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It is not generally acknowledged or discussed, but the personality we project to the world plays a substantial role in our success and in our ascension to mastery. Look at the case of Teresita Fernández. If she had merely kept to herself and focused exclusively on her work, she would have found herself defined by others in a way that would have hindered her progress. If, after her initial success, she had boasted about all the hours of practice that went into training herself in metalwork, people would have seen her as a mere laborer and craftsman. They would have inevitably pegged her as the female artist who was using metal as a gimmick to promote herself and get attention. They would have found weaknesses in her character to exploit. The public arena, in art or any endeavor, can be ruthless that way. Able to look at herself and at the art world with a level of detachment, Fernández intuited the power she could possess by being conscious of her persona and taking control of the appearance dynamic.
Understand: people will tend to judge you based on your outward appearance. If you are not careful and simply assume that it is best to be yourself, they will begin to ascribe to you all kinds of qualities that have little to do with who you are but correspond to what they want to see. All of this can confuse you, make you feel insecure, and consume your attention. Internalizing their judgments, you will find it hard to focus on your work. Your only protection is to turn this dynamic around by consciously molding these appearances, creating the image that suits you, and controlling people’s judgments. At times you will find it appropriate to stand back and create some mystery around you, heightening your presence. At other times you will want to be more direct and impose a more specific appearance. In general, you never settle on one image or give people the power to completely figure you out. You are always one step ahead of the public.
You must see the creation of a persona as a key element in social intelligence, not something evil or demonic. We all wear masks in the social arena, playing different roles to suit the different environments we pass through. You are simply becoming more conscious of the process. Think of it as theater. By creating a persona that is mysterious, intriguing, and masterful, you are playing to the public, giving them something compelling and pleasurable to witness. You are allowing them to project their fantasies onto you, or directing their attention to other theatrical qualities. In your private life, you can let the mask fall. In this diverse, multicultural world, it is best that you learn how to mingle and blend into all types of environments, giving yourself maximum flexibility. You must take pleasure in creating these personas—it will make you a better performer on the public stage.
- See yourself as others see you
Growing up with autism, Temple Grandin (see chapter 1, here, for more on this) had much to overcome in life, but by the end of high school she had managed to transform herself—through keen desire and discipline—into a gifted student with a promising future in the sciences. She understood that her greatest weakness was in the social arena. With animals, she had almost telepathic powers to read their moods and desires, but with humans it was the opposite. People were too tricky for her; they often seemed to communicate with one another through subtle, nonverbal cues—for instance, falling into patterns of laughter in a group, according to some interpersonal rhythm she could not fathom. She felt as if she were an alien, watching these strange creatures interact.
It seemed to her that there was nothing she could do about her awkwardness with people. What she could control, however, was her own work. She decided she would make herself so efficient in whatever job she had that her social handicap would not matter. But after graduating college with a degree in animal behavior and entering the work world as a consultant in the design of feedlots and cattle handling facilities, she realized, through a series of mistakes on her part, that this was completely unrealistic.
On one occasion, Grandin had been hired by the manager of a plant to improve its overall design. She did an excellent job, but soon she began to notice that the machinery was constantly breaking down, as if it were the fault of her design. She knew that the malfunctioning could not be because of any flaws in her work, and with further investigation she discovered that the machinery had problems only when a certain man was working in the room. The only possible conclusion was that he was sabotaging the equipment to make her look bad. This made no sense to her—why would he deliberately work against the interests of the company that employed him? This was not a design problem she could solve intellectually. She simply had to give up and leave the job.
On another occasion, a plant engineer had hired her to fix a particular problem, but after a few weeks on the job she noticed that there were other parts of the factory that were very poorly designed and clearly dangerous. She wrote to the president of the company to point this out. Her tone in the letter was a bit brusque, but she was annoyed that people could be so blind to such design issues. A few days later she was fired. Although no explanation was given, it was clear that her letter to the president must have been the cause.
As she mulled over these incidents, and other similar ones that had marred her career, she felt that the source of the problem had to be herself. She had known for years that she often did things that rubbed people the wrong way, and that they avoided her for that reason. In the past she had tried to go about her life ignoring this painful reality, but now her social deficiencies were threatening her ability to make a living.
Ever since she was a child, Grandin had the peculiar ability to see herself from the outside, as if she were looking at another person. It was more of a sensation that would come and go, but as an adult she realized she could use this gift for practical effect, by looking at her past mistakes as if watching another person in action.
For instance, in the case of the man who had sabotaged the machinery, she could clearly recall how she had barely interacted with him and the other engineers, and how she had made a point of doing everything herself. She could see in her mind the meetings in which she had presented her design ideas with rigorous logic and not opened them up for discussion. In the case of the letter to the president, she could recall how she had bluntly criticized people in front of their peers and had made no attempt to interact with the man who had hired her. Visualizing these moments with such clarity, she could finally understand the problem—she was making her coworkers feel insecure, useless, and inferior. She had injured their male egos and had paid a price.
Her realization of what had gone wrong did not stem from empathy as it might have for other people—it was an intellectual exercise, like solving a puzzle or a design problem. But because her emotions were not so deeply involved, it was easier to go through the process and make the necessary corrections. In the future, she would discuss her ideas with engineers, involve them as much as possible in her work, and never directly criticize people for anything. She would practice this in every subsequent job until it became second nature.
Slowly, developing social intelligence in her own way, Temple ironed out much of her awkwardness and her career prospered. In the 1990s, as she grew famous, she was increasingly invited to give talks—initially about her experiences as a professional who had overcome autism, and later as an expert on animal behavior.
In giving these talks, she had imagined that they had gone quite well. They were full of information and appropriate slides to illustrate her ideas. But after a few such lectures she was handed the evaluations from the audience, and what she read was shocking. People complained that she made no eye contact, read her talk mechanically from her notes, and did not engage with the audience, to the point of rudeness. The audience had the impression that she was simply repeating the same talk over and over, with the same slides, as if she were a machine.
Strangely enough, none of this bothered Temple. In fact, the idea of these evaluations excited her. They gave her a clear and realistic picture of herself as others saw her, and that is all she ever needed for self-correction. She pursued this process with great zeal, determined to transform herself into a skilled lecturer. As enough evaluations came in, she pored over them, looking for patterns and criticisms that made sense. Working from this feedback, she taught herself to mix in anecdotes and even jokes, and to make her slides not so logical and tight. She shortened the length of her talks, trained herself to speak without notes, and made sure to take as many questions as the audience wanted to ask at the end.
For those who had seen her initial efforts and then attended her lectures years later, it was hard to believe she was the same person. She was now an entertaining and engaging speaker, one who could hold the attention of an audience better than most. They could not imagine how this had come about, which made her transformation seem all the more miraculous.
Almost all of us have social flaws of some sort, ranging from the relatively harmless to those that can get us in trouble. Perhaps it could be that we talk too much, or are too honest in our criticisms of people, or take offense too easily when others do not respond positively to our ideas. If we repeat instances of such behavior often enough, we tend to offend people without ever really knowing why. The reason for this is twofold: first, we are quick to discern the mistakes and defects of others, but when it comes to ourselves we are generally too emotional and insecure to look squarely at our own. Second, people rarely tell us the truth about what it is that we do wrong. They are afraid to cause conflict or to be viewed as mean-spirited. And so it becomes very difficult for us to perceive our flaws, let alone correct them.
We sometimes have the experience of doing work that we consider to be quite brilliant, and then are rather shocked when we receive feedback from others who do not see it the same way at all. In such moments we are made aware of the discrepancy between our emotional and subjective relationship to our own work, and the response of others who view it with complete detachment, capable of pointing out flaws we could never see. The same discrepancy, however, exists on the social level. People see our behavior from the outside, and their view of us is never what we imagine it to be. To have the power to see ourselves through the eyes of others would be of immense benefit to our social intelligence. We could begin to correct the flaws that offend, to see the role that we play in creating any kind of negative dynamic, and to have a more realistic assessment of who we are.
To see ourselves objectively, we must follow the example of Temple Grandin. We can begin this process by looking at negative events in our past—people sabotaging our work, bosses firing us for no logical reason, nasty personal battles with colleagues. It is best to start with events that are at least several months old, and thus not so emotionally charged. In dissecting these occurrences, we must focus on what we did that either triggered or worsened the dynamic. In looking at several such incidents, we might begin to see a pattern that indicates a particular flaw in our character. Seeing these events from the perspective of the other people involved will loosen the lock our emotions have on our self-image, and help us understand the role we play in our own mistakes. We can also elicit opinions from those we trust about our behavior, making certain to first reassure them that we want their criticisms. Slowly, in this way, we can develop increasing self-detachment, which will yield us the other half of social intelligence—the ability to see ourselves as we really are.
- Suffer fools gladly
In 1775, the twenty-six-year-old German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang Goethe (later von Goethe) was invited to spend some time at the court of Weimar by its eighteen-year-old Duke Karl August. The duke’s family had been trying to transform the isolated and less renowned duchy of Weimar into a literary center, and the addition of Goethe to their court would be a great coup. Shortly after his arrival, the duke offered him a prominent position in his cabinet and the role of personal adviser, and so Goethe decided to stay. The poet saw this as a way to broaden his experience in the world and perhaps apply some enlightened ideas to the government of Weimar.
Goethe came from a solid middle-class background, and had never really spent much time around nobility. Now, as a prized member of the duke’s court, he was to have his apprenticeship in aristocratic manners. After only a few short months, however, he found court life quite unbearable. The lives of the courtiers revolved around rituals of card games, shooting parties, and the exchanging of endless bits of gossip. A passing remark by Herr X, or the failure of Frau Y to show up at a soirée, would be blown up into something of great importance, and courtiers would strain to interpret the meaning of it. After attending the theater they would chat endlessly about who had shown up accompanied by whom, or dissect the look of the new actress on the scene, but they would never discuss the play itself.
In conversation, if Goethe dared to discuss some reform he was considering, suddenly a courtier would get all up in arms about what this might mean for a particular minister, and how it could jeopardize his position within the court, and Goethe’s idea would get lost in the ensuing heated dialog. Even though he was the author of the most famous novel of the day, The Sorrows of Young Werther, nobody seemed particularly interested in his opinions. They found it more interesting to tell the celebrated novelist their own ideas and to see his reaction. In the end, their interests seemed constricted to the claustrophobic court and its intrigues.
Goethe felt trapped—he had accepted a position with the duke and took it most seriously, but he found it hard to tolerate the social life to which he was now condemned. As a confirmed realist in life, however, he found it useless to complain about what he could not change. And so, accepting his fellow courtiers as his companions for the next few years, Goethe devised a strategy, making a virtue out of necessity: He would talk very little, rarely venturing an opinion on anything. He would get his interlocutors to go on and on and about this or that subject. He would wear a pleasant mask as he listened, but inwardly he would observe them as if they were figures in a stage play. They would reveal to him their secrets, their petty dramas, and their inane ideas, and all the while he would smile and always take their side.
What the courtiers did not realize was that they were supplying him with endless material—for characters, bits of dialogue, and stories of folly that would fill the plays and novels he was to write in the future. In this way he transformed his social frustrations into a most productive and pleasant game.
The great Austrian-American film director Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969) had risen from studio errand boy to become one of the most successful directors in Hollywood during the 1920s and ’30s. He developed along the way a particular philosophy that would serve him well throughout his directorial career, which would last into the 1950s: all that mattered was the final product. His role was to get everyone on the same page and guide the production according to the vision he had, employing whatever means necessary to get the results he wanted. And the greatest impediment to realizing his vision came inevitably from the actors. They thought first and foremost of their careers. The film as a whole mattered less than the attention they received for their part. This would make them try to steal the limelight, and in the process they would alter the quality of the film. With such actors, von Sternberg would have to find a way to trick or beguile them into doing his bidding.
In 1930, von Sternberg was invited to Berlin to direct what would be his most famous film, The Blue Angel, which would feature the world-renowned actor Emil Jannings. In looking for the female lead for the film, von Sternberg discovered a relatively unknown German actress named Marlene Dietrich, whom he would go on to direct in seven feature films, singlehandedly transforming her into a star. Von Sternberg had worked with Jannings before and knew that the actor was an impossibly foolish person. Jannings did everything he could to disrupt the flow of the production. He took as a personal affront any attempt by the director to direct him. His whole method was to goad the director into useless battles and wear him down until he relented and let Jannings do as he wished.
Von Sternberg was prepared for all of this and went to war in his own way. He steeled himself against Jannings’s childish games. Jannings demanded that the director show up every morning in his dressing room to reassure the actor of his undying love and admiration for his work—von Sternberg did this without complaint. He asked that the director take him to lunch every day and listen to his ideas about the film—von Sternberg indulged him in this, listening patiently to Jannings’s horrible suggestions. If von Sternberg showed attention to any other actor, Jannings would throw a jealous fit, and von Sternberg would have to act the role of the contrite spouse. Letting him have his way on these petty matters, he took much of the bite out of Jannings’s strategy. On the set, he would not become entangled in any battles. But since time was of the essence, he would inevitably have to trick the actor into doing what he wanted.
When for some unknown reason Jannings refused to pass through a doorway and make his entrance into a scene, von Sternberg set up the hottest light available to boil the back of his neck every time Jannings stood there, forcing him to pass through. When Jannings declaimed his first scene in the most ridiculously elevated German, von Sternberg congratulated him for his fine tone and said he would be the only person in the film to talk like that, which would make him stand out and look bad, but so be it. Jannings quickly dropped the haughty accent. Whenever he went into a pout and remained in his room, von Sternberg would get the word passed to him that the director was lavishing attention on Marlene Dietrich, which would promptly make the jealous actor hurry to the set to compete for attention. Scene by scene, von Sternberg maneuvered him into the position he desired, managing to extract out of Jannings perhaps the greatest performance of his career.
As previously discussed in chapter 2 (here), Daniel Everett and his family moved to the heart of the Amazon in 1977, to live among people known as the Pirahã. Everett and his wife were missionaries, and their task was to learn the Pirahã language—which was then considered the hardest in the world to decipher—and to translate the Bible into their indigenous tongue. Slowly, Everett made progress, using the various devices he had been taught in his training in linguistics.
He had studied in depth the works of the great MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who advocated the idea that all languages are essentially related because grammar itself is hardwired into the human brain, and is part of our genetic code. This would mean that by their nature all languages share the same features. Convinced that Chomsky was correct, Everett worked hard to find these universal features in Pirahã. Over the years of studying it, however, he began to find many exceptions to Chomsky’s theory, and this troubled him.
After much thought, Everett came to the conclusion that the Pirahã language reflected many peculiarities of their life in the jungle. He determined, for instance, that their culture placed a supreme value on “immediacy of experience”—what was not before their eyes did not exist, and therefore there were almost no words or concepts for things outside immediate experience. In elaborating this concept, he theorized that the basic features of all languages are not simply genetic in origin and universal, but that each language has elements that reflect the uniqueness of its culture. Culture plays a larger role than we might imagine in how we think and communicate.
In 2005 he finally felt ready to make all of this public, and had an article published in an anthropology journal that expressed these revolutionary ideas. He expected that his findings might stir up some animated discussion, but he was not prepared at all for what would ensue.
People at MIT (linguists and graduate students) associated with Chomsky began to hound Everett. When he gave a talk at an important symposium at the University of Cambridge about his findings, some of these linguists flew over to attend it. They peppered him with questions meant to poke holes in his ideas and publicly embarrass him. Not ready for this, Everett fumbled and did not handle it well. This continue with subsequent lectures. They zeroed in on any kind of inconsistency in his talk or his writings, and used these inconsistencies to discredit his overall idea. Some of their attacks on him became personal—they publicly called him a charlatan, and questioned his motives. Even Chomsky himself implied that Everett was out for fame and money.
When Everett published his first book, Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, some of these linguists wrote letters to critics who were going to review it, trying to dissuade them from even discussing his material—it was too far below academic standards, they claimed. They went so far as to put pressure on National Public Radio, which was about to do a large segment on Everett. The show was canceled.
At first Everett could not help but become emotional. What his detractors were bringing up in their arguments did not discredit his theory, but merely revealed some possible weak points. They seemed less interested in the truth and more concerned with making him look bad. Quickly, however, he moved past this emotional stage and began to use these attacks for his own purpose—they forced him to make sure everything he wrote was airtight; they made him rethink and strengthen his arguments. He could hear their possible criticisms in his head, and he addressed them one by one in his subsequent writings. This made him a better writer and thinker, and the controversy they stirred up only increased the sales of Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes, winning many converts to his argument in the process. In the end, he came to welcome the attacks of his enemies for how much they had improved his work and toughened him up.
In the course of your life you will be continually encountering fools. There are simply too many to avoid. We can classify people as fools by the following rubric: when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results, and getting the work done in as efficient and creative a manner as possible. That should be the supreme value that guides people’s actions. But fools carry with them a different scale of values. They place more importance on short-term matters—grabbing immediate money, getting attention from the public or media, and looking good. They are ruled by their ego and insecurities. They tend to enjoy drama and political intrigue for their own sake. When they criticize, they always emphasize matters that are irrelevant to the overall picture or argument. They are more interested in their career and position than in the truth. You can distinguish them by how little they get done, or by how hard they make it for others to get results. They lack a certain common sense, getting worked up about things that are not really important while ignoring problems that will spell doom in the long term.
The natural tendency with fools is to lower yourself to their level. They annoy you, get under your skin, and draw you into a battle. In the process, you feel petty and confused. You lose a sense of what is really important. You can’t win an argument or get them to see your side or change their behavior, because rationality and results don’t matter to them. You simply waste valuable time and emotional energy.
In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short-term goals. It is human nature. Seeing this foolishness within you, you can then accept it in others. This will allow you to smile at their antics, to tolerate their presence as you would a silly child, and to avoid the madness of trying to change them. It is all part of the human comedy, and it is nothing to get upset about or lose sleep over. This attitude—“Suffer Fools Gladly”—should be forged in your Apprenticeship Phase, during which you are almost certainly going to encounter this type. If they are causing you trouble, you must neutralize the harm they do by keeping a steady eye on your goals and what is important, and ignoring them if you can. The height of wisdom, however, is to take this even further and to actually exploit their foolishness—using them for material for your work, as examples of things to avoid, or by looking for ways to turn their actions to your advantage. In this way, their foolishness plays into your hands, helping you achieve the kind of practical results they seem to disdain.
While studying for his PhD at Harvard University in Computer Science, Paul Graham (b. 1964) discovered something about himself: he had a profound distaste for any kind of politicking or social maneuvering. (For more on Graham, see here.) He was not good at it, and it irritated him to no end to be dragged into situations in which others behaved manipulatively. His brief encounter with politics within the department convinced him he was not cut out for a life in academia. This lesson became strengthened a few years later when he went to work for a software company. Almost everything they did was irrational—firing the original tech people, making a salesperson the head of the company, creating too long a time between releases of new products. All of these bad choices came about because in a group, politics and ego often trump sound decision making.
Unable to tolerate this, he came up with his own solution: as much as possible, he would avoid any environment that involved politicking. This meant sticking to doing startups on the smallest scale—a constraint that made him disciplined and creative. Later, when he founded Y Combinator, a kind of apprenticeship system for tech startups, he could not prevent the company from growing in size—it was too successful. His solution was twofold: One, he had his wife and partner in the company, Jessica Livingston, handle all of the tricky social situations, since she possessed a high level of social intelligence. Two, he maintained a very loose, non-bureaucratic structure to the company.
If, like Graham, you simply do not have the patience that is required for managing and mastering the more subtle and manipulative sides of human nature, then your best answer is to keep yourself away from those situations as best as possible. This will rule out working in groups larger than a handful of people—above a certain number, political considerations inevitably rise to the surface. This means working for yourself or on very small startups.
Even still, it is generally wise to try to gain the rudiments of social intelligence—to be able to read and recognize the sharks, and to charm and disarm difficult people. The reason is that no matter how hard you might try to avoid situations that call for such knowledge, the world is one large teeming court of intrigue, and it will inevitably pull you in. Your conscious attempt to opt out of the system will retard your apprenticeship in social intelligence and can make you vulnerable to the worst forms of naïveté, with all of the disasters that are likely to ensue.
It is a great folly to hope that other men will harmonize with us; I have never hoped this. I have always regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I endeavored to understand with all his peculiarities, but from whom I desired no further sympathy. In this way have I been enabled to converse with every man, and thus alone is produced the knowledge of various characters and the dexterity necessary for the conduct of life .
—JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE
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