Why I Want to be Immortal

I keep a regular personal journal. This was my diary entry from Valentine’s day this year – slightly modified.


People ask me why I want to be immortal, like I must have had a traumatic childhood or something.

Today was Valentines’ Day. I decided I was going to cash in a favor to take my partner to a nicer dinner than we could otherwise afford. I read and wrote and got work done for the better part of the day, then when my partner finished work, we took some chocolate to my grandmother, dropped by home so we could get changed into some nice clothes, then went out.

We talked on the way there about taking joy in the merely real, the reasons that people fail to do this, and my partner’s views about science. We talked as we waited to be seated about the ideal setup for a restaurant waiting area. We talked as we ate about the public school system, about having children, about optimizing the world, about the design for my office in our future home, once we had our own. We talked as we drove home about assigning meaning to days, but for the most part we were too contented by our meals to talk about much of anything, so we just held hands and got lost in our minds.

After we got home, we cuddled, fell asleep, and woke up again just past midnight. Neither of us were very tired anymore, so we headed up to the loft my parents had recently added to our overly-tall living room to cuddle around my new kotatsu. My love brought sodas for the both of us. When I climbed the ladder, I saw that there was already a little arrangement there, with a pink rose in a pink vase with a heart charm tied by a white ribbon around its neck, a stuffed unicorn, and a box of chocolates. We shared chocolate and sat together, hand in hand.

As I sat in the loft which was the product of my parents’ desires to make this house really ours; as I sat at the kotatsu my mother had let me spend in excess of four hundred dollars on just because we’re both Japan fanatics who wanted a little Japanese heated table; as I held my plush unicorn that my beautiful girlfriend had bought for me as a surprise present; I told this to the love of my life.

“You know, people ask me why I want to be immortal. Maybe, wanting this makes me greedy. Like eighty-odd years isn’t enough for me. But whenever my life strikes a particularly beautiful chord, whenever something happens that makes me happy, eighty years to live seems too short. I want to have more of these moments, and I want everyone else to have more of these moments, and I think it’s incredibly sad that we only get a certain number.”

And she told me, that’s not greedy. Really, it’s the opposite. It would be greed if I wanted to have that at the expense of other people. Instead, I wanted to work hard at this and make it happen, not just for me, but for everyone.

I think people like to paint me as a Gilgamesh, once faced with death and running away ever since. But I at least hope that there’s some difference between running away from death and running toward life.

What I Learned on the Other Side of the Interviewing Table

Seven months ago, I was interviewing for an intern position at Upgrow. Now, I’m doing it again – but this time, I’m the interviewer.

As we gain more clients, it’s become more difficult to keep up with the workload, so we’ve been looking to hire another intern for the SEO team. I came on as an intern through Praxis and I trust their process to produce someone valuable, so I recommended that as a source. My boss asked me to do an initial screening.

I took a troll through their talent portal and checked on candidates’ profiles. I also asked one of the advisors about who to contact with hiring inquiries, and contacted the person she pointed me to. Soon, I had an initial list of candidates, and I set up interviews with them.

And then I taught myself how to interview, because I had never done it before.

Working as I did intimately with all our SEO clients, I knew exactly what type of person we needed, but that wasn’t even half the work. I needed to find a way to pick that type of person out in an interview. People want to get jobs, and interviewees are always trying to find a way to play the system, to act as though they have the traits you want regardless of whether they really do or not. Presented with a slew of imposters, it’s the interviewer’s job to find the genuinely skilled candidates. That’s why interview questions are always so convoluted.

I knew all this, because I’d played this game from the interviewee side: I knew the right answer to “tell me about yourself”, I had a set of rehearsed stories to tell in response to a wide array of questions, and I always went into an interview knowing exactly what type of picture I wanted to paint of myself. What I didn’t know was how to play the game from the other side.

So, I contacted my mother, who’s been a hiring manager for over twenty years, and asked for advice. I described the type of person I wanted, and we discussed what questions I should ask.

The environment at Upgrow, where I work, is very fast-paced and multifaceted. But of course if I asked “do you work well in a fast-paced environment?”, the candidate would just say “yes”.

How could I get around this? I could ask a question more like “can you give me an example of a place you worked that was fast-paced – what made it that way, and what about it was most challenging?”. By asking for an example, I can get more information about their previous experience.

Further, when I ask “what was most challenging”, they have to say something, which would tell me about what they find difficult. Plus, since all candidates want to make themselves look good, they would also tell me (for free!) how they handle things being hard. It has the benefits of the “what’s your biggest weakness” question without the overly-general aspects that make the latter question less useful. (Ex. “My biggest weakness is that I work too hard, I’m too devoted to your company, and I’m too perfect.”)

In general, asking for examples and challenges is very helpful, and I asked a few more similarly-formatted questions.

Another trait I very much needed in an SEO intern was commitment to efficiency. The internet is gigantic, there’s always a ton of data to sift through doing anything with SEO, and if you’re not careful you can spend 6 hours doing something manually just because you hadn’t thought to look for a faster way. But again, I couldn’t ask straight-up.

Asking for an example might have worked here, but I got another strategy that worked even better: an open-ended question. I asked, “Can you tell me a way that you have improved at doing your job in the past? Have you done it by increasing the quality of your work, by improving your efficiency, or something else?”

The open-ended aspect made it seem like there were multiple possible correct answers. None of these dispositions are inherently bad – and the interviewees know this – but they don’t know which one I’m looking for. So, they’re forced to tell the truth, in absence of anything else to do.

With the “give me an example” type question, the candidate knows the right answer. However, they need to give you a true or non-disprovably false story without significant hesitation, which limits their ability to BS. However, with the open-ended question, the candidate doesn’t even know what answer you’re looking for. They can’t try to spoon-feed you what you want to hear, because they don’t know what you want to hear. For that reason, this was the second most valuable question I asked in these interviews.

The single most valuable question I asked went like this. “If you’re given an assignment by someone, and you know that on the one hand that person is pretty busy and you don’t want to disturb them, but on the other hand you don’t know exactly what they want and you don’t want to do it wrong. How would you handle this situation?”

This is another open-ended question, but it’s better than the previous one for the quality I’m selecting for because it’s a scenario instead of a summary. In any human communication, there’s always the question of operational definitions. If someone says “I care about efficiency”, what do they mean by that? They might be the type of person who gets hopelessly bored with monotonous work, and will automate a solution instead, because automation is more interesting. (That’s me, by the way, hi.) But they might also be the type of person who gets frustrated with any inefficiency in a process and hyper-focuses on fixing that inefficiency instead of looking at the broader picture and asking whether it’s worthwhile.

In my efficiency question, this wasn’t a problem, because not a single candidate (who answered correctly) just said “yeah I improve my efficiency” and then shut up. They all went on to talk about what efficiency meant to them, or tell a story about a time that they improved the efficiency of a process at one of their previous jobs, or something. However, it would have been an issue if I’d tried to ask them about how they deal with an ambiguous task in the same way.

Posing a situation to an interviewee gains the best of both words from the other types of questions: it gives you the personal specificity from “give me an example” ones plus the interviewee’s lack of knowledge of the correct answer from open-ended ones.

Outside of the interviews and the questions I asked in them, there were a few more things I learned from the other side of the hiring table.

Many aspects of the hiring process are designed to be as efficient as possible. This makes sense: like in SEO, there is a ton of information to go through, and maximal efficiency in culling it into something useful you can base decisions on is critical to making those decisions effectively.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of the time spent during the hiring process actually comes from the interviewee, not the interviewer. When I was job-hunting seriously during my Praxis placement process, I would regularly spend 6-8 hours a day on it. Even recently, when I was doing a less ardent job-hunt on top of my regular job as my internship was ending and I was making sure I had a backup plan in the unlikely case that Upgrow didn’t hire me on full-time, I spent at least 2-3 hours a day on it.

By contrast, when I was on the hiring end, I spent about 5 hours a week on it. I had other responsibilities, managing client accounts and getting my SEO work done. This was one task among many, not my single highest priority, or even my highest off-hours priority. And for everyone who isn’t a recruiter, this is always how the hiring process goes.

I’ve realized that this focus on efficiency is the reason the interview process works the way it does, where the interviewee is expected to sweat every detail and respond immediately, but the interviewer responds more slowly and sometimes not at all. It’s because the interviewee has one job – getting hired – but for the interviewer, hiring is one job among many.

As a final remark, I think that being the interviewer has actually made me a better interviewee. The hiring game is much more transparent now, even despite the fact that I’ve always had an experienced hiring manager for a mom who could explain things from that side. I haven’t just heard about it, I’ve personally experienced it, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my deep-dive into the professional world over the past six months, it’s that pure knowledge is always trumped by experience.

Documentation: Google Ads Reporting Script

This script, written in the Google Ads JavaScript API, is designed to create a comprehensive report of key PPC metrics for all of a company’s accounts and organize them into a Google Spreadsheet for the reference of the account owner(s).

Features:

  • Automatic report update: can be set to gather new data monthly, weekly, daily, or hourly depending on the needs of the team
  • Gathers key metrics: impressions, clicks, conversions, cost
  • Calculates other useful metrics: click-through rate, daily run rate, projected monthly spend
  • Allows the user to input budget for each account, providing more metrics: remaining budget, suggested daily run rate
  • Conditional formatting to provide an at-a-glance summary of which accounts need to spend more/less

Example output:

This script went through several versions. The initial prototype only outputted the last 30 days’ cost, impressions, clicks, and conversions data, and calculated the remaining budget. Additional features were added after discussions with the PPC team made it clear they would be helpful.

In addition, the code has gone through several alterations, independently of feature additions – mainly to streamline it. For example, in a previous version, metrics were collected daily and added to a sheet, then each column of that sheet was added together to produce a final result in a separate sheet. Now, data is collected as often as is desired, and there are no redundant sheets.

I wish I could post the code for you to use, but this project and its code are proprietary. However, if you’d like me to build something similar for you, feel free to contact me – I’d be happy to discuss!

Can’t Bear to Hurt Your Characters?

I’ve been writing novels – or at least trying to write novels, with varying degrees of success – for about ten years. In general, I’m a very good writer, but I have a chronic habit of not finishing novels in particular. I begin stories, get a quarter or halfway through, and never finish them. Sometimes the story stopped being interesting and I forgot about it, but more often, I had no idea where to go next.

From the reader’s perspective, this writing looked like a bunch of elegant prose and interesting characters just sort of aimlessly drifting with no purpose. Any one chapter, or even a short string of chapters, might be interesting, but after an extended period of reading, you would be left confused. I was just as confused writing these driftwood stories.

Only recently did I realize what I was doing wrong, and I realized it by accident.

A few months ago, I decided to start on a novel – not an uncommon whim for me, to be sure – but the way I came at it was different. Instead of imagining an interesting scenario, or world, or set of characters, I wanted to tell a story about something. It had a moral, a plot, a purpose. (I wanted to write about three things: our relationships with others, our relationships with ourselves, and the relative importance of each.)

For the first time, I shaped the characters and the world around the story, not the other way around. Oddly, I wasn’t comfortable writing beyond chapter 1 without a very clear idea of all the major plot beats, especially the ending. I had never done that before: known the ending before writing much of anything.

Besides helping me gain a clear roadmap for where I wanted my story to go, this mindset also helped me to get over what I had known for a long time was my biggest flaw as a novelist: my inability to hurt my characters. I hadn’t known before how to fix that problem, but all of a sudden with this mindset shift, I stopped having a mental hangup about killing or hurting characters. It confused me at first.

After a short time, I realized a fundamental distinction between the way I’d been writing before and the way I wrote this new story. Before, I had been writing wish fulfillment. I started with characters or situations or worlds that I enjoyed imagining things about, and I wanted to share those imaginings with the world, so I wrote them down. It was never about telling a story, it was about sharing a cute scenario or a cool world or a neat character. And because it was about those things, I would be extremely reluctant to sacrifice the real purpose of the writing for the sake of a “plot”.

On the other hand, when the goal was to tell a story, I didn’t get too attached to any one story component, because the only reason those components existed the way they did was because the story required it; if the story had required something else, I would have come up with something else.

If you can’t bring yourself to hurt or kill your characters, ask yourself why they’re so precious to you. Is your writing shaped around a story you’re trying to tell, or is it simple wish fulfillment? There’s nothing wrong with writing wish fulfillment, by the way – but if you’re writing that type of fiction, it’s often best to know it. That way, you don’t feel compelled to add a plot to what should really be a fluffy one-shot.

Having It All Figured Out Is Overrated

I’ve pretty much known my purpose in life since I can remember.

So far as I can tell, I just had a really strange reaction to the concept of death. I first heard about it and I basically thought, wow, this is a problem, this really sucks, someone should do something about it. But as a kid, I just thought the grownups would take care of it, just the same way they would take care of my skinned knee.

As I got a little older, though, being very vocal as I’ve always been about my thoughts on death, I realized the grownups weren’t going to fix it. In fact, they seemed pretty damn complacent about the regularly-occurring permanent destruction of human consciousness. And so, being the egomaniac I am, I decided to personally fix this problem.

As I started high school (and college), my first classes were in lab sciences. After all, mortality is a biological problem and would likely have a primarily biological solution. But as I soon learned, much to my dismay, I suck at lab sciences.

Frustratingly, knowing your purpose doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

I immediately changed my focus from biology to computer science. The basic idea was very vague – I think it went something like, “since I’m no good at the science, I’ll make a ton of money and pay somebody else to do the science”.

But I went after it for four years, taking every computer science class my college offered. By the end of that, my new goal had developed into something slightly more cogent: I would create a series of technology-focused startups and become a billionaire, then use the money to fund a nonprofit research company. As soon as the nonprofit produced something promising, it could spin off into its own for-profit startup and start selling it.

I didn’t worry too much about not having any grand ideas for tech startups. I knew I would first have to become the kind of person who could actually execute successfully against a great startup idea if it fell in her lap. So, I made a list of stuff I would need to know to create and run a successful business, from programming to finance to business law, and set to work on ticking items off the list.

By the end of high school and college (which I completed simultaneously for efficiency), I headed across the country in lieu of completing my four-year degree, content with an Associate’s in Computer Information Systems. Toward the end of my schooling, I’d worked full-time at a sales firm for six months, and now I was headed to work in marketing for another six months.

I can’t elaborate past this point, since I’m still living it.

This all probably makes me sound very cool, but that’s only because I conveniently left out all the bad bits. I left out the part where I sobbed into my sister’s arms over the B in chemistry that I squeaked out with all my effort. I left out the part where I had a three-week-long existential crisis over my decision to not attend a four-year college. And I left out the fact that I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing a lot of the time.

It matters how you spin things.

Knowing your purpose is useful, but it’s hardly the be-all-end-all. It doesn’t magic away your insecurities or your problems. It doesn’t make you a good person. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you actually know your purpose: you might just think you do.

Becoming a sociable, mature, capable, hardworking, understanding, responsible, reasonable, rational, good person has not been any easier just because I’ve known my life’s purpose since I was 3. In fact, being a socially awkward egomaniac with a really weird impossible goal has made some of that stuff harder. And knowing my purpose hasn’t made any of those things less important, either: it’s made a lot of them more important.

There is no amount of awesomeness that makes you immune to insecurity. People I’ve met around here, with more raw talent and chutzpah than I’ve ever mustered for anything, are still insecure. It’s common to every human. And at least in my opinion, there’s solidarity in that.

On Letting Down Your 10-Year-Old Self

I have a friend who’s a mechanical engineer. The startup he was CTO of recently fell apart, so he’s been looking for a new job, and was discussing with me yesterday the idea of working for Amazon doing something involving data centers. It would be a fine job and would pay well, but he didn’t want to do it – for a number of reasons, one of which stood out to me.

He said to me, “If I went back in time and talked to my 10-year-old self, and was like ‘Yo, you’re going to grow up to be a Senior Data Center Engineer II for Amazon’ I think myself would slap me. Just, that’s fucking lame.”

I asked, “What would your 10 year old self want you to be doing?” and he replied, “Building spaceships.”

This is where most people would have said something about how we’re destined to disappoint our younger selves, because we had ambitions and dreams unchecked by reality, so we should console ourselves with the Deep Wisdom that having a good life is what really matters, after all, and stop feeling so bad about it.

That’s not the advice I gave my friend, and that’s not what I’m going to write here, because I don’t believe that. If you want that advice, you can read it from a million other sources. But I, personally, am a big believer in being cool by 10-year-old-you’s standards – and this comes from someone who, at the age of 10, wanted to take over the world.

Even so, I am going to say that you need to appreciate how hard it was for you to get where you are. In my friend’s case, he grew up poor, to the extent that he told me writing emails as a part of his job makes him “bourgeoisie”. And yet now, in his late twenties, he’s living in SF and was just working as CTO for a startup that died through no fault of his. I mean, I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I would call that a hell of a success.

Still, I can sympathize with the thought of “this isn’t want I wanted to grow up to be, I’ve failed myself”. I think if I grew up to just work for Amazon – if that was actually the best I would ever do with my life – my 10-year-old self would also think I was lame. But that’s the point. Your life isn’t over yet. What you do in your 20s, 30s, 40s… that’s not “what you grew up to be”. Until and unless you decide your career is over, it’s not over.

If you were one of those kids with a dream like “be President” or “be an astronaut” or “build spaceships” or “cure mortality”, fulfilling your dream will be really hard. But if you do choose to do something your 10-year-old self would approve of, put in the effort and make it happen. Don’t give up on it, and don’t give up on yourself.

I’m a great believer in luck. And I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.

You Have Enough Hours in the Day, You’re Just Not Using Them

I’ve recently realized that my workflow can be a lot more efficient.

I thought it was fine, but as it turns out, it was just what I was used to. Humans can get used to anything, and if we don’t have anything outside us telling us that these conditions are unacceptable, we tend to just, well, accept them.

I started feeling like I didn’t have time to do anything shortly after I arrived in SF. While it’s gotten somewhat better, it still feels like I want to get more done than there are hours in the day.

I didn’t actually realize that was a warning sign for a while, because I had no reference group. I don’t succumb to the usual time traps: I open social media approximately twice a year, I don’t watch TV, I don’t make a habit of being intoxicated, I have no time-consuming hobbies that aren’t contributing to improving my career.

But I realized that not succumbing to the obvious time-sucks doesn’t mean you’ve evaded them all.

I’d previously learned that when something about your life feels chaotic, you’re probably just bad at predicting it; it feels from the inside like the thing is inherently unpredictable, but it isn’t. In the same way, I realized, when you feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day, you probably have some energy/time sink somewhere. That’s what an inefficient system feels like from the inside: not having enough time.

That was what I was missing: there is a difference between being actually good at efficiency and simply not shooting yourself in the foot. I had to do better than just not screwing up. I had to actively work on being better.

I’m currently in the process of optimizing my workflow and trying to get stuff done faster. There’s a decent amount of up-front work to make it happen, turns out.

Instead of taking notes in my plain-text no-frills Notes app, I’ve started taking notes in Vim. Learning the keyboard shortcuts for navigation, then forcing myself to actually use them, took an hour or so. I’d be reaching for the mouse to highlight and delete something, or reaching for the backspace key, but then I’d stop myself, push caps lock (which I remapped to escape for convenience), and type the shortcut instead. After I got the knack of it, I felt myself working faster as I laid out the steps I’d need to take to build an iPhone app I’ve been working on.

I also recently forked my friend Lahwran’s dotfiles repository, which downloads (among many other very useful tools) an excellent window tiling program called Amethyst. No more switching between tabs while trying to hold something in my head!

I’m making better use of my train rides to and from work now, too. I’ve found that physical books are good, because they don’t require wifi, so I’ve been steadily reading through the small collection I brought with me on the plane, plus borrowed a biography of Elon Musk from my boss, which I’ve been reading for life trajectory inspiration.

Finally, I’ve felt like I had no time to sit down and write blog posts on here. But I realized, I don’t have to. There are other methods of documentation that are faster to jot down: for example, Twitter. I was hesitant for a long time, because I was worried it would be a net negative for time, but I’ve been posting quick updates about projects and publishing quick thoughts on there, and it seems to work out well. (My handle is @JenyaLestina, if you’d like to take a look.)

The moral of all of this is that if your life is hard for some reason, it doesn’t have to stay that way. People like to complain about life, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck. If your life is difficult – even in a minor way – don’t stand there and take it. Fix it.

The Advice I Needed to Hear

Moving to and living in San Francisco is probably the second most difficult, if not the most difficult, thing I have ever done. Not particularly because either of those things are inherently difficult, but because I came with a purpose which I knew from the beginning would be difficult to fulfill.

I was busy every minute of every day. I was either commuting to/from work or at the office between the hours of 6am and 6pm. While not at work, I was working on getting better at my job. While not doing that, I was working out finances in order to find a place to stay that would be within my budget as a sparsely-paid intern. And while not doing that, I was socializing within carefully chosen networks to maximize my connection potential.

None of this is a complaint. I was also living in the single most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, walking to work every day in the refreshing morning air, working at a job with some of the most friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever worked with (although it was true that for the first while I had a rough relationship with my boss), and hanging out with the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I am definitely saying that it was hard, because it was.

The biggest problem I had was that it was very difficult to find time to think. Up until I moved here, I kept a daily journal in which I noted interesting happenstances, cracked jokes with myself, and kept a general record of my life. Since I wrote my day’s entry on the plane ride here, I haven’t been able to write nearly anything. One undated entry reads, simply, “I don’t have time to do anything.”

As a result, a lot of problems and thoughts just kinda… sat there in my head. They were too personal to bring up in any conversation, so I didn’t talk about them. Typically, I would work these out on my own, or sit down with someone in my family to discuss them, but my family was three hours away in the most inconvenient direction, and I had no time to spend with myself either.

Recently, I’ve had more time to think, and I’ve realized what advice I needed to hear. I wish I could go back to tell this to my past self, but I’ve told it to my current self, which is the second best thing.

Because some of these things might be generalizable to other people who react similarly to stress (probably other people who are trying to change the world in some major way), I’m noting the list here.

  • You’ve become a better person than you give yourself credit for.
  • Being inexperienced does not make you weak, immature, or unworthy.
  • You’re always moving to bigger and bigger ponds, so you’re always the littlest fish. That doesn’t mean you’re not growing.
  • Don’t discount your talents just because they’re your talents. Your life would not be automatically better if you had someone else’s.
  • Having some of the same flaws you had in the past does not mean you haven’t improved. Being the same person is not a failure.
  • Falling short of your ideal does not mean you’ve failed. Not trying to achieve the ideal at all does.
  • The desire to be seen as attractive and to feel loved is universal and not shameful.
  • You cannot possibly be qualified for every job. You cannot possibly please every person. This is not a reasonable definition of success.
  • People other than you genuinely believe in you.

Another Reason to Get Straight to the Work World

I’ve discussed in previous posts some reasons you should get a real-world job either before or instead of going to college. For one thing, college has an extremely high opportunity cost, in both time and money. For another, the purpose of college has become muddled to such an extent that the reasons people tell you to go are almost entirely desynchronized with the actual reasons you may want to go.

Today, I have another reason that you should at least take a gap year to work a bit first. And this one applies even if you’re 100% sold on college.

When I took a marketing job, I expected to do, well, marketing. Yeah, the job was in San Francisco, so I expected (and wanted) to do marketing for tech companies, but that didn’t change my fundamental assumption. My job title was “Digital Marketer” and so I thought I was going to do digital marketing.

As I found out over the course of the next few months, an employer will use any skill you have if they can find a use for it. By the four-month mark, I had done everything from graphic design to sales to web design to JavaScript programming.

This isn’t just because I work for a micro-company, although this probably happened faster and more thoroughly because of that. Any company will do this. And that’s the key distinction between the work world and college.

If you sign up for a college class in marketing, you won’t accidentally end up programming in JavaScript or creating website wireframes. You’ll do the coursework – nothing more, nothing less. When you go to college, you get exactly what you sign up for. When you get a real-world job, your responsibilities may start out as what you expected, but eventually you’ll probably end up doing a whole bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the original job description, based on a combination of what the company needs and what you can do.

In short: College is static; the work world is flexible.

Often, the fact that college works this way feeds the harmful “that’s not my job” mentality, which will poison your career and dampen your options. If you’re reluctant to take on any responsibility beyond the bare minimum of what you were hired to do, you’ll never be given any additional responsibility. Even if you avoid this mentality, getting some real-world work experience early on will serve you well, in or out of college.

If you’re in the sort of profession where you need a college degree, or you’ve otherwise decided you’re Going To College, consider taking a gap year, or getting a part-time job in your field early into your degree. The flexibility you acquire from doing real work is worth its weight in gold.

The Center of Conversation

In every group discussion where people are free to move around, people always form an approximation of a circle or simple polygon around a central point. This “center of conversation” is not a tangible thing, but it’s very visible in the dynamics of groups.

Today, I’d like to talk about this social concept, and for those of us who don’t utilize this important source of positive social vibes, explain how to start.

What I call the “center of conversation” is the point that’s on average equidistant from each participating conversation member. Even people who don’t use this concept have an intuitive understanding of it, to an extent that social interactions feel more awkward when all parties involved are not standing at appropriate distances around the center (that is, on average equidistant from both the center and each other), and likewise they feel smoother when all parties observe this rule.

People who understand this concept will find themselves shifting around the center as people walk around, leave or join the conversation, or as the group dynamic otherwise shifts. People who really understand this will find themselves glancing toward the conversation center whenever they need to break eye contact.

The center of conversation doesn’t dictate that people have to stand in perfect circles all the time. Peoples’ personal preferences and convenience always take precedence over the center. But with preferences accounted for, people arrange themselves according to it. Given a choice of two places on a couch, people will choose the one closest to their appropriate place relative to the center. If an outlier in a group doesn’t understand the center and moves counter to it, the rest of the group will likely shift around to readjust the center.

If you’re the social butterfly type, try to find the center of conversation that you’re subconsciously moving around. If you’d like to make yourself more likable, once you find that center, try glancing at it instead of away from it whenever you need to break eye contact. Eyes are powerful indicators of attention – looking in a direction has the same weight as pointing in the direction. If you look toward the center, you’re pointing toward the other people, toward your conversation together, and you’re indicating that both of those things are important to you. Even if the other people don’t realize what you’re doing, they realize that you are doing it and they feel appreciated.

If you’re the kind of person who probably breaks this rule all the time, don’t sweat it. You can teach yourself to pay attention to the center of conversation just like you can teach yourself any other skill. Next time you talk to anyone – in a group, one on one, whatever – think about where the center is. It’s easy to find between two people, it’s just the point right in the middle of the space between you. Among larger groups it’s slightly harder, but not much. Think about the middle of the space between you and pinpoint whatever you think is closest to the center of that space. You don’t have to be perfect – it’s a vague area that you indicate by moving around it or glancing at it, not a point you have to precisely identify on a graphing calculator. Just get the vague gist and you’ll be golden.

It could take a while to get the hang of doing this, but in doing so, you’ll make people more comfortable around you. In this modern, segmented, isolated world, comfort is the single most important thing, in both our personal and professional lives. When clients buy a service, they’re primarily buying their comfort with the people providing that service. And what more could anyone want than to be comfortable around the people they care about? Any way you can make those around you feel comfortable is an advantage you have – not over them, but with them.