The words rattled out of my high school music director's mouth as I and a few dozen other adolescents were off in our own worlds when we should have been rehearsing. Vic was an excellent music director, a tall man with gray hair and a mustache who always wore a handkerchief around his neck. No one would ever mistakenly believe that he had a job outside of the performing arts. He addressed each of us by our character names, not by our real names; we were our characters for the 2-3 hours of rehearsal time and he made sure we knew it.
"Be here now," he would exclaim whenever the group lost focus. Which was frequent because, of course, we were teenagers. "We all have other things to worry about, but while you're here, focus on what we're trying to do. Leave your baggage at the door of the auditorium - you can pick it back up on your way out."
We all would refocus for at least a short period of time. That's really about all you can expect from high school kids who are all hanging around after class to sing showtunes and perform jazz squares in front of their friends. Years later, in my profession as a technologist, the lesson I didn't quite understand at 16 has become incredibly clear.
Being a technologist leads to meeting other technologists. They can introduce you to more technologists and before you know it, you're surrounded by them every single moment. Technologists are great: intelligent and opinionated and frequently lacking the eloquence to deliver his or her thoughts in a way that is palatable to those around them. And they love their toys. Specifically, the type of toys that are powered by microchips and connected to the Internet.
Technologists also tend to pride themselves on being excellent multitaskers. Why just watch TV when I could also be doing my taxes, following Twitter, and updating my Facebook status? Look at everything I can accomplish in the time you're just doing one thing! Thus, the iPhone became a must-have accessory for technologists due to its enabling of this behavior everywhere. Gone were the days when one might stand in line and start a conversation with the person in front of you. In its place, a line of multiple people each hunched over with a little black box in their hand trying to see what else is going on in the world. One might say that these people are everywhere but here now.
We feel that all this multitasking makes us more efficient. Yet studies are starting to show that ours brains are just not wired to handle this type of processing. In fact, the more multitasking that you do, the worse your performance becomes. Even though we feel superior for accomplishing many things at a time, we're actually performing these tasks at a lower level than those who are shuffling fewer tasks. What's more, there is a high correlation between those who multitask and those who suffer from anxiety. It appears that the brain just doesn't like constant context switching to keep up with doing multiple things at once.
If you look at the computer screen of the average software engineer, you'll likely see the following:
- Instant message client
- Twitter client
- Web browser (for Facebook, personal email, etc.)
- Text editor (for writing code)
- Mail client (for business email)
Some others might augment their desktop with additional information about weather or stocks. I know that I found myself switching attention between these, plus my stock ticker, constantly throughout the day. I felt like the day was moving incredibly fast and I was fighting to keep up. Switching back and forth furiously I started to find that I was missing important details. As it turns out, this is very common among multitaskers.
Last year, I made a decision to start making my daily workload easier: I stopped checking personal email during weekdays. That was one less thing I needed to do at work while I should be, you know, doing work. A lot of my friends rolled their eyes, some were angry that I wouldn't be responding immediately, and almost all thought I could never do it. Now, a year and a half later, people just know that this is the way I deal with personal email. What I found most interesting in my experience was how my life felt almost instantly less stressful. One less thing to do. Phew.
I later had a discussion about this with my friend Nicole as she explained her growing frustration with the amount of things she had to do. She had started taking a mindfulness meditation class and really enjoyed it (she then wrote about it on her blog). Around the same time I happened to see Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows (a book about our multitasking Internet culture) on the Colbert Report. He mentioned that the more we multitask, the worse we get at deep thinking. I know this because I have the video playing in the corner of my monitor while I'm writing this post.
Since then, I've been actively trying to limit the amount of multitasking I do. When my stock ticker mysteriously stopped working on my desktop, I just removed it instead of trying to fix it. The same with my Twitter client. My stress level started to drop. At home, I stopped eating in front of the TV, instead sitting at the dinner table. I made lists of tasks to complete and made sure that they were listed in priority order so I could read from top-to-bottom and focus on each individual task. When I'm writing, I now keep my IM client closed and force myself to finish the article before moving on to something else. And whenever I catch myself multitasking, I whisper, "be here now."
The technologists with whom I work are frequently not here now. I firmly believe that in order to do the best job possible, you must be able to focus on whatever is happening now. It enrages me to no end when a meeting starts and everyone is on their laptops doing something else. There is no way that meeting can be anything close to productive. Arguments about whether or not there should be a meeting in the first place aside, if you're in a meeting, you should be paying complete attention so that you can get out of the meeting as quickly as possible. The only time I bring a computer to a meeting is when I'm presenting. Any other time I carry with me a notepad and pen.
If I'm running a meeting, I usually ask everyone to close their laptops and put away their iPhones before we get started. Be here now. All of us. If there's something so important that you can't afford to put your laptop away for the entirety of the meeting, then you really shouldn't be in that meeting - you should be tending to whatever crisis requires your full attention. The interesting thing is that, while people groan, my meetings tend to finish early and achieve their stated goal.
I'm not completely satisfied with my current mode of thinking. Years of multitasking have most assuredly wreaked havoc on my neurons and it will likely take some time to get back into the deep thinking mode. I definitely want to take a mindfulness class and need to continue to work to focus on individual tasks one at a time. In the meantime, I will continue to look for easy ways to eliminate multitasking and continue to whisper to myself, "be here now."
A couple of months ago I was giving what would turn out to be a really fun talk at the jQuery Conference in Mountain View, California. Prior to going up, someone said to me, "you know, you're a much better speaker now than when you first started." I was taken aback, both by the graciousness of the compliment and the attention that this person had paid to me over the years. This is the type of compliment that everyone wishes they receive and yet seldom do. And such, I began to ponder what I'd changed in speaking style over the years to arrive at being "much better" than I was.
As some people know, I have a background in acting. In high school and college I managed to get involved in all manner of performance, including musicals, dramas, improv, dancing, and even standup comedy. Stage fright has never been a problem for me - sure, I get nervous, but it's a nervous excitement that pushes me. If I were to compare the type of speaking I do now to any of the other performance types in which I've participated, I'd say it's closest to standup comedy. I don't say that because technology is inherently funny, or because I'm inherently funny, just that it's the same type of work.
In standup comedy, you are the actor, the writer, and the director all rolled up into one; if you bomb, you have no one to blame but yourself. You prepare like crazy, trying to understand your audience and practicing material over and over. If you're lucky, you pull someone in to critique you, but the final responsibility for the performance lies squarely on your own shoulders. Any part of it could go wrong: you could create the wrong character, the writing could be horrible, or the delivery could be off. All of these are still present in speaking at conferences.
So what happened to me? Looking back to four years ago when I gave my first public talk, I think almost everything was wrong. The character I chose unconsciously wasn't terribly effective - he was this aggressive lecturer, desperately seeking to prove he knew what he was talking about. He spoke at you instead of to you. I remember reading a comment from someone saying that he liked my content but not my speaking style. Looking back, I completely agree. The style wasn't conducive to my goal of teaching.
Seeking to improve, I sought out role models to emulate. I saw a lot of talks, watched a lot of speakers that were good and a lot that were bad, and came out with a lot of ideas. There are a few people in particular that stick out to me:
- Nate Koechley - When I got to Yahoo!, Nate was the resident rockstar evangelist. He traveled all around the world giving talks...and they were all damn good. The thing I loved about his presentations was the story he weaved into the talk. It wasn't just a bunch of random data, it was a journey along a path to discovery. I also loved his presentation slides - he had this great way of including photos that really brought the deck to life. Those who've been in my recent talks will note a liberal use of photos in my slides.
- Bill Scott - I also met Bill working at Yahoo!, but the first time I got to see him talk was actually once he left. Bill came back to Yahoo! to do a talk and the one thing that stuck out to me about his presentation was the tone of voice. Instead of sounding like a lecturer, Bill sounded like a guy who just having an informal conversation with a friend. In effect, the audience and he were sitting around a dinner table discussing technology. The talk was entirely comfortable and you felt completely comfortable asking questions because of the personal connection. Ever since I saw that talk, I tried to change my tone into more of a conversational one (I frequently also encourage people to interrupt me as I'm going along).
- Jonathan Coulton - Okay, JoCo isn't a speaker, he's a comedian singer/songwriter. But as I said earlier, I compare public speaking to being a comedian, so where better to look for inspiration? The thing I love about JoCo is his ability to banter. In between songs, he seemingly just says whatever comes to mind without attempting to be funny. The humor comes on its own through his wit, but there aren't any jokes per se. Because of this approach, he can easily react to outbursts from the audience - it's all just coming out of his mouth as it flows into his brain. He tends to say "um" and "ah" a lot, which we're always told is a Very Bad Thing for speakers. Yet in this context doing so actually makes him seem that much more human, and that's important in getting the audience to react positively. For instance, I love the small bit of banter at the beginning of this clip.
Patterning parts of my presentations against these three, I arrived at a character that I think works pretty well: myself. I was definitely not being myself when I gave my first few talks. People who know me know that I'm about the least serious person you'd meet, I'm kind of geeky, I make really bad jokes and am incredibly sarcastic. I tried to suppress all of that early in my speaking career and it just didn't work.
Now when I go up in front of people to speak, I don't switch into a different mode, it's still just me talking about something or other. I make sure that I have good story to tell, that my tone is conversational, and that I just say whatever pops into my head as I'm going along. With a couple of exceptions, I don't try to be funny. Trying to be funny backfires way too often. If I happen to be funny as I'm telling my story, then so be it - but it's not really a goal. My goal is to provide information in a way that's easily consumable, and I do that by being myself.
I'll be the first to admit that I'm a big fan of Gordon Ramsay. I think he's one of the most interesting characters on TV and you can be sure that both Hell's Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares are set to record on my DVR. For those unfamiliar, Ramsay is usually shown on commercials screaming vulgarities at seemingly hapless chefs who are on the verge of tears. Yes, some people tune in to these shows to watch him explode over incorrectly prepared entrees and cold appetizers, but there are really important leadership lessons to be found if you strip away the obscenities from Ramsay's language.
Before going further, I first must say that I don't condone calling co-workers names or swearing at them, as Ramsay often does on his shows. What I constantly find impressive is how the contestants and restauranteurs responds to him. There is never a doubt, at any point in time, that Ramsay is in charge. Even when people start to yell back at him, he still appears cool, in control, and unphased. And at the end of it all, most of the people thank him for everything he's done. I really wanted to take a moment and think about how he accomplishes all of this and how it boils down to a few simple rules.
Don't accept mediocrity
Ramsay hates mediocrity. When he says something is "unexciting" or "safe", it's a bad thing. He doesn't want people to be average or dishes to be passable, he wants them to be great. His job, as he sees it, is to bring everyone up a level or two. This is what separates great individuals from great leaders: making the others around you better.
Sports are a place where this typically comes up a lot. In basketball, for instance, there have been many great scorers such as Allen Iverson. The reason he's talked about differently than players like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan is that Iverson was a selfish player while the others were selfless. Even today, players like LeBron James and Kevin Garnett push their teammates to be better, to keep working harder.
Gordon Ramsay does the same. Though some of his tactics are a bit over the top, in the end, everyone respects him for having pushed them harder. When he finally does say, "nice job," you know it's well-deserved.
Be equally quick to criticize and praise
It's hard for some people to realize when Ramsay is complimenting someone because he's so much more subdued than when he's criticizing. The important thing, though, is that he's just as quick to praise as he is to criticize. Ramsay isn't looking for an excuse to tear down the next hapless soul he comes across, he's just providing his honest feedback to the person. Whether that feedback be positive or negative, it comes just as quickly as is delivered with an accompanying about of enthusiasm or dismay.
I think this is an important lesson for leaders of all kinds. You won't be looked upon favorably if you only ever point out what people do wrong. You don't want to be known as the "bad news" person or the dark cloud that's always circling above. Making sure to find opportunities to praise at least as often as you criticize earns you much more respect from teammates.
Give actionable feedback
Whether the feedback is positive or negative, Ramsay always provides details. Always. Though he may drop a few f-bombs in the middle when complaining, he'll also say, "too salty" or "it's raw" or "overcooked" or "too dry." All of this is actionable feedback: the chefs can take that information and make adjustments to fix it. This is the mark of an excellent leader, someone who not only points out what is wrong but how to correct it the next time.
Positive feedback is also presented by Ramsay with details. Cooked perfectly. Love the seasoning. Tender and moist, delicious. Once again, this feedback is actionable because you know exactly what he wants to see the next time. Just saying "good job" doesn't mean much, saying it and accompanying with details about why something was done well is far more useful and the mark of a good leader.
Don't fight fire with fire
One of the most interesting traits of Ramsay is how he deals with people who are yelling and arguing with him. Normally, he's the one doing the yelling. If someone starts to yell back, Ramsay completely shifts gears. First, there's a bit of a test to see if the person will back down: he restates what he just said and asks the person to accept the feedback (using colorful language, frequently). If the other person still doesn't back down, he actually gets quieter instead of escalating by increasing his volume to try to top the other person.
One of the most impressive things I saw recently on an episode of Kitchen Nightmares was when a chef lost it and started yelling at Ramsay. Ramsay stopped talking immediately, let the chef get his thoughts out, then calmly stated, "why are you doing this?" It was amazing how quickly things calmed down after that. Even for someone as loud and prone to yelling at Ramsay, it's important to understand the value of changing gears when someone else is riled up.
Discuss big disagreements privately
Although some contestants on Hell's Kitchen would certainly say that Ramsay "humiliated" them in one way or another, it's been my observation that he actually tries to avoid doing that. He'll give his unfiltered, direct feedback to whomever needs it. If that feedback isn't received, or he senses there's something else going on, Ramsay quickly asks the person to speak privately. Only in private does he say the things that could potentially give others the wrong idea.
I can't tell you how often I see people continue arguments via email or in a large group when they should be taken offline and discussed privately. There is no better way to communicate clearly than to talk face-to-face with someone. I've personally experienced drawn-out arguments come to a close in just five minutes of personal discussion. Without an audience, people are free to drop their egos and defense mechanisms, and things get done much faster and more amicably.
Be willing to apologize
As I mentioned previously, I'm always impressed at how Ramsay stays in control no matter the situation. It doesn't matter who's yelling at him or even if someone threatens to beat him up (as happened last season), he stays incredibly poised and calm without backing down. I love watching how he reacts in different situations to keep control. One particularly interesting moment happened on season five of Hell's Kitchen, where on chef named Robert had a nasty altercation with Ramsay.
During the heat of competition, Ramsay had taken to calling Robert "Bobby" instead of his name (or other choice of nicknames referring to his weight). Robert grew angrier and angrier, and as a result, his performance suffered and Ramsay called him on it. It was clear that Robert was incredibly upset, moreso than just your average contestant that Ramsay yelled at.
Robert requested that he speak to Ramsay in private, and Ramsay agreed, calling him up to his office for a closed-door meeting. Once inside, Robert calmly explained that "Bobby" isn't his name, it's his father's name, and indicated that he does not have a good relationship with father and doesn't want to be reminded of him. He said being called "Bobby" brought back a lot of painful memories and that's why he couldn't perform as well as he liked in the kitchen.
I waited in anticipation to see how Ramsay would handle this situation. At this point, though, I should have guessed. He apologized. But he didn't just say, "I'm sorry." Instead, he spoke with the same level of detail as if he was providing feedback on his own behavior. He said that he didn't realize calling him Bobby would be so painful, he apologized and said that Robert had his word: he would never call him Bobby again.
It was a particularly poignant moment and it really opened my eyes to Ramsay's thought process. He knew, in this case, that he had unintentionally caused emotional harm to someone. He wanted Robert to pick up the pace, yes, but he had no intention of taking him back to a painful moment in his life. By apologizing to Robert, sincerely and completely, he gained Robert's respect and they have a good relationship for the rest of the show until Robert was excused for medical reasons.
Leadership lessons abound
As with any skill, it's important to look for people from whom you can learn, and leadership is a skill just like any other. I once again want to state that I disagree with Ramsay's constant name-calling and vulgarity to get his point across. It makes him a more interesting TV character, but that's not the part I'd advise anyone to emulate. Rather, his actions and attention to detail are truly impressive. His ability to keep calm in all situations, the way that other rally around him, and how almost everyone he comes across eventually ends up grateful for his advice and assistance. Clearly, there's something going on here.
People respect strong leaders even when those leaders have glaring weaknesses. Sometimes, they respect leaders more because of those weaknesses and human frailties. So I'll keep looking for people from whom I can learn the delicate skill of leadership, and I have no doubt that there will be more surprising sources in the future.
In the beginning, there was MySpace, and it was good. Okay, maybe not good, per se, but its usage pattern was simple. Create a page with stuff that you want everyone in the world to see, including but not limited to animated backgrounds, music videos of your favorite artists, and pictures of you and your friends. Being a "friend" on MySpace was more like being someone's fan, and so you acted accordingly. And if you didn't, well, you were dumb and things went south for you very quickly.
The next generation of social networks were quite different than MySpace's "anything goes" policy. In the triumverate of Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, we now have purposeful social networks that have characteristics designed specifically for their intended usage.
Twitter is very public (unless you choose for it to be private), but minimal harm can be done 140 characters at a time...unless you're a professional athlete. Posting something on Twitter is generally akin to saying something over the loud speaker in a crowded mall. You want random people you don't know to care about what you're saying. I'm not sure Twitter could have come up with a more appropriate term than "follow" to describe how people are connected on the network. It really is a place for fans and groupies to keep tabs on interesting, funny, famous, or (insert another adjective here) people.
LinkedIn is interesting because it straddles the line of personal and public information. We all have resumes floating out there with our personal information on it. Of course, as these are used for professional matters, we're very careful about the included information. There will be no photos of us at the beach attached to our resumes, unless of course you're an actor or model, in which case you're not reading this post anyway. Since the focus of LinkedIn is to build professional relationships, the entire site is focused around your resume and the information it reveals. No one is going onto LinkedIn to chat but you will receive emails from recruiters and updates about colleagues, both current and former, and what they're doing in their careers. Useful stuff if you're serious about your own career.
I consider Facebook to be the most private of the three social networks. You can't see information about anyone that's not a friend unless they specifically enable it (opposite of the MySpace model), and even so, the focus is less on your personal information and more on what you're doing. Facebook is about keeping tabs on people you already know moreso than meeting new people, and it does that very well.
Since more or less everyone is on these three networks, it's not uncommon to receive requests to follow, connect, or friend someone on every single one. Since I'm moderately geek-famous (or geek-infamous, to some), I get a lot of requests from pretty much everyone. This led me to create my own rules for who I'll allow to connect with me on various networks.
First and foremost, Twitter is my public voice (follow me at @slicknet). I say things on Twitter that are mostly related to web development, software, and other geek topics since I know most of my followers found me through my books or talks. My Twitter stream is completely public and I know enough not to say anything that will get me in trouble (most of the time, anyways). You, your mom, your cousins, your boyfriend, your spouse, they're all welcome to follow me on Twitter.
LinkedIn is a bit different. I do use this to keep in touch with people who are related to my career. I don't accept LinkedIn invites from just anyone, though. Basically, I accept if one of the following is true:
- If I've worked with you at a company and we had a good working relationship.
- If I've met you at some professional event, such as a conference, and we had a non-trivial discussion.
- If we've only ever conversed through electronic means and I respect your work.
- If you helped me find a job at some point.
To me, accepting a connection on LinkedIn is similar to writing you a recommendation. That means I don't accept invites from people I've never met, and I definitely don't accept invites from random recruiters who send me generic intro emails. I'm sorry, I also don't accept invites from fans.
Facebook is the most private for me. There is just one way you become a friend of mine on Facebook: if you're someone that I'd invite over to my place for a party. That's it. If I wouldn't invite you to my place, you're not my Facebook friend. Yes, that means the number of Facebook friends I have is shockingly low (currently 138, though if I looked closely, I bet I could get that number to be even lower), and I like it that way. The types of things I post on Facebook are personal and intended for the eyes of people that I trust. This means that I don't accept friend requests from fans of my work (please follow me on Twitter!) and it also means that I don't accept friend requests from random people from my past. Just because we went to elementary, middle, or high school together doesn't automatically mean I'll accept your request.
Becoming my friend on Facebook means that you're a part of my life in some meaningful way or else you're a really hot girl (boy, that's gonna get me in trouble, but hey, just being honest!). Just because you were a part of my life one, five, ten, or more years ago doesn't mean that you're going to be a part of it now. Co-workers are always tough, but I still follow the same general rule about inviting them over. If I wouldn't invite them over, then they're not my Facebook friend.
I hope everyone can understand that this is the way I need to manage my digital social life to keep myself sane and also to be prudent about what information I share in which forum. We all have ways of dealing with our lives, and this is mine, so please don't take offense if I don't accept your connection of friend request. I'm just trying to keep the dividing lines in my life very clear for my own benefit and the benefit of those with whom I'm close.
Reader Sammy Rashidchi commented on a previous post about wanting recommendations for more reading about social interaction. Frequent readers know that this area is of extreme interest to me and I've done a lot of reading about the topic. So here's a list of books I recommend if you want to learn more about how people interact with one another. This isn't an exhaustive list, but it's a good start:
- Get Anyone To Do Anything (Lieberman) - The name of the book sounds a little creepy and mind control-ish, but really it's a fairly tame look at what influences people in certain situations. You really can't get anyone to do anything, but you can manipulate situations so that the outcome is a desirable one. The book is filled with interesting anecdotes from studies about human behavior and social interaction to back up the suggestions. Well worth the read.
- The Art of Seduction (Greene) - Another one that sounds much more devious than it actually is. The purpose of this book is to explore seductive character traits, understanding how famous seducers throughout history were able to use their charm to get their way. We're not just talking about romantic seduction, but also political and business seduction. The book explains the different seduction techniques as well as their downfalls. Seduction is not about capturing someone's heart, it's about capturing someone's mind and imagination.
- How To Talk To Anyone (Lowndes) - This book is mistitled because it's about much more than just talking to people, it's about interacting with them in general. The focus of the book is how to be in control of each situation and, more importantly, how to show others respect make them want to interact with you more. I consider this book "light" reading because it flows from one situation to the next and gives an almost checklist-like description of what to do (and what to avoid).
That's just a taste of the books that are good starting points for better understanding human interaction. There's so many more books on my reading list that I haven't yet gotten to but look promising, as well. I'll be sure to post reviews of them as I finish.
I was reading an interesting entry over at fellow Yahoo Luke Wroblewski's blog entitled, Why Designers Fail. The entry outlines research done by Scott Berkun regarding the career of designers and why some fail to achieve the results they desire. Luke sums up the findings nicely saying that many of the reasons why designers fail have little to do with the design skills of the designer: "Many top reasons for failure are not typically considered design issues, such as collaboration skills, persuasion skills, and receiving critical feedback."
What struck me most about the findings were that these skills are things that could hold back anyone in their career. Actually, reading the entry reminded me of one of the first conversations I had with my current manager at Yahoo! His words still ring in my ears from time to time: "At this point, we already know that you have all the technical skills to do the job; what determines how far you'll go is really more about how you deal with people."
I believe this is true for nearly any profession. When you begin your career, it's important to prove that you have the skills to do the job. Writers must prove they can write, designers must prove that they can designer, teachers must prove that they can teach. After proving you can do the job, you need to show that you can continue to grow in the role. This means learning new skills, making fewer mistakes, and being able to do the job without oversight. At this level, what you're really doing is earning the trust of your superiors and co-workers. After that comes the point at which many people fail: evolution into a piece of the organization. This typically begins the conversation about the Peter principle.
The Peter principle says that you'll keep getting promoted until you finally end up in a job that you can't do. This happens because the higher up in the organizational structure you move, the less your technical skills matter and the more your people skills matter. So whereas you began in a position that played to your strengths, you end up in one that plays to your weakenesses. This is precisely what Berkun found in his study, that designers were failing due to factors outside of their design skills. That is why designers fail. It's also why software engineers fail.
Designers and software engineers, once they rise high enough in the organizational hierarchy, both need to learn how to work within the organizational structure. Oftentimes, that means gaining the trust of business partners: designers need to gain the trust of engineers, engineers need to gain the trust of product managers. Gaining the trust of these business partners means being able to successfully negotiate, compromise, and work towards meeting a common goal without alienating people through your actions and speech. This is typically where people falter in their careers.
Yahoo! is a huge company, and this year I've had to learn how to play the organizational game. I can honestly say it's been far more challenging than anything I've done before. Dealing with people is much more difficult than dealing with technology, that's for sure. You need to understand what each person responds to in terms of approach. Some people will easily cave when pressure is applied, others need to be convinced through logical argument while another set may require emotional persuasion. And of course, all of this must be done while making sure that all of these people still respect you and don't feel manipulated.
Fortunately, my interest and research in social interaction has really helped me thusfar. Understanding what drives people and how to communicate effectively have been key to me. If you have aspirations of moving up in your company, then it would behoove you to also start researching these topics. The only way to really get ahead in business is a better understanding of people. Hard skill jobs such as engineers and designers are commodities that can easily be outsourced if necessary; soft skill jobs requiring you to work with and inspire others will always be in high demand and, as a bonus, can never be outsourced. Mastering people skills ensures employability, and more importantly, ensures that you won't fail.
"Wow, she is cute," I exclaimed to my friend who had just showed sent me a photo of a girl on Facebook.
"I know," he said, "but I wouldn't put a comment to that effect in the message. I'm not sure if she'll get to see it or not."
I admit that I was late to the Facebook phenomenon. I was already out of college when I first heard about it, and at that time, you could only sign up using a college email address. I signed up for an account when Facebook opened up enrollment to everyone just to see what it was all about. I played around for a bit and didn't get it at all. My account remained mostly unused for months.
Slowly, people started finding me and friending me on Facebook. I'd log in just to accept the friend request (to be polite) and would often get stuck reading something about someone I knew. Then the games started. Friends would start challenging me to any number of online games. Being the incredibly competitive person that I am, I could resist. Any loss meant I immediately had to challenge them back. I hate losing and the thirst for instant revenge was easily quenched.
As my network grew, so did my usage of Facebook. I went from only logging in when someone sent me a friend request to logging in just to see what everyone was doing. And then doing that multiple times a day. And that's why Facebook is the phenomenon that it is, because it encourages what has become known as "check in" behavior. You feel compelled to constantly check in with Facebook to see what's going on. It taps into the voyeuristic side in all of us, both the part that loves watching others and the part that loves being watched.
Following the conversation with my friend, I realized that Facebook isn't just a social network; Facebook is actually a society in and of itself. There is only one rule in this society: complete transparency. When you become a member, you agree to broadcast all kinds of information about yourself with the understanding that anyone who knows you will receive it. Anything you do within the confines of this society is fair game, and further, you're encouraged to share what you're doing outside of the society as well. Integrations with your Flickr and Delicious accounts will inform others when you've made changes, you can automatically import your blog postings, and tell everyone what videos you've watched on YouTube.
Facebook fascinates me from a social interaction point of view. It answers the question, "what would it be like if everyone knew what everyone else was doing?" In this society, your friends all know when you've met someone new, when you've started dating someone, when you've broken up, when you've changed jobs, when you've moved, and more. The complete and utter transparency of Facebook interactions actually forces members to change their behavior. Everyone knows that if they do something offensive within the network, anyone they're connected with will be informed...instantly. As a result, the Facebook society becomes almost self-regulating. The transparency that inspires openness also inspires fear. The fear of being ostracized from the rest of society is a strong enough force to alter one's behavior. That fear is evident in the conversation with my friend; neither of us wanted this girl to know that our conversation had happened and so we altered our behavior to ensure that.
Now imagine that the same social interaction rules applied in real life. The conversation with my friend would mean that this girl receives a notification that I thought she was cute. This happens because he is actually friends with her and friends with me, so that common connection opens up the door for information. If I knew that this was the consequence of mentioning how cute I thought this girl was, I'd think twice before stating it publicly. In fact, I'd probably only say it if I had some belief that she'd welcome the compliment and be potentially interested in pursuing a romantic relationship.
Imagine that. A society where people actually think about the consequences of what they say and do because they know their actions aren't secret. Imagine how real life would change if people behaved like this every day. Imagine getting a message, "Michael just cheated on his wife" or "James nearly hit an old lady crossing the street because he wasn't paying attention." That's what a fully transparent society would be like. And you can experience it today on Facebook.
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