Good conversation

I really like good conversations. A lot. I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when my friend Jofish came to town to visit. I organized a big dinner of all the TEP types to see him. Afterwards, the whole crew of us (11 or so) wandered over to Bug’s place to hang out and chat some more, and ended up spending several hours talking til it was after midnight and time to go home for us old people that had to drive 45 minutes back to Oakland. Somebody commented while we were talking that it had the feel of those great undergrad conversations that we used to have late at night where the conversations would range over pretty much any subject that came to mind. And, yeah, that was the feel. I always wondered whether those conversations were as interesting as I remember in retrospect. But, wow, I enjoy them.

It was just neat having a group of highly intelligent, accomplished people in a room, each of whom thinks about things and has opinions that they’re willing to share and defend. An example. Early in the evening, somebody picked up the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, from Bug’s bookshelf and asked him what he thought of it. It’s a book I’d heard of and was interested in reading at some point, but not interested enough to actually read it. It turned out that half the room had read it, or at least started it, so it launched a discussion about his thesis, that people are happiest when they are in the state of flow, where they’re not thinking, they’re just doing. And Bug and somebody else said they put it down around there, because it seemed like a really limited definition of happiness. And then we got distracted by the question of what happiness really meant, and how do you balance short-term gratification with long-term enjoyment. It was interesting hearing all the different people contributing their thoughts, and it was clear that most people had thought about the subject and had a considered opinion. Then somebody pointed out that the book described Csikszentmihalyi’s son Chris and his attempt to become popular by acting cooler. It turns out that Chris is now a professor at the MIT Media Lab where several of the people had done work, and they laughed about how that was an accurate description of him even today. And then the conversation drifted off into recollections of the MIT experience, etc.

But I really enjoyed the conversation – we talked for about five hours all told between dinner and hanging out afterwards, and the time just flew by. I could have talked for many more if I weren’t old and stuff. I miss that type of conversation – at TEP, such conversations were the norm (which may partly be the nostalgia talking) because there were always smart interesting people around who wanted to punt on whatever they were supposed to be working on. While I was an undergrad, I probably pulled as many all-nighters just talking with folks as I did actually working on problem sets. Well, maybe not quite. But several certainly. In the real world, the density of people isn’t high enough, and there’s the constraints of being an adult and going to work and all that nonsense. It’s a pity really.

I also need to get better at instigating such conversations with groups other than my MIT friends. This evening was fun – after my ultimate frisbee league game (which I’ll probably write about after this), a few of us went to the bar and just started talking about stuff – it turned out that the three of the four of us there were science grad school dropouts (2 physics, 1 chem), which was pretty neat. So we talked about the various choices that we’d made, and how our lives had progressed and things like that. Good stuff. And I never would have guessed it, despite having played several hours of frisbee with these folks over the past few weeks.

So I need to work on my conversational skills. Because I enjoy these conversations a lot, and I would like to have more of them, and I think the only way to do that is to get better at drawing people out. Asking them what they’re interested in, what they do. The best stories are ones where the person gets really excited while telling them. Plus, people that are excited by what they do are just more fun in general. Skills to work on. Right.