What Makes a Person Interesting?

Such a thorny question.

The standard answers all sound elitist. The common answers suggest that privilege can lay the foundation for an interesting life, that privilege can provide the material means to explore and have diverse enough experiences and adventures to produce something like a unique and sophisticated perspective on the world. Sometimes this may be true, wealth grants leisure and the time to reflect and learn rather than focus on basic necessities.

But not always.

In fact, great privilege can dampen our exposure to the kinds of discomfort and danger that produce potent insights and greater self-awareness. Wealth without introspection can be shallow. Relentless comfort does nothing to awaken us to life. In fact, it’s put more than one inheritor of a fortune to sleep. There are dangerous slumbers we almost never speak of in becoming rich.

Similarly, might it be that living in fear that our most basic needs may or may not be met, can dampen our appetite for risk and exploration? Why journey far from what’s familiar when food, shelter and safety are already scarce here and now, for you and those you love?

In the end, neither extreme makes a person, in my opinion, interesting. Interestingness is not the outcome of visiting a hundred countries, eating every imaginable food, learning a dozen languages or even encountering a great diversity of cultures or people.

Interestingness is not the result of a high IQ. We’ve all known very smart people who are dull and unimaginative.

In it’s most elemental form, the path to becoming an interesting person has little to do with material circumstances, which is good news, though great privilege or poverty can make some approaches to an interesting life harder to access.

An interesting person is a curious person, a relentlessly curious person with the integrity to follow that curiosity, to listen to it’s lessons and express it’s insights even if this seems to threaten her or his entire worldview. In other words, becoming interesting is on the other side of fear, fear of the unfamiliar, fear of changes in your own identity.

Interestingness is not an identity. It’s a way to move through life, of allowing your sense of self to empathize and merge with the people and places around you.

Interested people inevitably become interesting. They can think on the questions that for so many border on thought crime. A person like this can weigh the arguments of people with wildly differing views. They understand that a critique of something you do, or even what you may believe, is not an attack on who you are.

An interesting person can test in the laboratory of his or her mind and heart the truth claims of communists, Buddhists, Catholics, corporate leaders, poets and physicists and learn to piece out and stitch together a uniquely coherent worldview. They can mull these perspectives in such a way that their identity, the story they tell themselves about themselves is held lightly and not easily threatened. Such folks can discuss the idea that joining an elite group, for instance, can diminish our empathy for those outside the group, without feeling that we (inside the group) are bad or wrong for creating exclusivity.

Like the ways in which a toddler absorbs language, comprehension long precedes the ability to express a vivid world view. Interesting people can spend years and decades engaged in deep listening and learning, only occasionally expressing opinions. And when they do, the opinions are at first clunky, awkward, foolish or clearly wrong. Enthusiasm for new ideas and a sense of humor about looking or sounding foolish can accelerate this process.

If we want more people to become interesting, to engage in the biggest and deepest questions available to us as human beings (and perhaps invent novel solutions to the causes of suffering or new sources of delight), we must encourage and support them early in life.

Access to reliable knowledge, substantiated truth claims, mentors and discussion partners are vital. Basic needs must be a given or the metabolism of a young person’s mind will be impeded. We need a robust social safety net. Nutritious food, shelter and affection should be a given. Fear inhibits learning and, for those living with scarcity, adventures seem inaccessible, unimaginable.

I can imagine a world where access to adventure and exploration and time for reflection are considered birthrights, along the lines of a basic education, food and water. In such a world, with structure in place for information to be digested into knowledge, then further perhaps into insights or wisdom, the majority of people are freed from fear of want.

In short, a more equitable and magnanimous distribution of resources, I think, could lead to a world bursting with interesting people. In such a scenario, we all win.

Do you agree?