Thinking about what everyone else is thinking

This most recent chunk of life I have encountered, or rather sought out, an unhealthy amount of stress. There is client work of course, but I’m not just talking about hashtag #freelancewoes. Things like starting a company, hosting design week events, maintaining Sloup, trips to San Francisco and to New York, relationships, emergency family trips to Oregon, letting go of relationships, lightly attending social functions, & convincing my parents I’m okay. And daily pressures such as watching 1/3 of my income going to taxes (seriously!!!!), wondering/worrying about what everyone else is thinking all of the time, and focusing on what’s in front of me.

So to back up a bit, you might have happened upon this post for a couple reasons: you were looking at my site to see if I am a good fit for a project you need help on, you’re for some reason still following me on twitter, or you are my friend from high school that just found out I’m a ‘graphic designer’ and you want to know what that means or if I’m any good. And so to you, possibly a stranger, I commend you for still reading this because either you enjoy welcoming anxiety into your life or you are my mom. I’m willing to bet you don’t care how busy I am, and actually you’re pretty busy too. And you probably think I was bragging a little bit about all that stuff and so now you especially feel turned off by just this whole thing.

Well, even though it is nothing but obvious that reading paragraph No. 1 would be unenjoyable for you, I still included it. And not just that, I spoke it to every soul I could find in a 10 block radius for the past few months. I was all running around like a chicken with it’s head cut off, yelling to everyone that my head was cut off. Really, it was all probably very unpleasant to interact with me at all.

A conversation with me lately would start with formalities that I would politely sit through if you would finish those up quickly, please. Then you would ask me how I am and it’s possible that I would tell you exactly how I am with no regard to whether or not you actually meant the question. And in great detail. And since ‘how I am’ was rotten and anxious, you’d calmly sit through my ranting while I waited for the toxins to leave my body through way of human interaction and saturate your pores with unpleasantness. Then I’d forget or not care to ask you how you were doing. Then maybe I’d ask you a favor and you’d feel dumb for thinking that we were having a real conversation at all.

This is not a giant apology to you all. Truthfully, though I will happily admit guilt, I am owed the same acknowledgement from many, many people in my life who have committed the same injustice.

What I am trying to do is reflect, not make the same mistakes, and maybe connect with the 4 of you reading this about how my summary of experiences relates to you. Okay so what’s do be done? Lately, I’ve been really interested in human reaction and awareness. Not like, reading books about it, although I should. Really just thinking about it. If you think about characteristics in the people you admire, how do you describe them? Often: selfless, a good listener, compassionate. Less often: busy, preoccupied, obsessed. Why are we so convinced, then, that other people care about the junk you are throwing at them? Or that they really even understand what you are saying? There is so much lost from person-to-person interaction, especially when one is speaking emotionally. In the mess of someone complaining endlessly, they’ll subconsciously be projecting experiences from their life that you can’t possibly understand. Add the inevitable lack of understanding to the hard fact that they most likely don’t care and you realize… if the recipient of your word vomit is still engaged in the conversation, meaningfully engaged, they are a saint. If not, they are more or less nodding along.

If it’s so clear that this is a negative experience for the listener, and that it is ultimately accomplishing no goal for you, why do it? Well… it is what comes naturally to us. We live inside our own brains so much that we are blinded to how other people interpret what we do. We don’t see the perspective of the listener because we’re too busy with the perspective of our own self. Maybe you are really not even talking to the person at all but really running though a list and checking off boxes of your recent activities to help yourself summarize your thoughts and feel some small thread of order.

A speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005, “This is Water,” helps me put more reason and perspective on this. He begins:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

Well this is as clear as it gets but I’d like to spell it out, please. Water is what these fish depend on. It’s what affects them all the time in ways they’d never even considered. It would take incredible insight and peace of mind to every single day remember the water and their reliance on it and how it matters, like really really matters. Plus, don’t they have 3 second attention spans? They’re just never going to have the clarity it takes to get it, come on.

But we, we’re humans and it isn’t water and maybe isn’t even air or at least air alone but is in a larger sense the other beings existing in your earth alongside you. Because they’re alongside you to you but you’re alongside them to them. And they have their own thoughts and realities and those things are really really important to them. And they take their thoughts with them everywhere they go and get lost in them just like you do. And when you tell them your long boring story about your art show that is taking a lot of work, they might just be thinking about that one time they put on a show that had at least several similarities. And they are relating your entire story to the context of their story. And maybe that helps your conversation but more likely it serves as an obstacle because your circumstances aren’t the same, not really. All this to say, give up talking to people at all.

Or, alternatively, if that seems to be not an option for you, you could consider trying to know their perspective before imposing and assuming your own exclusively. You won’t be successful, you could never know everything about this person’s existence and how it relates to your interaction, but you could pick up on some subtleties that you wouldn’t have before. More David Foster Wallace:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

This is so hugely important. From every single possibly imaginable human perspective. It can change the way that you interact with someone you believe to know very well, like a parent or sibling. It can help you win big at business meetings and relate better to your boss, probably. It can turn an interaction with a complete stranger into something insightful, meaningful and significant if you let it, even if that person doesn’t see it that way.

Allowing this thought into my life changed my perspective drastically. To me it was the thing that I’d been wondering and thinking about in the back of my mind for a while but never had been able to materialize the thought concretely enough for it to be real. As grandiose, life-changing perspective shifts usually work, I feared that this would be a fleeting thought so I tattooed it on my body. (It’s possible that that is the real theme of this post.. explaining to my nervous, religiously Jewish parents why I broke our religion’s code to alter my body permanently). It is a simple outline of a triangle, which is totally my favorite shape, and no I’m not embarrassed to have a favorite shape. It is balanced and signifies change.

On my left side, rib-ish region

It is filled with a blue-fading-upwards-to-nothing gradient that looks like, or at least represents water so that I can always have the idea with me that my thoughts are not the only important ones. And that when I have those moments where I just absolutely must share (pour) onto my poor, unsuspecting friends and family, to still share but to remember that it is meant to be a two-person conversation and not a monologue, even if the other person is politely nodding along and I want to count that as valid participation. And more importantly, that no matter what I am experiencing, people around me everywhere are also experiencing every day.

Update 11-12-13:

  1. I just notice the numbers that today’s date makes
  2. I should mention that the last month or so I’ve been taking on fewer commitments and my stress levels are totally bearable again. I’m glad to be calm but want to remember what I learned when things were pretty chaotic. To those have reached out, thank you so much for your concern.