Better living through conversation

I’ve been spending a lot of time on the phone recently with various friends talking about what I’m thinking and where I’m going with my life and my career. After one recent phone call, I realized that I value such conversations because each conversation is an opportunity for me to evolve my understanding of the world.

When I’m talking to friends, I’m not just reciting the events of my life. I’m struggling to put them into context, figuring out the narrative that ties them together, making sense of the chain of events so that I can understand what happened. In other words, I’m constructing my self-story. By telling it to somebody else, I’m explaining it to myself, but at the same time, the feedback that I get may encourage me to modify my understanding. For instance, if I’m talking about an interaction I had with a coworker, and I explain what they did and why I thought they did it, my friends will offer alternative explanations that may better explain the events. And I modify and retcon my story to incorporate that new interpretation.

What’s really interesting is that some of these reconceptions can then change my behavior. By bringing a new understanding to the world, I react differently when presented with a similar situation. I may even seek out new ways of interacting as a result.

What I find fascinating about the process is that it goes against my preconceived notions about making sense of the world. Our culture perpetuates the myth that we are lone heroes, each on our own journey. Our icons are tortured geniuses working alone, from Einstein in the patent office to novelists and poets whose work is only read posthumously. The spiritual journey involves meditation and solo hikes to the tops of mountains to consult gurus.

And I bought into all of that. For a long time, I felt that the best way to figure out what I wanted to do was to sit alone in a room and think about it. And it turns out that doesn’t work for me at all. I can only figure stuff out by talking about it. I started writing this blog because I needed a place to get ideas out of my head and onto “paper” so I could take a look at them and see if they made sense. I learn so much more in an hour of conversation than I do in an hour of thinking.

I think part of why it’s taken me a long time to accept this idea is my background. I started off in physics, which perpetuates the lone theorist myth, with stories of individual brilliance ranging from Einstein to Feynman to Schrodinger. After physics, I moved into programming, which also emphasizes individualism. My boss believes that private offices are essential for programming because it requires such high levels of concentration. So the idea that I could learn by talking really took some time before I could finally accept it.

I should also mention that such conversations aren’t entirely selfish on my part. By using my friends to help me make sense of the world, I’m promoting our ability to make sense of each other. Because they’re helping me interpret the events of my life, they gain a better understanding of how I think about the world. And their interpretations help me better understand how they make sense of the world. Plus, i can contribute my viewpoint to help them make sense of events in their world. It’s a two-way process that builds community and trust, and also increases our ability to function in a world that doesn’t always behave in an expected fashion.

Gosh, I’m really on a crusade for the power of conversation recently. First in my post on the importance of talking in management, and now here with the applications to personal growth. I suppose it’s not surprising. I fancy myself a conversationalist and would love to find more excuses to practice the art of conversation. So feel free to contact me with ideas that you want me to think about or if you need another perspective or anything like that. And maybe at some point, I’ll get around to organizing a fabulous New York conversation salon.

P.S. Posting will be down this month, as I’ve got three end-of-term presentations coming up in the last week of April for my program. So I’ve got some work to do.

P.P.S. I decided to create a blog category of conversation to make it easier to find such posts in the future.

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