Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

19 Feb 2009, 8:51 a.m.

Skills And Lenses

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2009 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A few models I've happened upon recently:

  • No Big Deal: I visited Nandini. Her friend, a landscape architect, is helping her do up her apartment. We talked over breakfast. Susan's dad has always been a DIY type; his attitude is, why not try and do it himself? When she was a kid, her dad built a deck and she was his gofer. She'd take the leftover wood scraps and make doll furniture. To this day they enjoy working together and making stuff with their hands.

    My parents have written and edited stuff for fun for decades. When I was a kid, Nandini and I helped them mail out their zine. Dad performed pujas and wanted participants to know what the rituals and Sanskrit mantras meant, so he'd write up articles in Hindi, Kannada, and English, typeset them in MS Word on the 486 running Windows 3.1 or 95, run off 200 copies at Office Depot, and have me staple the brochures together. Eventually he started asking me to edit them ("Dad, no one knows what 'clarion' means, you should use a different word").

    They're always giving speeches, at parties, at Indian-American banquets/variety shows (invariably called "functions"), at schools, at an interfaith municipal Thanksgiving. And they'd push Nandini and me in front of the mike -- "Recite that poem you wrote! Sing that Weird Al song!" Once Nandini and I wrote, cast, and acted in a little four-act play called "Lost in Translation" at one of those Indian-American functions. I think we were teens.

    So after breakfast, Susan was singlehandedly putting up shelves in the guest room -- studfinding, putting up rails, cutting planks to size with a saw, and placing the brackets. Meanwhile, in the living room, Nandini was writing a big report on transit infrastructure in Thailand and India. She'll be doing a presentation on it, too. And I was working on a fiction anthology I'm editing. But we took a break to cowrite a silly monologue.

    One of the greatest gifts you can give your children, your employees, the people to whom you are a role model, is the knowledge that some field of endeavor is in a sense No Big Deal. Knowledge -- belief backed up by experience -- that they can do interesting and rewarding projects in it without fear of public embarrassment.

    I grew up thinking that writing, editing, publishing, public speaking, community leadership, hobbyist programming, and using the Net were No Big Deal. To this day, though, I'm leery of trying home improvement, car repair, sports, camping, and childcare. I don't have a baseline, I don't know where to start, I don't know how to know if I'm doing okay, I've never played around in a context where results don't matter, so I have that vague fear. Nandini got cooking from my mom; I didn't. I lost my fearlessness about hobbyist coding and am trying to get it back. I've gained some fearlessness about travel and capitalism.

    Leonard suggested a conclusion: you should treat everything like it's No Big Deal. Danger: you turn into one of those jerks who scorn strangers' struggles. (Yes, I'm thinking of those MIT jerks I met at that entrepreneurship meeting.) Self-efficacy demands that I treat my own attempts like No Big Deal; compassion demands that I recognize my privilege and help others build their skills and confidence.

  • Hospitality + Integrity: How can I enter a party or meetup and start a good conversation with someone I've never met? I take the initiative to introduce myself to random people. I have a few starter and restarter questions at the ready -- what cool things are you up to? what's exciting you these days? how do you know the host? do you live around here? what are you reading? -- avoiding the boring status-laden questions like "What do you do?" and "Where did you go to school?" I enthusiastically listen and ask follow-up questions and bring up related topics and trivia.

    Some people respond in kind and get the momentum of the conversation going, start new threads and return to old ones. Some don't. If after five minutes of that treatment the person isn't saying anything particularly interesting, I say, "will you excuse me" and say something about food or drink or something, go away, and find some other person to talk to. I almost always find someone who can do twenty interesting minutes with me. And now I've made a new acquaintance, probably a friend. If I now need to mingle more to get good ROI out of the event, I frankly say, "I need to go mingle and meet more people," take her card or give him mine, and move on.

    In a sense I think of my conversation-starting as merely hospitable. I try to make people feel cared-about and give them a platform to show off their coolness. But I couldn't just do that insincerely; that's cynical and such a drain. I honestly believe most people have something interesting to show me, and that some just need a little help opening up. So I don't hide my opinions (open platforms win in the long run, the GOP is irresponsible, venture capital is uninteresting, Harry Potter Book 4 was great). But compassion demands that I avoid giving needless offense, and integrity demands that I back up my arguments and admit when I'm wrong, and hospitality demands that I never let myself become a boor or a bore.

    As I grow older, I find my deepest friends have integrity, a work ethic, some project that they're passionate about, and this seemingly innate dedication to conversational generosity. Attention, empathy, turn-taking, nitpicking only in the service of substantive truth, following the truth and the argument wherever it leads. And that's what I look for in new friends, and I keep finding it.

  • Jokes, Games, and Stories as Syllogisms: A common way to describe speculative fiction (otherwise known as "science fiction and fantasy" is to call them "what-if stories." There's some counterfactual premise. My favorite stories are the ones where the interactions of the characters and the counterfactual premise(s) elegantly and inevitably lead to some satisfying resolution. The author reveals the emergent properties of a system.

    It turns out that this is also something I like in jokes. We see the rules of the world at the start, and then we see how they work themselves into something entertaining. My directions for creating observational humor aren't going to give you Dane-Cooky "that's so stupid! Blaaaaaah!" They're going to give you a Seinfeldesque analysis of the absurdity. Where did the incongruity come from, and what trend does it reveal?

    I'll leave it to the Adam Parrish/Zack Weinberg/Leonard Richardson/Brendan Adkins/Holly Gramazio/Kevan Davis/Alexei Othenin-Girard types to let me know whether I'm grounded in suspecting that this is some of the joy they find in designing games.

I started thinking about these models while chatting with friends and acquaintances near and far. Man, sociability is awesome.


19 Feb 2009, 12:27 p.m.

Wow, this is a great essay, Sumana. I think maybe you should do a guide on how to navigate parties. Your example questions here are great, and I think a lot of introverts could benefit from having a practical set of guidelines to follow that didn't lead us down the path of status questions or boring observations of the weather. I'm picking up some of my own skills as I go, but it never hurts to have more help.

19 Feb 2009, 13:38 p.m.

I would totally read a Sumana-based "how to navigate a party" brochure. I would illustrate it, in fact.

You draw an interesting parallel in the game-design thesis, and I think I agree with you. I tend to gravitate toward playing games with lots of complex interacting systems precisely because they generate unexpected emergent behavior, and when I come up with a game idea, my first instinct is to increase its runtime complexity to a point just above where I can keep track of everything in play.

19 Feb 2009, 15:16 p.m.

<ul> <li>This is great! I was talking to Gregor last night about the various meetings I've been going to in order to figure out whether my project is feasible, and I took the attitude that if the project panned out then that'd be great, but if it didn't it's okay because I am really enjoying taking the time to meet all these new people. He laughed at how nonchalant I was being about the whole thing, and I reminded him that I've spent most of my life doing stuff from a place of anxiety, so if being nonchalant was the alternative, I'd take that instead. I feel further emboldened by what you've written about No Big Deal. I'm going to print it out.

*Having known you for a good long while, I can say that you do a really good job of putting yourself in places where there is a high probability of meeting people you will find interesting. I think that is part of the equation, choosing where you're going carefully (whenever possible),then being open to what can happen there, and -- perhaps most importantly -- recognizing that you are one of the creators of that happening. I agree with the person above who suggested creating a "navigating a party" brochure; it'd be really fun to see what you come up with. </li> </ul>

19 Feb 2009, 15:27 p.m.

This post delights me.

22 Feb 2009, 16:11 p.m.

This is a great post!

I've always admired your unselfconscious and sincere sociability. Thanks for laying out your technique for the more introverted. I'd love to see this in pamphlet form. Flowchart?

The No Big Deal deal: I like this and, like other comment-ers, have been moving towards this approach in my own life. I think I've often held myself back by assuming that It Is a Big Deal. You expressed this very well and I'd like to see a longer essay on it sometime.

To sum up: you should just write a book and call it "Sumana's Secrets to Success."