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Everyone You'll Ever Meet Knows Something You Don't
The corollary to this, of course, is that you know something that they don't!
[Comment from Randy] First guest post ever! 🎉🎉🎉! More of Amanda’s writing can be found on Data and Tacos, which you should check out. I had a chat w/ her in one of those impromptu meetings she mentions and it was very fun, even for an ultra-introvert like myself. Also, if you’re interested in sharing something with Counting Stuff readers, let me know.
I recently watched Bill Nye talk about his approach to problem solving and scientific thinking, and one of his main points really resonated with me - “Everyone you’ll ever meet knows something you don’t.” As someone with raging, chronic imposter syndrome, the way that was phrased (implying the corollary, “every time you meet someone new, you’ll know something they don’t) was especially powerful.
A few days ago, deep in end-of-year reflection, I articulated something that I know has been bothering me about the way I’ve been functioning the past few years — I miss talking to people in an unstructured way that goes beyond passing exchanges over social media or Slack.
In my first job out of college, I worked in seismic imaging — think part signal processing, part inverse modeling, on datasets that were uncommunicably huge before “big data” really became de rigueur (I’ll never forget the uneasy phone call I got from the operations team at 8AM one Saturday, telling me that a cabinet-sized server named Tesla was panicking because I’d accidentally run a job overnight that tried to write 2TB - WAY too much data - to disk instead of tape). Sometimes I had other pressing work to do while I waited for my computationally intensive jobs to run, but just as frequently, I had periods of down time to see if they’d even get past the initialization stage.
Rather than sit at my desk twiddling my thumbs, engaging in office swordplay, or browsing the interwebs, I’d use that time to roam the building, popping in for spontaneous chats with people outside my immediate team. I’d go see my friend in the programming department (who used to grade my second semester Computational Science assignments), and if she wasn’t there, I’d chat with some of the other programmers I met on previous visits with her. Other days, I visited the corporate wing, where I had another friend who worked on special projects for the exec team. Many times, I’d just stop by the desks of people working on different projects/teams within my own department.
I learned SO much from the time I spent chatting with people with little to no agenda — and I know that people I chatted with learned from me, too. Probably 9 times out of 10, I led off with some deeply provoking question like, “So. What are you up to?” Usually I got work-related answers, but I also heard about people’s lives, families, and hobbies, too. People told me about places they’d been, things they’d eaten, and plans they had. They shared cool things they’d done/discovered or tricky problems they were fighting - and sometimes, I was able to say, “<other person> had that problem last week - you should talk to them!”
I wasn’t just filling down time. I was connecting people, sharing solutions, *learning*. I bought my first Python book (covers version 2.3!) as the result of one of these chats. I took a French friend to their first baseball game. I got to take on some really cool interdisciplinary projects. I learned that conflict with HOAs is a nearly universal experience. Overall, I met some really great people who broadened my thinking and world view.
While the “return to the office” lobby might like to seize on this notion and tell me that what I’m missing are the fabled “water cooler conversations” sometimes cited as evidence that WFO > WFH, let me make it very clear that I do not subscribe to the notion that putting people in a shared work environment will naturally lead to productive causal chats. My second job was similarly enriched with the same kind of impromptu conversations as the first. But after those first two jobs, the ones that followed have been kind of a mixed bag. The first fully remote role I ever had was filled with these conversations, as were a couple online volunteer communities I was involved in for a few years. One job that went from “in office” to “totally WFH” saw a nearly complete end to casual conversations with my coworkers when the office was shuttered; in another, the transition to distributed work facilitated them as the barriers to chatting with people formerly based in other office locations were eliminated.
Embracing an ethos of beginning conversations with people we might not normally cross paths with takes dedication and effort. The totally virtual NormConf experience was more successful in sparking great discussions and camaraderie than the last few in-person conferences I’ve attended, and definitely made for a better experience than any other virtual conference I’ve ever participated in.
Rather than lament that I no longer have a semi-captive group of coworkers to physically drop in on, I see a ton of opportunity in the fact that so many people I’d love to be chatting with are also no longer living office-centric lives. It may require more effort to take the initiative to start a conversation with someone I haven’t serendipitously crossed real world paths with, but the pool of potentially interesting people to talk with is SO much bigger when it’s not constrained by some collocation requirement.
As the bird site flounders and we collectively look for new ways to share what’s on our minds, my main hope is that we can take this opportunity to start more open-ended conversations, rather than simply shifting where we post our pre-meditated/curated thoughts. I invite you to join me in making the effort to talk to somebody you might not otherwise get to chat with in a normal week, without a specific topic, request, or agenda in mind. Set up time to catch up with an old friend/colleague. Schedule a chat with an e-acquaintance you’ve engaged with on social media, but never actually talked with. I’ve had a couple of these conversations since I first realized I needed to prioritize them - some initiated by me, some set up in response to my “somebody talk to me!” post on the pachyderm site - and they’ve definitely been highlights of my year so far.