I just went backpacking on the AT for eleven days with a few of the gang. Great trip, but on the third day we met this late-twenties dude whose trail name was, get this, “Mensa.” He was hiking by himself and seemed lonely and eager to socialize. Tall thin guy with bright eyes. And whip-smart, of course, as his trail name suggested.
That evening we stopped at the same trail shelter he did, so naturally we hung out together around the fire. Mensa tried to build up a relationship, clearly hoping for an invitation to join us for the balance of our trip, but the means by which he attempted to ingratiate himself were so incredibly abrasive that I found myself watching him in wonder. He was flaunting his intelligence, constantly bragging about his experiences and accomplishments, and continually trying to steer the conversation back to what an impressive guy he was and why we oughtta be grateful to have him along.
Christ, it was like hanging out with Kanye West.
And so I got curious: why on this lovely blue planet would anyone think that’s the right way to make friends? What’s going on in this guy’s head?
The next morning as we were prepping to get going he saw us packing and hurriedly stowed his own gear and caught up with us after we’d split. He tagged along for two days, during which time his manner went from merely annoying to strongly irritating to outright intolerable. Finally, during a few minutes when he’d stayed behind to filter some water, we had a quick conference and decided to tell him it was time for us to part the ways. Being the oldest and ostensibly the least threatening guy there, I got deputized.1
I took Mensa off to one side and asked him to understand that a big reason we’d come backpacking was because one of us was going through a bad divorce and needed to get away from it for a few days, but he wasn’t comfortable opening up with a stranger around.2
Mensa took it badly…laid a bunch of spite on me about how my friend’s wife was probably cheating on him, that it was understandable, that he didn’t blame her because if my friend was any kind of man at all then she wouldn’t’ve run around on him in the first place, and why were we taking all this out on him?
I could’ve punched him, I guess, but it was your basic temper-tantrum and after raising a kid I don’t do temper-tantrums. So I blew him off—You done now, man? Feel better?—whereupon he put the stink-eye on me and grabbed his pack and took off up-trail at breakneck speed. Never saw him again.
I’ve thought about him a bunch since then, though, trying to put myself in his place and understand where he was coming from. And what I decided was that at his age he’s long overdue to get past having—well, are you familiar with the phrase “an external locus of control?” Somebody who thinks he’s where he is in life not because of choices he made, but because other people forced him to be there? You get this a lot from the moms of guys in county jail: “He’s a good boy, the cops just pick on him and the judge doesn’t like him.”
Anyway, wherever Mensa is he needs some straight talk. So I wrote him a letter. I wouldn’t know how to send it to him—don’t have his last name and never got any contact information—but inspiration arises from composition, as they say, and I wanted to explore what I would’ve said to him if he’d asked for advice.
I write you in the sincere hope of helping you find something you want very badly but have failed to get. Consequently I don’t see any need for sugar-coating. We’re adults; let there be truth between us. And it’s not like you’re ever gonna read this.
My brother…yes, you’re an extremely smart guy. You have sound intuition, you’re quick to understand complex topics, you have a phenomenal memory, and you easily synthesize new ideas from scratch.
You’re also among the neediest people I know. You broadcast insecurity and isolation on all available frequencies, and yet you don’t seem aware of what’s obvious: that it’s impossible to endear people by alienating them. You’ve picked up from somewhere the notion that people should gravitate to the smartest person in the room…and you choose to make sure everybody knows you’re that person. And this is how I know you feel insecure and isolated. People who are self-confident don’t act that way.
Right now the number one thing you can do to gain that confidence is to realize and accept that your behavior’s a vicious circle. You try to manipulate people—transparently, I might add—because you imagine yourself to be both inferior AND superior to them. It’s a false dichotomy that your own mind is screwing you over with.
It manifests like so. You give in to your insecurity and you seek validation by trying to use your intelligence to dominate social situations. You have an agenda: you want to make people like you. But when they keep you at arm’s length instead, you indulge yourself in your supposed superiority as if intelligence is the sole measure of someone’s worth. You get baffled and angry because your superiority isn’t acknowledged, which makes you once again feel insecure and isolated. And you do this over and over.
You see? You’ve been dealt a fantastic card, but you’re playing it terribly, and it’s causing you a lot of unnecessary pain.
So how do you win the validation you crave? Therein’s your problem, my man…you don’t win it. Validation can only be given.
Check it out. You may have noticed that strangers don’t have intimate conversations. We make chit-chat instead. What’s your name? What do you do? Where are you from? In these introductory conversations we’re trying to create good impressions of ourselves by hiding behind masks; superficial and idealized distortions of who we really are that we use to evoke external validation while hiding our innermost vulnerabilities.
This process is the normal first step in forming deeper and more meaningful and ultimately more satisfying relationships, but as you can see, it’s a process based on deception. Our need to connect more deeply with others is to a degree obstructed by our reluctance…our fear…to share our vulnerabilities with them. So again, we deliberately present ourselves as other than we are—or to put it more succinctly, we lie. And getting past that fear and those lies is why close friendships take so long to develop. Chemistry is one thing; trust is quite another.
You therefore need to realize that most people are too preoccupied with thinking about themselves to pay much attention to others. Don’t imagine yourself at the center of their thoughts.
This self-absorption is an important reason why you’ve heard it said that you’re your own worst critic. Our fears cause us to spend much more time tearing ourselves down than building ourselves up, and—as I already touched on—it’s these kinds of head trips that open the door to the negative behaviors that reinforce our fears instead of helping us overcome them. For example: your main fear here is that people don’t like you. But what if they do? Or what if they would if you’d stop trying to make them? Most people, including you, are intrinsically likable. We just have to get past our preconceptions and see each other for who we really are.
It follows, then, that if you want to be accepted then you first have to accept. And accepting people is the easiest thing in the world…as well as the most difficult.
God, dude…if you want people to like you, just listen to them. Listen! Shut up about yourself for ten minutes and instead draw a new acquaintance out about something they’re interested in; something they’ve done or experienced. Express your curiosity. Ask questions. Think about the answers and try to relate. Learn from them!
Because THIS is validation. THIS is what it means to accept someone. And it’s something you have to consciously choose to do.
Example. You ask somebody you meet what they do in their spare time and they tell you they play competitive badminton. You could seize the opportunity to change the subject to what you do in your spare time–Oh, that’s great, I played tennis in high school and went to the state semi-finals and got offered a partial scholarship at a community college but didn’t think it was a good enough school, etc.–but instead of launching into a bunch of self-absorbed garbage you tell them you find their love of badminton interesting because you always thought of it as a backyard game for kids. Evidently that’s a misconception. So why are people so into it? Damn, man, you didn’t realize it was that complicated; that it took that much skill. Is it a good workout? And professional badminton players make how much? Whoah! Etc. etc.
Like I said, it’s easy. There’s nothing like watching somebody’s eyes light up when you ask them about their passion.
But again, it can also be monstrously difficult. People are very good at telling when you’re only pretending to be interested in them, and if they detect that, they get pissed off FAST. Might as well write them off at that point, and you can be sure they’ll tell their friends you’re a jerk. And this is how reputations get ruined.
Many people have pointed out that detachment is the key to being genuine. Detachment. Mensa, you’ve gotta start recognizing when you’re thinking, “I feel insecure so I’m now going to demand attention.” And when you catch yourself doing so, you have to immediately decide to break that chain of thought so you can get on with the business of meaningful social connection.
Many ways to detach, of course, but when I’m at a party with a bunch of people I don’t know and I’m feeling uncomfortable, the way to detach that works best for me is to say to the person I’m chatting with, “Excuse me a sec; I’ll be right back. Need a refill?” Then I go wash my hands or grab a beer or whatever; just some little momentary mundanity that gets me out of my own head and gives me a chance to remind myself that not everything’s about me and I need to listen more than I talk. Then I come back and carry on the conversation.
It straight-up works, man. Deliberately detaching from your self-absorption is the best way to connect with others and find mutual validation and make friends with them. So I suggest you give it a shot, but it’s your choice.
Well…this is certainly a lot to chew on. I’ve never attended a Dale Carnegie course, but I imagine this is bullshit he covered a hundred years ago or however long it was. Just be aware that the one hurting you right now is you, and for my part I’d rather see you healthy and happy than gone.
And the bottom line is this: Being at ease with others puts you at ease with yourself.
I’m guessing now that you’ve read this letter you’re examining yourself. Am I guilty of some of that same behavior? Does it negatively affect the way people see me? If so, how do I adjust?
These are excellent questions…ones you oughtta constantly be asking yourself. But here’s the trick: try not be harsh on yourself as you seek out the answers. This too is a case where you should detach–detach from the self-criticism and do your best to be objective. And I’m betting you too will find yourself feeling healthier and happier.
I owe gratitude to Jocko Willink for guidance in my thinking on this matter. If you’re not aware of Jocko’s podcast, I encourage you to check it out.