ve seen or done in past, but whether, based on their stated passions, whether there is something we’d likely like to do together right now.
So how can we tactfully and skillfully ask these questions that unearth who people really are right now, so that we can discover quickly whether the person we have just met is destined to be our brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend?
Asking them to tell their story is precisely the wrong way to do this, in my experience. Most people (including me) are terrible story-tellers, and their stories tend to dwell on past facts and details that mostly have no bearing on what they care about or who they are now, or why. And most people love to tell their stories, because it’s easy and comfortable and they can censor out whatever they don’t like, or think you won’t like. Most people’s stories are polished fiction.
Before exploring what might work better, let me summarize what I think are the 6 most important questions to probe to find that potential “brilliant colleague, life partner, inspiring mentor or new best friend”:
- What adjectives or nouns would you use to describe yourself that differentiate you from most other people? When and how did these words come to apply to you?
- Describe the most fulfilling day you can imagine, some day that might actually occur in the next year. As you describe each event in the day, explain why it would be so fulfilling to you. What are you doing each day that might increase the likelihood of such a day occurring?
- What do you care about, right now? What would you mourn if it disappeared? What do you ache to have in your life? What would you work really long and hard to conserve or achieve? How did you come to care so much (now that’s a story worth listening to)?
- What is your purpose, right now? What would elate you if you achieved it, today, this month, in the next year? What would devastate you if you failed, or didn’t get to try? How did this become your purpose?
- What’s your basic philosophy or worldview about why you, and other humans, exist? Not what you believe is right or important (or what you, or humans ‘should’ do or be), but why you think we are the way we are now, and why you think we evolved. It’s an existential question, not a moral one. How did you come to this philosophy?
- What’s your basic philosophy or worldview about what the next century holds for our planet? What do you see as your role and approach to dealing with that eventuality? How did you come to this philosophy?
It seems go me that the best way to broach these questions, without seeming too abrupt, with someone you have just met or are just getting to know, is to go first. Be an example of openness and candour that makes it easier for others to follow. I would volunteer my own answers to these questions, probably in the order they are above (i.e. simplest and easiest first), by prefacing my answer with something like “someone asked me the other day…”.
I would answer only the question in bold, unless prompted to elaborate, and then leave open the space for the other person to proffer their own answers. Once they did, or if they tried but struggled, I’d throw out the supplementary questions, especially the story-evoking ones in italics that elicit stories.
That’s it. My newest idea for avoiding small-talk and useless bios, and hopefully finding more meaningful connections more quickly and reliably.
So let me tell you what I care about, my purpose, my sense of who I am and how I see us, now. And then, rather than telling me your past or future story, tell me who you are and what you care about right now. If we find we care about very different things, then we can part company politely, knowing that. And if we find our answers to these questions largely overlap, who knows what might be possible?
My answers to the 6 basic questions follow. If you want to know the why’s and how’s, that the subject for another conversation.
- I am above all hedonistic, vegan, deschooled, unspiritual, joyful, imaginative, curious, and reflective. The decision to put hedonistic first is new and deliberate. Etymologically it means “attuned to sweet and pleasant things”. It in no way means shallow, reckless or insensitive. It acknowledges that there is only now, and that ‘just being’ — aware in this moment of what is — sensing and responding presently, intellectually, emotionally, sensuously, and intuitively, is probably the most honest, appreciative and authentic way of being anyone can aspire to.
- My perfect day would be spent gently exploring wild and beautiful places, talking, eating, playing, making love and co-creating things with a small group of physically, emotionally and intellectually strong, fit, self-aware and beautiful people.
- I care about the ongoing sixth great extinction of life on Earth, and the suffering it is causing. I care about making every moment of this short and amazing life count. I care about knowing how I, and the world, really ‘work’ and how I can be of use to all-life-on-Earth in the years I have left in ways that make a real difference.
- For now, my purpose — what drives me — seems to be making the women in my life that I care about, happy, in any way that I can. That may sound strange, but it seems true for me, and brings me a lot of joy in return.
- I believe we have evolved, each creature in its complex container of cells and organs, to experience the pure joy of being alive. Just that. Just to be, joyfully alive. Nothing spiritual in that — life emerged as an accident and has since deliberately been working to perpetuate itself when life is joyful and to extinguish itself when it is not.
- Because of living far beyond our material means, exhausting the planet’s resources on which we depend, and polluting the planet beyond its capacity to cleanse itself, I believe human civilization will collapse in fits and starts, globally, over the coming decades and centuries, until what remains of humans is a small number of people living diverse, simple, tribal lives a few millennia from now, without infrastructure, hierarchy, technology or even connection with other tribes. I have to believe theirs will be joyful, leisurely, sustainable lives, which is more than we can say of our wonderful, terrible civilization.