The Importance of Being Earnest

Jeff Gardner
Nov 21, 2018 · 4 min read

This article has nothing to do with the famous play by Oscar Wilde other than borrowing its name. It is a great play though, you should read it.

Being earnest is important. But I believe it’s a skill that many of us lose as we get older. Unfortunately, our education system is largely to blame here. The “modern” education system was founded with the intent to create an army of industrial era workers. Workers who could follow instructions and who took satisfaction from the praise they received for repeatedly performing tasks accurately. In fact, education was meant to actively deter rather than nurture the real, deep curiosity that we’re all born with and that we carry with us through our early childhood.

But this isn’t meant to be a diatribe on the education system (we’ll save that for another article). It’s a call to arms in the service of being earnest with others and with ourselves.

Why so serious?

Is there any part of your life that wouldn’t benefit from sincere and intense conviction? Whether you’re speaking with your partner, working through a complicated problem at work, or giving your kids the attention that they crave. In each situation, sincere and intense conviction about why and what you’re doing would be welcome and would likely result in a better outcome.

Earnestness has gotten a bad wrap as being overly serious or solemn but it isn’t about being emotionless any more than stoicism is about living an ascetic life. Being earnest might be better described as an intense form of mindfulness. Not only are you present but you’re also focused wholly and sincerely on the task at hand. Think about it; this probably describes many, if not most, of the best conversations that you’ve ever had. Leaned in, focused intently on the other person’s eyes. Keenly observing their every expression, absorbing every nuance of every syllable. Feeling every ounce of the genuine connection that two humans can feel without ever touching one another physically. It’s magical.

Earnest is a Luddite?

Can you earnestly interact through technology? Is it possible to build relationships, to have that genuine connection with people that you’ve never met in person? That you’ve never sat with? Who you’ve never held eye contact with?

I believe it is. There are plenty of folks that I’ve met only through Twitter or Instagram or YouTube that I feel a sense of connection with. That said, it doesn’t come from sipping at your feed across the day. It comes from seeking out the person on the other end of the account and starting conversations.

Here’s an experiment for you. Next time you are scrolling through your instagram feed, find a photo that you like. Preferably a photo where the photographer took some time to make a nice image, not just a dressing room selfie or a random shot of their dinner. So, now that you’ve found something you’re really impressed with, instead of just double tapping to like it and continuing the endless scrolling, stop and write a comment. And not just, “Nice pic bro!”. Tell them what the photo meant to you. Why you felt compelled to leave a comment. I’d nearly guarantee that you’ll get a warm response.

Human connection comes from humans connecting. It’s not about the medium. It’s about people talking to each other, asking questions, listening, and learning about each other.

Earnest is an asshole?

Being earnest doesn’t just mean that you’re asking great questions and paying close attention to the other person. That’s just being a good conversationalist. Candor is also an integral part of being earnest. You’ve got to say what you believe. You’ve got to be yourself. And because of that, it’s very possible that you’ll find yourself in a situation where you don’t agree with the other person. Or you’ll find yourself compelled to give them some sort of feedback that they may or may not be ready or willing to hear.

But there is elegance and beauty to being truthful and being sincere. There is an art to telling someone something that they don’t necessarily want to hear. Do you remember the advice your parents and teachers gave you when you were younger?

If you don’t have something nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.

That advice was bullshit. Sure, it makes our interactions in society easier but it certainly doesn’t make them any more fruitful or fulfilling. I think that advice should have gone a little more like this;

If you have something tough to say, slow down and choose your words carefully.

People respect those that speak their minds, so long as it’s done respectfully. Candor and being earnest isn’t about being an asshole. It’s about speaking the truth as you see it, with respect and because you care about the other person.

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it

I want you to strive to be earnest more often in your day to day life. Bring all the intensity and love you can to every interaction you have with the humans around you. Know that, just like you, they are likely slightly scared, slightly anxious, slightly guarded. Know that, just like you, they are also looking for meaningful connections with the people around them and they just need someone to take the first step.

Jeff Gardner

Written by

American living in Italy. Head of Platform Partnerships @intercom. Musing on the outdoors, technology, and lifelong learning.