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The Interest Principle

You can get pretty far if people like you, but you can get a hell of a lot further if they’re interested in you

Mike Sturm
Mar 3, 2018 · 6 min read
Image: Grandfailure/Getty

When I was a kid, my dad was fond of giving folksy advice to help me “make it” — to go far in my professional life. He didn’t go to college, so I definitely should. He took the first decent-paying job that came his way and never weighed his options, so I should be more measured and follow my passion. To his credit, he worked his ass off to give me the kind of education and opportunities that would allow me to do those things. I think it’s served me well — despite my meandering and error-riddled way of getting where I am.

One piece of advice he was fond of giving was this: if people like you, you can get pretty far in whatever direction you’re trying to go. I have kind of stumbled ass-backwards into confirming this. I get along pretty well with nearly everyone I meet. Because of that, I have been able to forge a path for myself — personally and professionally — where I receive good opportunities for advancement, and live a life that makes me pretty happy to get up in the morning (though perhaps a little earlier than I would otherwise choose, at times).

But there’s a piece of the puzzle that isn’t covered under the umbrella of getting people to like me. You see, getting people to like you is one thing. If people like you, they tend not to give you a raw deal. They’ll tend to be straight with you (in most cases), and if they can help you without really having to strain themselves, they probably will. That alone is helpful. But it’s one of two steps to harnessing the power of rapport and relationships to build a life you can be excited about.

The other piece is the step beyond getting people to simply like you, it’s getting people interested in you. Like I said, if you can get people to like you, they will tend to do what they can conveniently do in order to help you. But if you get people interested in you, you can tap into some basic human emotions to form some truly constructive relationships, building a foundation for growth. If people merely like you, they will avoid harming you and help you if it’s not too much work to do so. If people like you and take an interest in you, they will tend to go further to help you. They will go out of their way. They’ll pick up the phone even when they’re busy, they’ll answer your email before others, they’ll stay for another drink after a polite dinner, and so on.

So if there’s anything like a formula for building the kind of personality that fuels personal and professional growth, it’s captured by what I like to call the interest principle. It has two parts:

  1. Get people to like you: be interested
  2. Get people to take an interest in you: be interesting

Getting People to Like You: Be Interested

It’s not the kind of thing that works with everyone — some people just don’t want to form a rapport with people outside of their circle of friends. But by and large, it works. The only thing is that you can’t fake it — that’s key and I can’t stress it enough. I have met a fair amount of people in my travels that seem to be employing a method of getting people to like them (perhaps they’ve read How to Win Friends and Influence People, but absorbed only the bullet point summary). They smile, but it’s measured and manufactured. They try too hard to make a joke, treating the other person’s laughter as a kind of currency they’re trying to extract, rather than something meant to warm their hearts. That might work on some percentage of people, and it might work in the short term. But like any form of insincerity, it’s not the real thing, and many people can — after a time — pick up on that.

So the key to getting people to like you is to be sincerely interested in them. And this is something for which there is no script. It’s something that you do by changing your mindset. You have to be curious about the other person, and not in a way where you’re looking for secrets, motivation, or things to leverage and manipulate for your own gain. You have to be curious about what makes them happy, what they see as their purpose, what they’re like when they’re with their most trusted confidant. Curiosity like that usually stems from a curiosity about human nature, ethics, spirituality, and deeper questions of that nature. So be interested in those things. You should be interested in them for your own enrichment anyway, and once you are, you pretty much can’t help but be interested in what they mean for other people.

Getting People Interested in You: Be Interesting

Getting people to take an interest in you happens in one of two ways — depending on where you fall in the social/professional order relative to that person:

  • If the other person is younger than you or lower in the professional order, give them reason to want to learn how you’ve achieved what you have. It’s a mini version of a mentor/mentee relationship.
  • If the other person is a peer — be it in age or rank — give them reason to want to find out what your journey is like. How is it similar to or different from theirs? What common hurdles are you facing, and what is your approach to overcoming them?
  • If the other person is older/higher in the professional order, give them reason to want you to succeed, so they will do what they can to help you. The best way to do this is to be sincere, but honest, about your lack of experience and your hunger to know more.

A note of clarification: being interesting is not the same as what the seduction community calls peacocking — being quirky, weird, or eccentric. People do sometimes use the word “interesting” to describe someone odd, but that’s simply a misnomer. They clearly mean that person is weird, and I’m a bit curious as to why they’re so weird, but I don’t really want to interact with them.

People are interested in those with depth, who are thoughtful and multi-dimensional — people with nuance. But how do you become that kind of person? It’s simpler than you think. You simply need to be curious, or to put it another way — you need to be interested in things. Be sincere about learning and enriching yourself. Gain varied life experiences, with various kinds of people. Listen to different kinds of music, read various kinds of books. The broader your body of knowledge and experience, the more people you can connect with, and the more you can multiply their interest in you.

The thing about people is that we are creatures guided by our interests. When things pique our interest, we make efforts. We perk up our ears. We read a few more paragraphs. We listen longer. We give the benefit of the doubt. We pursue, we connect. And if our interest is rewarded with even more things of interest, the cycle continues. If you can plug yourself into that cycle of interest, the benefits are great and sustained. Be interested, be interesting, then be better.

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”: https://goo.gl/UhzUYL.

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