Sunday, September 22, 2013

Curiouser and curiouser

“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.” 
― Samuel JohnsonThe Rambler

Does this sound familiar?  You're talking to someone at work about this exciting event you went to last night, this book you're reading, or whatever you're passionate about, and you can actually see the moment when they check out of the conversation.  Their eyes glaze over, they start to reach for their phone to check the time, or they look around in the hopes that someone will interrupt the conversation.  Eventually, they interrupt with a dismissive, "Wow, you're really into those video games, aren't you?"

There's a nerd culture version of the scenario, too: you come into work on Monday and start talking to your coworker about the amazing game you watched over the weekend, an epic struggle between two masters of their craft leading their teams toward victory, and he rolls his eyes and says, "Oh… sportsball.  I'd rather play Cards Against Humanity."

When did our passions and hobbies become competitive?  For that matter, when did the time you spend LARPing, lifting, hacking, hiking, biking, fracking, tweeting, or twerking become more meaningful than my pursuits?  In short, when did we lose our curiosity?

Children are little two-legged balls of curiosity.  Have you ever watched a toddler in a strange room?  he will sit in the middle of the floor, looking around with a wide-eyed and slightly stunned gaze for about ten seconds.  Then he's off to stick his fingers into the closest hole he can find, to explore the room with all of his senses (especially taste, if he can get something in his mouth), to wedge himself tightly behind every piece of furniture just to see what's back there.  He wants to know everything about that room and its contents, and God help the eardrums of any adult who tries to stop him.

Somewhere between toddlerhood and adulthood, we lose that curiosity and decide that it's cool to be into some things and terribly uncool to even discuss others.  We stay in our lane with our circle of friends (real or virtual) and we build walls around our community of interest.  Inside the walls, we're free to participate in whatever interests us as long as it stays within the boundaries of our self-identified group.  We can be passionate as long as our friends are passionate, and fads can sweep the group as long as they start from inside.  Outside, all is frightening, or worse, boring.

Frankly, I blame the cafeteria.  Right around middle school, or whenever kids are allowed to choose their seats instead of being forced to sit with their homeroom class, they start to clump by interests.  The jocks sit with the jocks, the theater kids sit with the theater kids, and that one smelly kid who's always eating his boogers sits by himself.  In the cafeteria, we define ourselves by our interests, then we find others who share those interests and create an identity around them.  We are no longer individuals with diverse hobbies, passions, and intellects; we are the Whovians, the weight lifters, the Goths.  Our interest becomes our identity, because otherwise we're afraid we'll have to go sit with Bobby Boogerbreath.

As we grow, if we're lucky, our passions become our jobs.  If we aren't quite that lucky, then they become our hobbies. Either way, we commit time and energy to them and we take pride in what we accomplish in their pursuit, whether those rewards come in the form of promotions, awards, or piles of imaginary electronic gold.  What we enjoy, we work at; when we work, we improve; when we improve, we achieve.  It's a virtuous circle, but it's also a closed loop.

When my passion becomes my identity, I become closed to anything new.  When I am passionate about history, philosophy, and classic movies, I turn up my nose at anything created after 1960.  When I spend all of my time writing software code, I sniff dismissively at the "jocks" who want to talk about last night's football game.  When I find my freedom in competitive athletics, I quietly deride anyone who eats food for enjoyment without measuring its potential as muscle fuel.  I become my passion, and it consumes me.  I lose interest in anything that doesn't make me the ultimate whatever-it-is that I'm interested in.  I become, in a word, incurious.

I think that the real heart of this issue is this: we're afraid to try new things because we might not be good at them.  I know that I'm good at math, so I'll just stick with the sciences and say that the arts are for potheads.  Or I know that I'm no good at sports, so I'll say that they're for people with nothing better to do than throw a ball around.  The fact that I might hurt myself if I tried it is completely beside the point, of course.  Or, because I've always been good at sports, I'll milk that for all it's worth, even though inside I have the sickening certainty that one day my body will give out and I'll only have my past glories to keep me company.

What if Einstein had looked at the motion of the celestial bodies and said, "Meh, good enough.  I've got patents to review."  What if Mark Twain had decided that he was the travel guy and stuck with writing brochures for riverboat trips?  What if Steve Jobs had looked at Steve Wozniak's computer and thought to himself, "That guy's weird.  I think I'll find something else to do on Saturday."  The world would be a much poorer place.  Curiosity drives innovation.  It creates something from nothing, brings order from chaos.  This fundamental dissatisfaction with what we know to be true pulls us onward, goads us to learn and grow.  Just as the toddler learns by tasting everything within reach, curiosity instills in us a thirst to know more.

I never fit in with those groups in the cafeteria.  When I hung out with my fellow athletes, I grew bored with the conversation.  When I sat with the other theater folks, I grew tired of the drama.  When I joined the smart kids, I wondered why they only wanted to talk about homework assignments.  I was dissatisfied; I wanted more.  I've tried to cultivate that feeling throughout my life.  Even now, I try to remain omni-curious, willing to try anything at least once.  It's OK if I don't like it; at least I tried.  This has led me on some fascinating excursions, and each experience has enriched me, both intellectually and spiritually.  Experiencing something new -- whether it's reading a book on the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, joining a class on Talmud study, or eating at a new restaurant -- gives me a new perspective on my life, a new way to view my own tastes and interests.  And even if I didn't enjoy the meal, at least now I've learned that I don't like escargot. 

I haven't experienced everything the world has to offer, and I won't.  I haven't packed up on a whim and traveled to Morocco because I heard that they have amazing couscous, but if you have the lifestyle flexibility to do that, God bless you.  But when I see something that piques my interest or when a new opportunity comes my way, I give it a chance.  I explore, I test, then I decide whether I like it.  I don't look at something and say, "That's not the kind of thing that people like me do," or "I'm a [fill in the label], I'm not interested in that."  Because until I try, how do I know?

So, your mom was right when she forced you to try steamed artichokes even though you insisted that you hated them: "How do you know unless you've tasted it?"  Who cares if you're no good at sports?  If you watch a game, you might see the parallels between Tom Brady and  the Patriots' march down the field and Hannibal's march across the Alps.  So what if you haven't touched a book since you graduated from college?  Maybe joining that book club will show you how your struggles at work align the hero's journey and give you hope for a happy ending.  Or maybe you'll just meet someone cute while you're there.  The point is to try, to be open to learning, to be dissatisfied with what you know.  This is how we grow and make the world richer. 

Come, taste, and see.  You just might love it.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Introverts (Prefer to Remain) Anonymous

Hello.  My name is Jason, and I am an introvert.

I won't wait for any applause or a "Hi, Jason," because I know that my fellow introverts are probably checking their phones and wondering when the meeting will be over.  Any extroverts will just give me an encouraging pity clap, and frankly, I don't need that.

I am standing here today to dispel a few myths about myself and others like me, in the hopes of improving extra-intro relations.

I am not your average introvert, or at least not what you expect one to look like.  I don't work in a darkened cubicle, avoiding eye contact with other human beings and animals and mumbling some unintelligible response when someone speaks to me.  I don't have any weird tics or strange habits that I'm aware of (and I'm sure my wife would tell me).  I manage a group of 50 people and spend most of every day talking to them.  I'm not afraid of public speaking, and have even sought out opportunities on occasion (see IgniteBoulder 7 and IgniteBoulder 11).  I acted in theatre in high school and college. I even have it on good authority that I can even be charming when I want to.

People see me and think: extrovert.  What they don't understand is that extroversion isn't about whether you can interact with people successfully.  It's about whether you prefer it.  Someone else put it this way: extroverts draw energy from their interactions with others.  Introverts spend energy in those same interactions.  It's about where you draw your power from.

This leads me to the first myth I want to discuss today: Introverts don't like people.

Because we don't always seek out personal interaction, other people (especially extroverts) think that we're misanthropes.  Allow me to speak on behalf of all my brothers and sisters and say: we don't dislike you; we just find you exhausting.  I like my coworkers, and I enjoy talking with them and laughing with them, but when I get home at the end of the day, all I want to do is go to a quiet place and recharge.  I am out of words.  My extroverted wife, on the other hand, has plenty of words.  A plethora.  A cornucopia of phrases and exclamations, all waiting to pour forth.  For her, talking is refreshing, a special way of bonding with another human being.  For me, it is work.  I can do it, I can even enjoy it, but I might need a little nap afterwards.

This is why I enjoy tools like Facebook and Twitter.  They offer bite-size interactions at just the right level for me to dip my toe in, see how things are going with my friends, and say hi.  But when I'm tired and can't take any more talking, I don't have to look.  Talk too much or spam me with your Farmville updates, and I can turn down the noise.  Perfect.  Think it's a coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg, the famously awkward billionaire, built Facebook?  I'd say he was building the perfect introvert's social network.

Which brings me to the second myth: Introverts don't make good friends.

Not to be inflammatory, but I have to lay this myth at the feet of the extrovert-industrial complex.  Just because we don't want to keep up with 50 friends at once, or because we have to be prompted to call home once in a while, doesn't mean we can't make friends.  In fact, I would argue that introverts tend to make deeper friendships than extroverts, because we are more careful about whom we expend our energy on.  When conversation is a precious resource, you spend it where it matters most.  In my life, I have tended to have 2 or 3 good friends and a many acquaintances, a pattern I've seen repeated with many other introverts.  The extroverts I've known have tended to have many "best friends" and a wide circle of buddies, acquaintances, and people they'd chatted up in elevators and on planes.  From an energy exchange perspective, this makes sense, too.  If you draw energy from conversation and interaction, you need a wide base from which to draw.  If it feels like I'm comparing extroverts to social vampires, I'm not.  Not really.  It's just physics, man.  Don't blame the math.

Well, that was a little awkward.  It also illustrates the next myth: introverts are socially inept.

I'll admit, if you put me in a room full of strangers I'll be the one over by the hummus, waiting to be excused.  I hate uncertain social situations and will go out of my way to avoid them (thank God for smartphones, by the way: now I can stand in the corner and check my email and people think I'm important instead of uncomfortable).  But put me in a situation where I know where things stand -- be it at work, hosting a party, or even speaking in front of a crowd -- and I'm fine.  I don't have to get through the awkwardness of introducing myself, searching for conversation topics, or trying to be funny.  I can just be me, and that's much easier.  Again, it's all about the expenditure.  Well, that and the shyness.  You have us there: we're shy, but we're perfectly friendly and approachable once you get to know us.  Look: you're the one who loves talking to people.  How about you make the first move?

Finally, I have one more misconception to review: introverts would rather just be left alone.

Actually, you've got us there.  Give us a choice between going out to a party and reading quietly at home, and we'll pick up the book almost every time.  You see, this is where we recharge: in the stillness and the silence.  After we've run our batteries down from a day of talking and socializing, all we need to charge back up is some quiet time.  We don't have to be immobile. In fact, some of the most refreshing times I have found in recent years have been spent hiking on steep trails with just my dog.  Those hikes were physically exhausting, but they were mentally and spiritually invigorating.  In the quiet, I can hear myself think.  In the stillness, I find inspiration that I can grasp before the clamoring voices drive it away.  In not talking, I rebuild the store of words that I will spend tomorrow.

So, my extroverted friends, the next time you see me out on the trails, feel free to stop and say hi.  I'm sure I'll be glad to see you.  Don't be offended if the conversation starts to lag; I may have just run out of words for the day.  And if you see me hanging out by the hummus at the next BDNT meetup, for heaven's sake come over and talk!  Maybe we can work together to improve understanding between our peoples.

Thank you for listening.  If you need me after the meeting, I'll be over by the coffee, checking my phone.

I owe a debt to Jonathan Rauch for his seminal article, "Caring for Your Introvert" which introduced me to the arena of Introvert Apologetics, and which I have shared with my extroverted friends many times in the hopes that they would understand.  If you haven't read it, you should.  Quietly.  To yourself.

Monday, September 02, 2013

"Today, I am a mensch"

(cross-posted from Lion and the Bull)

We celebrated my son's Bar Mitzvah yesterday with 65 friends in Steamboat Springs.  In case you ever have the urge to invite 25 13-year-olds and those parents brave enough to make the trip to join you on a 3-hour trek into the mountains, here are a few things I learned.  Maybe they can help you:
  1. Even in a 10,00 square foot house, you can still hear (and smell) 13-year-old boys, no matter where they are.
  2. 13 is the age where a party with both boys and girls takes on a whole new tone.  Where before the boys ran around and thew things at each other while the girls sat and played a quiet game, now the boys find it imperative that every competition take place where the girls can see them, and each girl travels at the center of a cluster of boisterous males.  And when this happens near a hot tub, I feel a powerful need to "look at the stars" from a chair nearby, no matter how many times they ask whether I'd be more comfortable elsewhere.
  3. While teenage boys have enough energy to make even a river seem small when you're floating down it on inner tubes, even they have to sleep sometime.
But the most important thing I learned on this trip came from my father-in-law when he spoke to my son during the Bar Mitzvah ceremony.  I can't remember the exact words, because I think I was starting to suffer from heat stroke by then (wearing a dark suit on a sunny deck may not have been the best choice), but it went something like this:
Today we celebrate you becoming a man, and taking on all the responsibilities that come with that under the Torah.  But there's another word that applies here as well.  It's a Yiddish word: "mensch."  Like most Yiddish words, it's hard to translate directly into English.  You could translate it to "man," but it's more than that.  A mensch is a good man.  Being a mensch means taking care of others.  It means having a firm handshake and looking someone in the eye when you greet them.  It means doing what's right, even when it isn't easy. Being a mensch means being honest and open to new ideas.  It means being generous and encouraging to others.  
You are all these things, Ben.  You are a mensch.
As you might imagine, this speech brought tears to my eyes, because I agree.  My boy is a mensch, and I'm very proud to look at him and see these qualities.  Of course, as his parent, I also get to see his less menschy attributes: the crabbiness, the stubbornness, the sheer physical inability to pick up a single dirty sock and put it in the laundry chute.  But when I watched him this weekend, speaking graciously to relatives and family friends whom he clearly didn't recognize, accepting congratulatory kisses from aunts and headfirst running hugs from young cousins, keeping his friends from trashing the house where we were staying even while leading them in fun activities, I caught a glimpse of the man he will become, and I was filled with a sense of pride.

This is a father's greatest burden and his greatest accomplishment: to show his son what a man should be.  We show it first with our actions and then with our words, and we do it best when we make the boy a part of the lesson.  When I bring my wife flowers for no good reason or greet her with a kiss when I get home from work, I show him how a husband should treat his wife.  When I let him pick out the flowers, and make that part of our shopping trips together, I let him feel what it's like to be the man treating his wife with love and respect.  When I tell him that he has to do his homework and his chores before he can play video games, I'm teaching him that a man takes care of his responsibilities before he pleases himself.  When I sit down with him and help with that homework, or do the dishes even when I want nothing more than to lie down on the couch after a long day at work, I'm living it out before him.  When I am angry but I hold back my urge to lash out, when I help those who are weaker than me, I show my son how to use his strength to protect and nourish rather than to dominate.

One of the most critical lessons that we have tried to teach our children is how to be generous with the resources with which God has blessed us.  When we buy Christmas presents or school supplies for underprivileged kids or give a waitress an outlandishly large tip, or even do big things like "Take Back the Movies" or hosting all of our friends and family in Steamboat Springs to celebrate a Bar Mitzvah, we're showing our kids that money doesn't exist to make us happy.  It's a tool that we are given for blessing others.  Yes, we take care of our own needs and make sure that we have a house and food and clothing, but after that, we look for opportunities to use this tool to bring joy to both the people we know and to strangers who come across our path.  We do this because, as one person said to me this weekend, "We are blessed so that we can bless."

Or, as God said to Abraham (an appropriate quote for a Bar Mitzvah weekend):
“Go from your country, your people, and your father’s household to the land I will show you.
“I will make you into a great nation,
    and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
    and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you.”
This, to me, is truly what it means to be a mensch: to be a blessing to those around you.  When a man looks back on his life, whether he's 13, 33, or 93, he should say, "The world is a better place because I passed through it.  When God placed people in my path, I used my hands, my skills, and my resources to give them a glimpse of the outrageously generous God who loves them.  When he placed people within my care or under my authority, I took care of them the way he would have.  Whether it benefitted me or not, whether they knew it or not, I made people's lives better where it was in my power to do so.  I gave people a glimpse of Heaven on earth, even if only for a moment."

This is why, even as we opened gift cards and counted checks, we talked about where my son would give 10% of the money he received to bless other people.  And this is why I was so proud when he happily accepted the opportunity to share out of his own bounty rather than trying to hoard it all for himself.

This weekend was a big step, but in practical terms, my boy isn't a man quite yet.  I have a few more years to show him what that means, to correct him when he strays, and to give him the foundation that he needs to make his own decisions once he's on his own.  This is my job.  This is my greatest work.  For he will learn what I live out before him, even more than what I try to teach him.  In my best moments and in my worst, I will show him what it is to be a good man, and he will follow in the path I set before him.

To teach my boy to be a man, I must be a mensch.  And oy, what a journey this will be.