Why We Should Take Each Other Seriously

Do you want to be taken seriously? I would have a difficult time imagining that you don’t.

The desire to be taken seriously is the fuel that powers strange personality traits that you’ve likely observed in yourself and others, including:

  • Your Facebook friends who meticulously curate their online presence in an effort to appear as if they have their shit together. Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, Dorothy.
  • People who are “busy”. They’ve just had a lot on, you know? Things are crazy with the kids and there’s this huge project at work that only they can do properly so there go their weekends! Last seen opening a second bottle of white wine at 7:00 on a Monday night because “cheat day!”.
  • “Fanboys” who surrender a not insignificant portion of their identity to interests they can not directly participate in or outcomes they can not meaningfully impact. Depending on the selected devotion, this can assume the shape of either hipster escapism or – more typically – living vicariously through the success of others (see: devout fans of sports teams, athletes, bands, artists, etc.).
    • This phenomenon can also be observed in:
      • Those who dedicate themselves fully to a job they don’t believe in.
      • Those dedicated to being a “present” parent to the point of having no individual identity outside of this pursuit. When asked how they are, these parents will tell you how their kids are doing.

It would be unfairly reductive to say that the desire to be taken seriously is the sole cause of these and other, similar behaviors. That’s not the point I wish to make. Rather, I would like us to turn the mirror back onto ourselves. How seriously would you (or do you) take people who fall into one of the categories listed above?

None of us is more important than anybody else. This isn’t a revolutionary idea. It’s safe to say that a large majority of the human race believe this to be true on at least a philosophical level. Not many people would claim to be superior to others; above the fray. To believe that you are better than anybody else – that there is anybody “not worth your time” – is a particularly off-putting brand of solipsism.

That said, observed human behavior (which may include your own) would seem to suggest that such espoused beliefs may be merely rhetoric. If none of us thinks that we’re better than anybody else, why are we routinely jerks to one another?

The problem is introduced when we must adhere to this philosophy in real life.

Talking about being fair is easy. Meanwhile, doing? Well, don’t we all have enough to do already?

What does this kind of behavior look like?

  • Any number of aggressive traffic maneuvers. Nobody needs to get to their destination as urgently as you!
  • Elbowing in front of kids on train station escalators. Kids aren’t really people, right? Where do they have to be that’s so important? They have their whole lives to get to the top of the escalator!
  • Spilling some coffee on the counter of the office canteen but leaving it for somebody else to clean up. That’s what interns are for, right? You? You’re late for a meeting!

You get the idea.

In all of these instances, the “bully” (let’s just call the behavior what it is, even if I’m stretching the definition past the inherent intentionality) considers nobody but themselves. Are they doing this to be a dick? Hopefully not. Most times, they’re probably perfectly nice people. So how does this happen? Where do nice people go wrong?

Inside their minds – unseen to all, including (usually) themselves – a complicated calculus is determining their actions. This calculus can be conceptualized as a flow chart of sorts; the reduction of complex social and natural scenarios to a ruthlessly efficient series of tripwires and routinized responses.

The result? They elbow in front of kids on the escalator not because they closely examined the children and considered their adolescent circumstances to be of only marginal importance when contrasted against those of the adults about, but because they didn’t think about the kids at all.

They thought only of themselves.

This type of behavior is indicative of a profound lack of regard for the needs of anybody but the self. We can look each other in the eye and claim to be selfless and socially responsible citizens who have time for everybody because that internal calculus – that ruthless flowchart – that controls our actions like a fanboy controls Lara Croft allows us to effortlessly maintain sufficient cognitive distance between effect and cause. We behave like jerks and let ourselves off the hook because, well, we didn’t mean to hurt anybody.

This is where the allegedly universal philosophy – believe it as we may – falls over entirely.

Being passively rude to strangers is bad enough but it is merely a symptom and not the disease (depending on the circumstances). The problem truly becomes a tragedy when we allow it to creep into our interpersonal relationships.

Over the last ten years I directly managed somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand staff, almost all of them younger than me and still pursuing undergraduate degrees or – more generally and with mixed results – “being twenty something”.

I had hundreds of encounters with these staff members while they were under my management, but one sticks out in my mind. This staff member found me after her shift one day and presented me with a gift. It was nothing fancy but it was very thoughtful (when selecting the gift, she had recalled a funny moment we had shared at work) and completely unexpected.

What had I done for her that she felt warranted this gift? I had seen that she was having a bad day and I asked her if she was okay.

No other staff member ever presented me with a gift, and I did my part to assist as many as I could. I had helped many with interpersonal problems they were facing, wrote letters of recommendations that helped some earn better jobs or places in their university, and just generally made myself available to them.

Sincere thanks was always offered for my assistance to those ends but the person who went beyond a mere “thank you” did so because I had done something she truly valued: I had taken her seriously. As repayment, she took me seriously.

Of those hundreds of staff interactions, this is the one that I still remember; that I still take seriously.

More recently I’ve begun tutoring at the University of Technology Sydney and in two years have directly worked with about 500 undergraduate and graduate students, the vast majority of whom are in their first year of study at their respective level.

At the end of each semester, these students are invited to complete anonymous student feedback surveys in order to help us improve the class for future students. One open-ended question on this survey asks what elements of our tutorials they particularly enjoyed or found useful. Many use this opportunity to explicitly acknowledge my acknowledgment of them. They go out of their way to thank me for taking them seriously.

The things I’ve done that they thank me for? Responding to emails, providing assistance ahead of assignment submissions, not playing favorites, and offering useful and constructive feedback on assignments. If you’re thinking that this list sounds like all the things that any teacher should be doing, I would agree with you.

Don’t mistake this anecdote for a low key explainabrag. The entire point is that I’ve merely taken my students seriously and they’ve responded in a way that suggests this type of behavior is not something they regularly encounter. Those of us who are willing to recall our undergraduate years honestly will probably sympathize with their situation, and it’s (sadly) telling that this feedback is only offered anonymously. Clearly there is some level of shame associated with feeling like we’re not consistently being taken seriously.

The way to undo this – to move toward a more respectful society that makes progress because of and not despite the presence of others – is to embrace self-awareness rather than self-absorption.

One of the most difficult obstacles to achieving this is – as I already mentioned – time. By and large we are busy people these days. To stop and give everybody our undivided attention and selfless devotion is not practical. Fortunately, it’s also not necessary.

To be merely aware as you move about the world would be to go a long way toward taking others seriously. To not elbow in on escalators. Not because you take the time to critically analyse the needs of the people whom you would be cutting off, but because you’re operating on the assumption that your needs are no more important than anybody else’s.

Herein lies the simple, overarching truth behind all of this: taking others seriously is not an active task that consumes time and energy. It’s actually as passive as not considering them at all. The difference is a fundamental shift in the baseline of your own awareness: to not rush, to not be aggressive, to not assume that your needs are more important; that you are more important.

If I took the time to actively integrate myself into the lives of my students, there would not be enough hours in the day. Further to that logistical obstacle, my introversion would cause me to collapse in a heap even as I explained how to construct a rigorous thesis for an academic essay.

To take others seriously is not to insert yourself – it’s to leave the door open. Of the 35-40 students I have in any one class, only two or three will ever take me up on my offers of extensive assistance. Maybe ten will email me at least once – usually about a question relating to attendance.

If I didn’t take them seriously? If I operated on the assumption that their undergraduate needs were inferior to my postgraduate needs and thus only relevant within the 80 minutes I’m paid to stand before them in a classroom? It would be no different to elbowing in front of them on an escalator. I wouldn’t have seen them in either scenario. I wouldn’t have taken them seriously.

Instead, I make the choice that you should also make: I take them seriously. I offer them the world and a few approach me to claim it. They respond to my taking them seriously and they take me seriously in kind. Once we find each other, there’s no need for curating our lives or surrendering pieces of our identity. We take each other as we are and we move forward.

As we all should.

Marginalia: “No One Understands You And What To Do About It”

Marginalia is a regular series on Toward Vandalia in which I review the books I’m reading and unpack their most valuable lessons.

Today I’m looking at No One Understands You And What To Do About It by Heidi Grant Halvorson.

Heidi Grant Halvorson is the Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia Business School. She first slipped onto my radar in a recap of the 2015 99U Conference, where she was presenting the findings from this book. Her other articles on 99U – where she writes about leadership and communication – are a good sample of both her writing style and unique insight.

With No One Understands You And What To Do About It, Halvorson manages to turn the same trick that David McRaney executed exceptionally with You Are Not So Smart – she makes issues of psychology not only approachable and digestable but also funny.

Here she is talking about the fact that mature-faced people are statistically more likely to be found guilty (92%) than baby-faced people (45%) in incidents that appear to be intentional:

… If someone with a delightfully babyish face, like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, or a young Mark Hamill, ran over your begonias, you’d be likely to think he or she was just distracted by a frolicking puppy or a happy song on the radio. But when Clint Eastwood runs over your begonias, you’re pretty sure he’s doing it on purpose.

The book is divided into four sections that first get to the root of all this misunderstanding between people then delve into the lenses that affect how we see the world and how personality alters those lenses. The last section brings it all together and offers a workable strategy for being better understood as well as better understanding others.

In Part One, Halvorson reminds us that we are essentially unknowable (since nobody can plug directly into our brains) – a problem for those of us who believe we can be analyzed objectively and that others see us the way we see ourselves (or want to be seen). Not only can nobody see us this way (by rule!) but no two people are likely to see us in the same (if objectively incorrect) way.

Making matters worse is the fact that the people you would like to get to know you probably aren’t bothering – their attention is limited and so they use shortcuts to assign attributes to you.

This is complicated by cognitive dissonance and the primacy effect, which cause people to put you in the box they expect you to fit into and to assume that you will never change from their first impression of you, respectively.

Oh, and everybody thinks they’re better than you.

Generally speaking, other people will assume you share their opinions and attitudes, but not their abilities and moral character. With respect to the latter, they believe they are more talented and less corruptible than you are. Try not to take it personally.

However, perception can be “hacked” if you understand how it works. The process is carried out in two phases.

Phase 1 mostly occurs automatically, which could be good or bad depending on the moment.

A person’s “typical” behavior will change as a function of where he or she is, whom the person is with, and what he or she is trying to do.

Unfortunately, most people will stop mentally bothering with you at Phase 1 meaning that if you didn’t make a good first impression, you now have your work cut out for you.

This is overcome by getting people to shift into Phase 2 perception. In this phase they will take more time to analyze your behavior in context and attempt to construct a more accurate perception of you and your being. Granted, this takes more time and energy so most people won’t bother – and if you stuffed up in Phase 1, they’ll be less inclined to see the investment of added mental energy as being worth it.

You’ve experienced this yourself if you ever met somebody when they were having a bad day and wrote them off as being a grumpy / stern / serious / unpleasant person. Maybe you didn’t bother with them for a while after that until an unavoidable situation (perhaps a long car ride where there was no escape!) forced you to consider them again. Whether or not they really were a grumpy person, your perception was most likely refined for accuracy as a result of the extra consideration on your part.

Part Two gets into the three lenses that shape the way we all make the above perceptions.

The Trust Lens

This one is rather straightforward: people will assess whether or not they can trust you. They do this by looking for the answer to two questions about you:

  1. Are you a friend or an enemy?
  2. Are you capable of acting on your good or bad intentions?

Halvorson points out that both are important to consider:

The second question is just as important as the first, because if the answer to the second one is no, then you are more or less harmless no matter what your intentions are.

The answers to these questions are sussed out from the warmth and competence we display. Halvorson provides strategies for conveying both, including classics like maintaining eye contact and exercising will power. As she says:

Don’t advertise your personal demons.

The Power Lens

Halvorson offers some uplifting encouragement for dealing with powerful people:

It’s not so much that [powerful people] think they are better than you as it is they simply do not think about you at all.


Powerful people don’t have a lot of time and are less willing to spend that time on you unless you can prove your value. This is rather straightforward and recalls age-old advice for establishing job security: make yourself indispensable.

The Ego Lens

This final lens is perhaps the trickiest of all, as it’s all about self-preservation for the perceiver.

… The ego lens… has a single mission. In this case, it’s to see things in such a way that the perceiver comes out on top.

The perceiver pulls this off in one of four fascinating ways that seem ripped from the script of Mean Girls:

  1. They will convince themselves that they and their people are better than you and your people.
  2. They will decide that you are both similar and can thus share in any victories.
  3. They will determine that you aren’t actually competing for anything they want, so: no harm, no foul.
  4. If none of the above are possible, they will avoid you or attempt to destroy you.

Halvorson uses examples from job interviews with candidates of different sexes, races, and qualifications as compared to the interviewers to demonstrate how this plays out in real life (with or without the interviewer even being aware of it). Suffice it to say, you don’t want to be better looking (or smarter) than your interviewer – especially if they have low self esteem.

Halvorson recommends modesty and affirmation to overcome the trouble inherent to the ego lens.

Part Three shows how perception can be a function of personality. Halvorson examines promotion-focused (risk takers) and prevention-focused (risk averse) personalities and encourages readers to adapt their communication according a person’s dominant personality.

For a promotion-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of potential gains or wins… For a prevention-focused perceiver, frame your ideas in terms of avoiding losses or mistakes.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was Halvorson’s examination of the secure, anxious and avoidant lenses. I have a tendency to be avoidant, so it was encouraging to see these often-misunderstood traits of mine presented as being very normal.

Herein lies the beauty of books such as this: you go in expecting to learn more about others but you end up learning a thing or two about yourself. Halvorson’s techniques for dealing with avoidant-attached people is, of course, useful for me in my dealings with other avoidant-attached people but it’s most beneficial as a means of understanding how I must be coming across to other people.

In short: be patient with avoidant-attached people and don’t take our stand-offishness personally.

The last section brings all of the above together and presents techniques for forcing the issue of perception when needed, as well as a rather intricate guide to crafting the perfect apology. The book concludes with tips on how to reverse-engineer Halvorson’s guide to being better understood into ways of better understanding others.

No One Understands You And What To Do About It is an easy read but is far from a superficial one. Halvorson has deconstructed a problem central to communication in our hyper-communicative world and offers strategies that can be employed in any aspects of our lives and within any context: home, work, school, the gym – anywhere!

She writes with an assured style and peppers in subtle, wink-wink humor to make sure you’re paying attention. Far from your average management or self-help book (which she notes in the intro she specifically tried to avoid writing), No One Understands You And What To Do About It entertains as much as it informs.

You Can Still Fix What “Ain’t Broke”

Maybe you should fix what "ain't broke"

Part of the fun of moving away from home is confusing your new neighbors with the colloquialisms that you heard while growing up. Having done my growing up in the hills of West Virginia, I have quite a collection of such phrases and truisms that frequently raise eyebrows when I slip them into conversation here in Australia.

One such phrase is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

Most often this is meant in the context of possibly screwing up a good thing with constant tinkering; the idea that trying to extend that board just one more inch… and then another… will ultimately bring your house down when you’ve extended too far.

Taken at its most literal interpretation, though, the idea of not ‘fixing’ what isn’t broken seems awfully limiting. It flies in the face of ambition and creativity by assuring you that the grass is perfectly green here and there’s no need to bother looking for grass that is greener. It suggests that you be content with the delicious and nutritious meal sitting in front of you and never wonder if the menu features something even better.

Life is a Mexican restaurant

This very situation unfolded for me recently. Claire and I frequent a particular Mexican restaurant that friends introduced us to a couple of years ago. These same friends recommended the fajitas during that initial visit and Claire and I heeded their advice. It was far from a bad tip. These particular fajitas quickly became my favorite dish in Sydney. Over the years Claire and I would get there once a month or so and we would both order the fajitas every single time. Why mess with success?

Why fix what “ain’t broke”?

Eventually we found ourselves there on a night that Claire had a strong craving for fajitas that I didn’t share. I looked at the menu and, for the first time in nearly three years, considered other options.

This was the record- scratch moment. Freeze the frame there on me examining the menu like I’m seeing it for the first time.

A lot can happen in two years. New menu items could have been introduced. Specials came and went. Any of these things could have been better than the fajitas that, despite being very good, are not the pinnacle of culinary achievement. How many opportunities to find something even tastier had I missed?

The truth about things that “ain’t broke”

Naturally, life is slightly more complicated than ordering Mexican. The concept of missed opportunities, though, is basically the same and all too real.

It is easy – and, in some cases, beneficial – to fall into routines within our day-to-day lives. For the sake of our sanity and productivity, this is mostly okay. Your job pays good money and has great benefits. It’s close to home. Your boss is chill and a pushover in fantasy football. You’re a hit on casual Friday. Life is good. Nothing is broken.

But what if there is a better opportunity out there? A chance to be even happier in ways you haven’t considered because you haven’t seen the need to look around for them?

Another popular phrase that you’re more likely to have heard is: “Fortune favors the bold!” It encourages us to take risks here and there because – and why not layer in another cliché? – you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

And thus we arrive at a critical juncture in which many find themselves throughout their lives: when can we stop looking for something better? When can we be sure that we’ve ‘arrived’ and can achieve no more?

The answer, of course, is personal. For many, there becomes a natural state of equilibrium at which it no longer makes sense to push ahead. Research shows us that once we’re earning about $90K a year, increases in income don’t really increase our happiness anymore – so why would we bust our rumps to get further raises?

However, you’re on an actualization blog because you’re a natural pusher. To you, the grass can always be greener. Yet, we can’t constantly be assessing every aspect of our life in search of areas that can be improved. If we were always worrying about the next job, we’d be less effective in this one. Furthermore, exploring every single option that is available to us can sometimes lead to analysis paralysis, a state of being in which the sheer volume of options hinders our ability to make a decision. More often than not, this leads us to make no decision at all.

Knowing when to fix what “ain’t broke”

In the interest of pushing forward without driving ourselves crazy, let’s consider three strategies for recognizing when it might be okay to fix something that “ain’t broke”.

1) You’re on autopilot

All of us build systems into our life than enable us to be more efficient and productive. In the interest of saving time and mental energy, we often make decisions without even considering that we had other options. In the Mexican restaurant of life, we just order the fajitas and move on.

Yet you should consider why you have arrived in the place you now find yourself. Did you have a craving for fajitas and thus you came to this restaurant that serves very tasty ones? Or did you come to this restaurant for whatever other reason and now you’re on auto-pilot, ordering the fajitas out of habit? If it’s the latter, the bell should be ringing inside your head as it did for me in this exact scenario.

As you go through life, consider your context and your situation. To mix metaphors: if you’re not craving the fajitas, maybe it’s time to look for a new job.

2) You’ve hit a natural plateau

There’s nothing wrong with a plateau here and there. Sometimes life throws a bit too much at us and we need to set at least one aspect of our life – like our job, for example – on cruise control for a while. However, this should only ever be a temporary solution. If we leave any one area of our life in this mode for too long, the symptoms will start to show:

  • You’ll be bored
  • You’ll no longer derive pleasure from this activity
  • You won’t be learning anything new

When life has settled down enough that you start to notice these symptoms, take it as an opportunity to explore other options. Have a look around at some other jobs or maybe some courses that you could enroll in to help take your career to the next level. Even if you take no action, the very act of considering other possibilities should be enough to shift you out of cruise-control and get your foot back on the accelerator.

3) You’re playing it safe

Granted, when you start to look around at other possibilities, you may be tempted to make a change and go for it. We know that fortune favors the bold, but what if we take that new job and it totally sucks?

Any hesitation of this nature might have already slipped into your day-to-day life. At work, do you often go for the tried-and-true method? When choosing between different strategies, do you hedge your bets and select the option with lower upside but less risk? If so, you’re playing it safe. The room for possible failure has made you too cautious; too afraid of doing something that might not work out in the short-term.

Well, nobody ever said fortune always and immediately favors the bold (besides being untrue, it’s also not as catchy). It is the long game that will eventually yield our reward.

You will most likely encounter setbacks as you push your way forward. Break through some walls and you’re certainly going to collect some bruises. Playing the long game with any decision allows for the possibility of initial setbacks. Yes, you may have to take a step back on the food chain when you transfer to that larger company, but the future opportunities at that new company might be more numerous and appealing than those where you currently work. Sometimes it’s worth taking a step back in order to lengthen the track in front of you. Over the course of the long game you’ll pass those who reached the end of their own track and are being forced to run in place.

Some will be happy to run in place in this way – nothing is broken and so you won’t catch them trying to fix anything. Send them a photo when you reach the summit and make sure the next, taller mountain that you’re going to climb is in the frame.

Don’t Be Surprised By Good Fortune; Be Ready For It

Rupert is watching.

On Monday I talked about prioritizing your own happiness. The idea ties into one of the main themes for this blog: that we have to make the most of opportunities that arise. If a door opens and we’re not prepared or willing to walk through, the opportunity has been missed. Unfortunately, some opportunities may not come around again.

Considering all of this makes the story of Bryan Donaldson (via) all the more compelling. Donaldson was a modest IT guy in the midwest living the American Dream with his wife, child and big yard. His way of blowing off steam was to post one-liners on Twitter that were a bit too edgy to share in his professional corporate workplace. Over time he amassed more than 40,000 followers including Alex Baze, head writer for Late Night With Seth Meyers. When the time came to assemble a writing team for the yet-to-air show, Baze called Donaldson in for an interview that led to his first professional comedy writing gig.

Donaldson’s story is unique in that he wasn’t even trying to get a comedy writing job. He says himself that he never really took the Twitter posts or followers all that seriously. But when the opportunity came to get paid for something he clearly loved doing, his entire family helped him take the jump.

If a similar opportunity presented itself to you, would you have the courage to do as Donaldson did? Sometimes you can anticipate these opportunities and sometimes you can’t but you should never be surprised when good things happen to you.

Instead, be ready to walk through the door.

Give Yourself A License To Prioritize Your Happiness


Hello again! Things have been a touch quiet on the site recently while a few exciting things took place behind the scenes. Chief among them was my graduation ceremony at the University of Technology, Sydney, where I received my Master of Business Administration degree in Sport Management and Marketing. My parents made the long trip to Australia for the occasion – their first journey down under – and so we all enjoyed some well-earned rest and relaxation during their stay.

I commenced my graduate studies in February 2012. Originally the program was to take me three years to complete while I worked full-time and studied part-time, but after my first three semesters I made the decision (with a little nudging from external forces beyond my control) to reverse those commitments to study full-time and work part-time. I was presented with a rare arrangement of circumstances that allowed me to make the choice that was right for me and it’s a decision that I’ve never regretted.

While working full-time I found that I would often be nodding off during my three-hour lectures. Something was fundamentally wrong with the situation: I had made the decision to return to school and I was paying for that privilege out of my own pocket, yet I was continuing to prioritize a job that I had long since stopped viewing as my career. When I made the decision to prioritize my studies – to get from them what I had envisioned when I first enrolled – everything changed. I was more alert in class, had time and energy to study my notes and readings, and was more available for group meetings with my classmates. I made the right decision for me, and the result was even better than I could have imagined it would be.

I’m sharing this story today because it showed me that I am truly the master of my own fate. I didn’t have to be content with “going with the flow” and you don’t have to be, either. Naturally, circumstances may not always be on your side. Bills must be paid, children looked after, responsibilities tended to. But where you can, give yourself the license to actually prioritize your priorities. I promise you’ll be happier for it and you’ll certainly reach new heights along the way.