What Am I Supposed to Know about?
Penelope Trunk, in her wonderful blog Brazen Careerist , launched a discussion about going out of your way to show interest in (or learn about) things that donâ€™t necessarily interest you (such as popular culture or sports) â€œjustâ€ as a means of being able to relate and interact with those around you.
Itâ€™s a great discussion, and it got me thinking a lot about â€œfitting inâ€ and how hard one should try.
Should you, as many of Penelopeâ€™s commenters suggest, learn a little about sports (even if, like me, you have zero interest) just to be able to relate to clients? Is that just being sensible (or sociable) or is it â€œpanderingâ€ and â€œphonyâ€ to pretend to interests you donâ€™t really have?
Penelope uses the example of college teachers telling us we â€œshouldâ€ read Homerâ€™s Iliad because â€œwell educatedâ€ people will have read it, and we wouldnâ€™t want to be left out, would we?
Oh, how I remember that challenge when I first went to college! I remember being completely overwhelmed at the extent of my ignorance. Not only had I never read Homer, but I knew nothing about poetry, politics, philosophy, art, classical music, public affairs, literature, history, let alone the â€˜popularâ€™ culture topics — as I said, I knew nothing about sports.
How intimidating it all was! Where do you start? Or do you?
I recall with memories that still sting that, (especially in class-sensitive
These choices scared the heck out of me because they involved — it seemed to me then and seems to me now — an act of conscious self-creation. It was about choosing one or more social circles, and learning enough to â€œfit inâ€ to that social circle.
Since I had no idea who I â€œreallyâ€ was, nor who I wanted to be, I took the â€œCliff Notes â€œ approach — I learned a little about a lot of things. I used to read the introductions to novels, rather than the novels themselves, so that I could understand what they were about without having to invest the time (or learn to enjoy) them. I read biographies and histories, so I could recognize the names of all the major philosophers and give you a one-liner or two about most of them. I learned to name a couple of Mozartâ€™s operas, and so on and so on. I learned enough to pretend to fit in with a wide variety of social circles.
In one sense, I suppose thatâ€™s good. You meet a lot of different kinds of people as you go through life. But on the other hand, it felt superficial and, on many occasions, a lot like â€œfaking it.â€ Who was I really? Where did I fit in really?
I have found that this challenge exists throughout life. As Penelope said, you probably kind of have to know a little about a lot of things to relate to people.
For example, hereâ€™s a quiz. If you went to a dinner party, could you keep your side of a conversation going on:
- Local politics?
- National Politics?
- International affairs not directly involving your own country?
- The latest tech gadgets
- The latest fiction best-sellers?
- The latest non-fiction best-sellers?
- Whatâ€™s hot on television?
- The latest art exhibition to open in your town
- The popular music charts?
- Yo-yo Maâ€™s latest album?
- Whatâ€™s good on Broadway this season?
- The latest movies?
- Local sports teams?
- Sports events not involving local teams?
- Latest theories of child-rearing?
Should you know about all of these things? Where, if anywhere, is your â€œobligationâ€ to keep up?
And, to relate it back to the business and management specifics of this blog, could you, at the lunch or dinner breaks in a business meeting:
- Talk about whatâ€™s on the cover of the latest business magazines, from Forbes to Wired?
- Talk about the other stories there?
- Discuss whatâ€™s been in the Wall Street Journal recently?
- Compare and contrast the views of three or four of the recent best-selling business authors?
- Say something sensible on the business consequences of, say, globalization, the continued war for talent, web 2.0, who the emerging business heroes are and who doesnâ€™t deserve his or her reputation?
I donâ€™t know about you, but I still canâ€™t do ALL of this, and find myself doing what I did in college: furiously skimming headlines and summaries so I can pretend to participate in conversations. My intentions, I hope are good, and I donâ€™t mean to misrepresent myself, but, just like in college days, it feels like Iâ€™m only skating the surface and â€œfaking itâ€ a lot of the time.
Itâ€™s an uncomfortable feeling, and I donâ€™t know the solution, except maybe to have the courage more frequently to say â€œSorry, I donâ€™t know about that.â€