I think that as we’ve moved away from oral histories and now stress what’s written, what’s wiki-ed, what’s memorized, we’ve lost one of the simplest and most profound methods of improving ourselves and the communities in which we find ourselves. We’ve lost the ability to listen. One strong piece of advice that I would give to anyone is to learn to listen. Listen to anyone who is willing to tell you a story. If they are a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, then listen to learn to lead from them. If they are a recovering alcoholic, then listen to understand their humility. Across the full range of types of people there are stories which will make you a better person as long as you’re willing to listen.
I was reminded of this yesterday as I was taking a lap around the block. It was buzzing as Bay Area residents from all over were piling into AT&T Ball Park for an inter-league matchup between the Giants and Athletics. The local shoe shiner was sitting in his perch, and just observing the world around him. I’ve stopped and spoken to him in the past, and he will often chew up an hour of your time before you know it. Sometimes he’s angry at the way he’s being treated (either by residents who think he’s an eyesore or the police who are asked to enforce public nuisance requests); sometimes he’s vulgar and offensive (often a result of getting high); but most of the time he just talks about the world he sees.
Yesterday he was watching as people arrive to, “watch those millionaires chase a little white ball” and he just couldn’t make head or tail of how these people spend their money, live their lives, and yet don’t have a real connection with more than a handful of people, if even that. He made a big claim in asking whether any of these people had 10 friends who actually cared about their weekend. “They’ve got a phone full of numbers, and not one person to talk to”
I thought about this myself, and I realized that this is a problem that I have myself. I have a phone book full of numbers, and I don’t reach out and speak to any more than three or four people. I have some number of Facebook friends, and I don’t care about over 90% of the status updates that I see in my Facebook feed. I follow on Twitter conversations that mean absolutely nothing to me. The quantity is preventing me from both engaging and even at a more fundamental level participating. I know that ten is an arbitrary number, but, nonetheless, the intimate network with which you surround yourself should be one from which you both gain value and are able to grow. Today that is not the case for me.
What’s the solution?
For me the solution is going to be a more committed effort in maintaining a fewer number of relationships at a stronger clip rate. There are many arenas in which people fall (business, personal, family), and this first phase for myself is going to be focusing on family and personal relationships. By making these relationships stronger, the goal is to make myself better as well. And it all will start by making sure that I listen.