My never-ending quest to shut up

The goal that continues to elude me.

A word that I’ve noticed is frequently used to describe me is charming. I think what some have termed as charming is really a high amount of curiosity, and perhaps paying more-than-usual attention to micro-gestures and other behavioral cues – which provide contextual data in nearly every interpersonal encounter, or at the very least, betray some position held by my conversational partner. In short, I love people. I love alone time, too, though.

This data is then used to steer the conversation, amuse, help, or complete some other related objective.

Maybe that’s the definition of charming? I’m not going to check, but you can. Go ahead, I give you permission as WebMaster of This Blog.

I have many friends and colleagues that are extremely shy, or introverted. Some have asked how they can be more open, meet people, engage more in conversation, and the like.

While I don’t mean to belittle these goals, let me share a different world. My world! It’s a world of quickly-made friends, constant conversation with strangers, too much volunteering, and a problem saying no. 1

Most importantly, it’s a world where The Burn-out Meter is constantly running.

The Burn-out Meter isn’t a real object. If you work at a computer every day, you’re probably very familiar with the concept.

My ongoing goal is to keep the “value” of this meter at golf-like digits. Zero – par – is the ultimate achievement. This occurs, usually, only when I take explicit vacations. No coding, no music composition, no client work. Nothing but rest.

Any other time, this meter is at a non-zero integer value. It gradually grows, me being quietly aware of the rising value.

I like to think that most of the things that contribute to burn-out I’ve corrected, or have cut them out of my life, whenever it was practical.

Yet the biggest offender remains – the big one that controls and feeds the others: I never shut up.

If you’re an introvert, imagine with me a world with these variables changed:

  • You are now super charming and curious; nearly every encounter, from gas stations to restaurants to parties, and nearly everything in between, usually results in conversation with someone you didn’t know before that moment.

Sounds like a TED talk moment, I know. Indulge me – don’t close this browser tab yet:

  • You make friends easily.
  • You enjoy helping others, and find yourself your mouth volunteering for things before you know what’s going on.

Aww, isn’t that sweet. At a distance, with limits, sure. At this level, no. Very much no. In writing, I realize, it could seem like I’m steering this toward telling you to open up more or whatever, or that I may be bragging about some magical insight I have into the human condition.

Not the case. Here’s why – the most important variable is this:

  • You can’t turn it off. Why? I have no idea. 2
  • Ultimately, it’s because you (I) have a problem shutting your (my) big mouth.

Here’s a practical example. Let’s say you’re waiting in a queue/check-out line, at a consumer goods store. A person walks by, and you notice they have a very pleasant, familiar smell. Oh! It’s pipe tobacco and lilacs – a unique combination. Or maybe it’s a particular perfume, combined with the smell of cedar.

Why is this smell so familiar to you? You struggle to wring the reason from your mind, as the stranger gradually fades from your life. Milliseconds become centuries as you mine your thoughts for the source. Silently, in another part of your brain, you wonder why this is so fucking important a task to you.

Finally, you arrive. Your mind gifts you the source of this olfactory bliss: Your uncle’s friend, the owner of that neat little horse farm in upstate New York. Or perhaps it’s your aunt, or a former teacher, or your old cell-mate Joey.

By now, there’s only one person left in the line ahead of you. The lovely-smelling person is about twenty paces away. What do you do?

Gradually, I’ve learned that the most common thing to do is apparently to remain internal. You thank your nifty brain for giving you the memory. Maybe you call the lovely-smelling benefactor from your past, or you go purchase some pipe tobacco and lilacs. What you don’t do is leave the line, and go talk to the lovely-smelling stranger, because that’s weird.

And how would you phrase something like that? Um excuse me, you smell good. Why do you smell good? Can I be your friend? Let me smell your hair.

Of course not. Back to the scene; now it’s your turn in line. You pay for whatever it is you came for, and get in your car.

I do not; I’ve already been talking with the lovely-smelling stranger for two minutes by this moment.

I won’t attempt to articulate how one approaches others in these contexts, or how to phrase things like this – I’m sure many have done exactly that. But on that note, I can assure you – there’s always a way to phrase it.

More importantly, why did I leave the line? Infinity. That really is the reason.

  • What if they’ve had a nearly identical life to the person in your past which has that same wonderful smell? How weird would that be?
  • What if you introduce the two of them – new good-smelly and past good-smelly – and they end up writing the most amazing 80s pop-synth album the world has ever heard?
  • What if this person has a badass pair of neon orange pants, and through a gradually growing friendship, they end up giving those pants to you next spring, which results in you looking great on that particular day next spring, which results in someone else approaching you that later becomes your husband/wife/partner, which results in you having a child who, in her twenty-third year, invents a completely renewable energy source, which results in all of humanity having access to computers and clean drinking water, which results in a young boy from rural India receiving a computer they would’ve otherwise never had, which results in he and his sister studying theoretical astrophysics on their own, which results in them creating a new Grand Unified Theory, which results in scientists being able to create the first, true, faster-than-light spaceship engine, which results in our species finally being free of the chains of our solar system, which results in humanity finally being a member of the galactic community? 3

Don’t get me wrong, I hate people, too. But I love people. Learning about the complexities and ideas from another mind, to me, are irresistible. But my lack of an off switch can take a huge toll on free time, and, eventually, I’d think, sanity.

You know what prompted this post? I got up at 6, went for a run. Then I went to the store. Talked with some people, then we had breakfast at their house, and I showed the dad how to reset a router. This is the second time something like that has happened this month. 4

I had no awareness that this is uncommon behavior, until some friends, over several gradual conversations – some spanning many years – pointed it out in different ways.

That spawned a journey that eventually, this year, has lead me to this conclusion:

I need to shut the hell up.

The other side of this is my professional life. I’ve spoken at a fair quantity of conferences, and have had the opportunity to teach or lecture on behalf of some universities. What began happening, gradually, is a compulsion to speak. At times, speaking was no more than an excuse to see friends. I soon began repeating talks, or hastily preparing slides.

It wasn’t until my last speaking engagement – one for which I invested a considerable amount of time and effort – that I realized this should be every talk. If I can’t do this for every talk, I’m wasting everyone’s time.

I have little interest in speaking on instructional matters, eg “How to use (some code library intro, or programming style)”. That’s likely so because I don’t learn that way. I learn code-related things by doing. The best talks I’ve attended left me energized and inspired. The technical side of things I pursue later. I’m there to listen to the person, their experience, and what they’re sharing.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m shutting up unless I feel I have something of that quality prepared.

This is the first New Year’s Resolution I’ve ever made.

So far I’m doing OK with items that are somewhat easier to manage:

  • No conference-speaking engagements accepted or applied-to
  • No volunteering for code or music projects just because it seems cool.

The one-off social contexts are a bit tougher to see developing, though. How do you say no to extended conversations with strangers, or lunch with an interesting person? I think I’ll keep those.

  1. I will, however, always try to say no to the following: (1) requests for custom projects, and (2) my own capacity to over-engineer things.

  2. I’m a developer, not a psychologist! Haha we have fun around here.jim

  3. carl-sagan-dope

  4. the other was playing video games in a Target break-room. I do not work at Target.

Author: Rami