Hi! “Nice” to “meet” “you”

In taking up writing as a career, questions of success have been immediately legion and confusing.  As a writer, what counts as success?  Is it how much money I’m making?  Is it how many social media followers I have?  Is it how many readers I have?  There are a lot of experts out there who have good ideas on what you should measure, why it’s important, and what you can do to make your numbers better.  These are pretty smart ways of evaluating what can seem like ephemeral results.  After a lot of thought, I’ve been working on my own definition of success (which I’ll share some rainy day), and I’ve hammered out one over time that I’m pretty happy with.

This concept of quantifying the results of an inherently qualitative activity, has got me wondering: Why do we like to measure things so much? Why are hours worked and number of siblings and ages and wages so important? Not the fact of them; the numbers of them. Is it atavistic? Did measuring sinister sounds help our leopard-skin-clad forebears help avoid getting eaten? Does it soothe our modern existential anxiety about how much we matter in an increasingly complex society and universe? Does it give us something comforting and helpful to latch on to when finding things in common with other people? Why do we count so many things and assume that the numbers tell us stories that matter? Why do I? Why do you?

The area that this bugs me maybe the most is when I meet someone new.  In the light of wondering about how much analytics matter in my daily life, I’m mildly distressed to observe how many of my nice-to-meet-you questions have numbers for answers?

This was exacerbated by re-reading The Little Prince recently. The author is bemoaning the different questions that children and adults ask new acquaintances. Grownups want to know, “Where do you live? What do you do? How old are you?” and think they know the person from their answers. Whereas children might ask, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Don’t get me wrong – I’m as wary of noncontextual naïveté as the next person! But I do find myself wondering – what are my REAL questions? What would I truly like to ask and know about new acquaintances?

I asked some friends this question, and I’m glad I did.  They helped me round out my understanding of my original uncertainty and led me to a deeper engagement with it.   One friend said that some people feel happy counting, while others dislike it quite a bit (and perhaps the reverse is also true: some people are happy answering well-known questions, while others might long for something more uncommon?).  Another said that ours (U.S.; the West; capitalism) is a quantifying society, where we’re rewarded for counting freely and often; not only that, he said, but we are also a comparing society, these numbers give us an easy way of understanding if we are better or worse than somebody else, and it’s less about the answers than about the relationships, and who is “winning.”  Yet another said that it doesn’t matter what you ask – it matters how well you listen to the answers.

This last makes a lot of sense to me, and in thinking a little bit more about it, I decided that what it comes down to is connection and authenticity.  I still want to know about myself: what am I truly interested to know from new acquaintances?  And I want to know from other people: who are you…really?

My first takeaway from this line of thought is to add one new question to the pantheon of “where are you from? what do you do?”, and that is: “What is your favorite children’s book?”  I threw this into a conversation recently, meeting the boyfriend of a dear friend, and it was a charming wrench in all of our works.  Not only did it provide a lighthearted cognitive interrupt, we ended up having a really interesting conversation about all of our answers.  And besides…secretly, I feel like the Little Prince would thoroughly approve.

My second takeaway from this line of thought will be (and is the same as my takeaway from so many other life lessons, which is to say) listening harder.  Making sure that I am not absent when asking well-worn questions, even if I’ve asked them of a thousand people a thousand different times, and the person I’m asking has answered the same question a thousand times to a thousand people before me.  If I can show up, all the way up, listen hard, and make the question, the answer, and the asker and answerer truly matter – then I think it’s not about the numbers at all, but in the connection that was formed and new stories to be told.

— Posted on 13 July 2015 at 10:21am by

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