Thursday, June 5, 2014

Screw-Ups, Dummies, and Shades of Grey

When I was young, I snapped to conclusions about people. If I saw someone being dumb twice, I assumed they were dumb...period. If I saw someone screwing up more than once, I figured they were screw-ups. If someone repeatedly disappointed me, I expected them to always disappoint me.

Then I matured into a more nuanced view. People aren't all one way. We all screw up. We all say/do dumb things. We are all sometimes disappointing. I learned to lighten up and gave people a chance. For the next 35 years, I forced myself to see shades of grey.

Now, after a half-century of experience with a huge number and range of people, I've reverted to my previous assumptions. There are dumb people, screw-ups, and disappointers. They make themselves quickly apparent, they are consistent, and you'd have to be a dumb, disappointing screw-up yourself to fail to recognize this....even if it doesn't jibe with your higher assumptions about humanity.

People always mystified me. I knew they were mostly irrational, but my inability to understand and predict them led me to assume that their irrationality stemmed from deep complexity (we overestimate the complexity of the things which confuse us). But at this point I understand people well. I can see the world through the eyes of even the most irrational of them, and can often predict their behavior. (For similar skills, try managing a community of a million people for a few years.)

I've found that, twisted and opaque though people often are, they're rarely very complex. Most of them operate via about 20 lines of computer code. We're phenomenally predictable; more consistent than you'd ever want to realize. Shades of grey may sometimes be seen in the varied outcomes of consistent behavior, but intent (the deep intent of our drives and instincts, not to be confused with our superficial mental narrative, which tells us stories about our intent) is nearly immutable.

Narcissists don't sometimes decide to care. Control freaks don't once in a while say you've got this one. Compulsives won't graciously let it go. Bumbling fools under performance pressure won't hit home runs. Unreliable types don't suddenly come through for you. If any of these things appear to occur, there are unseen factors at play. They are special cases.

We want to assume people are grey-shaded. Innumerable movies invite us to believe in transformation. It's charming that we humans believe this so viscerally! But in real life, change is so rare that movies are made about those who manage it. We convince ourselves that we're a change-embracing species, but it's a lie.

That said, change actually is possible. It's just a matter of transcending the fear. As I've noted, people would much rather be idiots than feel like idiots. This is a bit like that. We hack the wrong part of the equation, justifying, rationalizing, and denying how things turn out (how things always tend to turn out) for us, rather than shining penetrating light on our deeper intent. We identify, consciously and unconsciously, with that intent - that stance - and so to question it would be to question one's very identity. Scary!

This is, in fact, where the distinction between creativity and non-creativity is drawn. Noncreative people identify with their stance and rationalize their (flakey) output. Because stance is static, they innately crave status quo. Creative people* identify with their output and rationalize their (flakey) stance. Because output is dynamic, they innately crave change.

* - who are very rare; working, even successfully, in a creative field doesn't make you creative.

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