I was a sensitive young man, sometimes confused or hurt by social situations and people's behavior. In the years after college, I finally started to see patterns in circumstances that had baffled me or caused me pain. I began to write them down, so that I would not forget.
I'm glad I did. Even now, decades later, I still sometimes need the reminders.
A very large portion of people’s behavior is driven by insecurity. And a very large portion of the behavior that stems from insecurity can look like confidence.
In many situations, people face a choice between doing something in a way that feels right, resonates, comes from the heart, makes sense, and fits the moment; or doing the thing in the way that they think they are supposed to do it. Examples: Giving a speech; proposing marriage; dealing with somebody’s emotional crisis; disciplining a child; interviewing a job candidate; responding “heroically” to a threat. More often than not, the genuine approach produces more satisfying results. And more often than not, people instead choose to do what they think they are supposed to do. (Part of the problem is that people’s sense of what they are supposed to do comes from many sources, including media, that present the relevant situations in misleading ways. For example, the media may capture the mechanical aspects of an effective speech but not the way the words match the emotions of the moment).
Situations take a while to play out. There’s no need to panic, or to assume that what initially seems to be true will always be true.
People tend to overreact.
A situation that has been imagined, read about, etc. may not be easily recognized when it becomes a real situation. This is because the feel of the imagined situation may have been very distinctive, but the real situation feels much more like every other real situation. Examples: “corruption,” “falling in love,” “heroism.”
In many situations, a variety of motivations drive people’s choice of actions. These motivations can range from deeply spiritual to simply practical. However, over time, the more abstract motivations tend to be forgotten, and the more practical motivations remembered and acted upon. It’s hard to cling to a concept; but practicalities—deadlines, costs, etc.—are hard to forget, and create their own inertia. As a result, people repeatedly find themselves going through the motions: continuing to do things that they once made the choice to do, but without retaining any sense of connection to their deepest needs and motivations. They feel lost, and their activities provide no real sustenance.
People are not their roles.
Many situations apparently resolved through formal processes, such as hiring staff, or creating legislation, are really resolved through a complex combination of formal and informal processes. Very often, the informal processes—which may be unacknowledged and hidden from view—are the more important ones.
The key to effective communication is to understand one’s audience. And a lot of people can’t or don’t bother to understand many audiences for their communications.
People may have to hear the same good idea many times before it enters their consciousness.
Ideas are not appreciated or rewarded in proportion to their truth, beauty, explanatory power, or even social value. Other factors typically matter more. Among them: The credentials of the idea’s originator (however arbitrary their connection to the idea); the prospect that somebody can turn a profit from the idea; and the degree to which the idea departs from, or even improves upon, accepted wisdom (the more it does, the less likely it will be appreciated and rewarded).
Often people want things for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on. It’s just something that they feel—maybe the subtle combination of a number of subjective factors (“I want Chinese food—even though we had Chinese last night;” “I want to go home now;” “I want this job despite the fact that it pays less than the other one”). Because they are personal impulses rather than the products of reasoning, these desires can be difficult to assert or defend. In forums where a collective decision is being made, logical arguments may be favored and impulsive arguments dismissed. But the impulses are real, and their connection to people’s welfare is real as well. It is perfectly legitimate to act on such impulses, and to resist the people who try to defeat them with arguments.
Many actions appear to reflect clear, easily inferred motives but in fact do not. People and institutions do all sorts of things that may seem planned, polished and connected to a strategic agenda, but actually are the products of inertia, laziness, whim, jittery responses to incomplete information, or other motives more complex or confused than they seem.
Social change happens in a gestalt—not as the result of any single well-conceived, well-executed program, policy or intervention. There is no single initiative that will save the world. This is because people, institutions, relationships and cultures are extremely complex. Any single action aimed at social change, however well-conceived and widely supported, is likely to be challenged, diverted, thwarted, misunderstood and/or misapplied in a thousand different ways. But honest, thoughtful efforts can have a cumulative effect. Slowly, person-by-person, relationship-by-relationship, they shift the underlying culture and expectations. So the good that we do is not always the immediate good that we intend.
People express opinions for a lot of different reasons. That they really, deeply believe in what they are saying is only one of them.
Overly zealous advocacy of a certain perspective alienates people who might otherwise have adopted that perspective in due time.
The most insidious way to attack or undermine an idea is to call something else by its name.
There are many situations that feel rotten, even when handled perfectly. (Examples: consoling somebody on the death of a friend; apologizing for a mistake that caused a lot of harm). So it is a mistake to assume from the rotten feeling that you have said or done the wrong thing.
A picture left in the same place on the wall long enough will become invisible.
Some things can be learned only through experience.
When the true relationship between cause and effect is unknown, very simple patterns can appear vastly more complicated than they really are.
Perceptions freeze more easily than situations. Once a person has formed a perception of a situation, he or she is likely to miss the fact that the situation has shifted subtly or gradually over time.
Ambiguities in the early part of an arrangement can be costly to resolve. They may be the only things making the arrangement possible. Business deals, marriages, friendships—all may depend on the parties failing to reveal and resolve conflicts in their perceptions about the facts behind their transactions. If one of the parties, at the commencement of an arrangement, sees that these unresolved conflicts may exist, it can be very tempting to keep quiet about them and hope for the best. But the cost of cleaning up the messes that can arise when these conflicts come to light later, long after all parties have begun to take actions consistent with their own perceptions, can be far, far greater. In general, it is much better to name and attempt to resolve ambiguities on the front end of an arrangement rather than risk the catastrophe of having them derail the arrangement later.
Justice is often associated with equality. “Splitting the difference” has a ring of fairness to it. Exhibiting “balance” in reporting on a situation—for example, devoting the same amount of journalistic space to each side of a controversy—seems evenhanded. But in situations in which there actually is a fundamental underlying inequality, treating people equally is fundamentally unjust. For example, if two people disagree about ten aspects of a transaction, but one of the two people is correct about all ten aspects and the other is simply lying for his or her own gain, it would be unjust to conclude that each person must be right about five of the ten sources of disagreement, or to simply “split the difference.”
The two major sources of happiness are self-expression and love. And in truth, they are the same things.