Monday, July 1, 2013

Look For What's Missing

I remember when I first moved out to Folsom. It wasn't the first time I moved. After settling into work and a basic routine I started looking for groups to join. Near the top of my list was a Christian community for young unmarried adults. These are amazingly rare. Church after church mentioned their collegiate hangouts or their adult studies or a young married group, but no one seemed to have a young adult one. I was becoming a little discouraged. When I finally came upon one, I decided to put it to the test. I would see if they were genuinely interested in me. Who would greet and ask me to events? Would they care when I didn't show up? Were they truly interested in investing in me?

Lucky for Fusion, they have a few notable smiling people who take it upon themselves to greet and connect people to the community. I was soon awash with invites to random events from the official car wash fundraiser to more mundane picnic activities and birthdays. For a while, that was good. I slowly figured out people's names and had a full schedule of events. But doubt crept back in. The majority of the events seemed to be mass invites. When I setup an event I mass-invited the whole Facebook network. Was I merely building a large pool of bodies so I wouldn't have to stand alone in the party?

So I tried another set of experiments. If I intentionally withdrew who would notice? If I disappeared from Facebook would anyone comment? Did I exert enough "pull" on the social group that my absence of presence would register?

I remember a guest speaker we once had at Catalyst. I forget most of his talk, and for now I'll call him Wesley since I forgot his name, but I do remember one anecdote he shared. When he was younger there were the cool dudes of his youth group. They would hang out together and share stories about the radical things they did throughout the week. Wesley felt left out and always wanted to somehow get into the cool kids circle. He thought that perhaps if he became cool enough they would invite him. It didn't work. Finally he decided to make his own cool kids circle. He would invite people to events and make his own circle of friends to share radical things with. He switched from being on the outside looking in to building his own inner circle. He didn't need the "cool kids." He didn't have to wait to get invited. He just needed to reach out and make friends. That revelation sticks with me.

As humans we respond to positive stimuli. When we feel hungry we seek food. When someone is talking to us we devote our attention to them. We are much, much worse at identifying the absence of sudden stimuli. I do not spend most of my day noticing how not-hungry I am. It is in the rare case you are isolated in a dark and silent room that you realize how much ambient noise you are constantly filtering out in your everyday life. You focus on the road while driving. We notice the well-dressed or horribly dressed. The average, the normal, the background gets filtered out.

A few months ago my co-workers were playing Ultimate Frisbee. I put down my keys, phone, water bottle, and my silver ring on the field. People on occasion have asked about my silver ring. I wear it on my left hand on the middle finger. It is a Sterling Silver band with the word "Purity" engraved onto it. I've had it since High School. It's a great little reminder to myself and an interesting conversation starter with others. But on this particular day when we moved off the field I grabbed everything except my ring. We never found it in the field that day. So for the last two months I haven't been wearing the ring. No one has made a comment about its absence. Not even my family when I visited them. I'm not sure people have noticed.

We respond the same way to social stimuli. According to Facebook I have 577 Friends. I only interact with at most around 20 per day. But I'm not crippled with missing the other 500+ I don't see for months on end. We respond to active stimuli and filter out the absences. There are exceptions, such as missing one of my co-workers who shipped out. But eventually that subsides. We require constant incidental interactions to build up and maintain relationships.

Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. We can choose to be more aware of what's missing. In this interesting blog post the author Kristin notices we are driven to proactively fill the gaps and holes in our lives. But sometimes while trying to stuff ourselves full we don't take the time to truly understand why the gap was there in the first place. Or, as she puts it, "What’s missing quickly becomes buried under the ever-growing pile of what’s there." Common gaps include acceptance, love, recognition, and stability. Being aware of our bias towards positive stimuli can lead us to also look around a little more at what is lacking. Then we can pursue the root cause and not just treat the symptoms.

Taking this to a social context, this has two major implications. First, be active in making friends. Do not wait for people to "notice" you. Very, very few people have enough of a magnetic personality or such shining skills that they draw critical acclaim just by standing there. Instead, people get to know people who take time and effort to interact with them. This is much harder than passively waiting. But relationships take effort. Do not rely on people magically discovering you're a diamond in the rough. And yes, this will mean you will fail. People will turn down invites, or eventually you'll realize you're the only one putting effort into the relationship. But it also opens up so many potential great relationships with amazing people who invest in you as well.

On the flip side, don't feel bad about being left out. Friends will drift apart, and sometimes you can't salvage it. Sometimes people will just plumb forget your appointment. It happens. It is not a slight towards you per se. So always remember to give a modicum of grace before firing off an angry spurt onto social media. People don't respond to neutral well, so be able to forgive them.

The second corollary is be aware of negative space. For example, look around for people who are a bit more withdrawn. They don't understand this bias yet, and maybe one is just waiting to be discovered. Be that discoverer. Also, be aware of your own negative space. If the only thing you talk about is negative things going on in your life, people will think you're a negative person. If the only thing you post on Twitter is trivial nonsense, people might assume you're full of trivial nonsense. This is completely unfair, but be aware of it. I personally only post interesting things I find to Facebook and rarely anything personal. Obviously this doesn't mean I don't have personal things to share, but I just don't like blasting it out to everyone unless it's important.

As in all my advice pieces, I caution you from taking this too far. There is a distinct inverse relationship between believing in a meritocracy and feelings of self-worth. I am not saying the more you do the more friends you will have. I am not even saying the more gaps you see the more happy you will be. And I know several people who are already aware of this bias and performing admirably at watching out for those who are absent. But I encourage you to take a moment to reflect and see if this is a blind spot you can address.

In closing, I leave you with the cliche phrase "Be the change that you wish to see in the world."* Be proactive, be that friendly person, go out and show the world instead of waiting for it to discover you.

* This was apparently never said by Ghandi. He actually said, "If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. ... We need not wait to see what others do." which removes the implicit that social change can be a result of solely personal change. Still means they go hand-in-hand though.

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