I used to think I was learning something when I found out how old a person is, but it turns out I was looking at the wrong end of the timeline.
Someone’s current age will reveal something about their health or whether they'll respond to a text with "LOL" or an emoji, but the real insight comes from considering the world of their births.
When Abraham Lincoln was born, Thomas Jefferson was president and Kentucky was the nation’s frontier. When Ronald Reagan was born, marijuana was legal under federal law, but banned in California, and the first radio station was nine years from launch. When Oprah Winfrey was born, she was legally prohibited from attending school with whites in her home state. These and other situations provided the backdrop for what they would read, whom they would meet, how they would perceive their communities and how they would live as adults.
In a way, we have several birth years, each related to a particular type of maturity. What year was it when we first became aware of world events? What was happening in the economy when we started to earn a living, or save for retirement? What were the parenting trends when we had children, or when our parents had us? The stories of our lives are written against a backdrop of social, political, and economic events that etch their own imprint into our worldviews.
I was born five weeks before Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union and 11 months before Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy opened his infamous hearings into Communists in our government. We held air raid drills at school, standing in front of our lockers to shield ourselves from the nuclear bombs the Soviets might drop on us. I am, in many ways, a product of the Cold War, and I have no doubt that my parents’ approach to childrearing reflected their own experiences with the Depression, World War II and the Red Scare.
I joined the workforce in the 1970s, when inflation was high, stock prices were low, and oil prices were skyrocketing. Those patterns have influenced my approach to our finances for more than 40 years. If I had begun working five years earlier, or five years later, my perceptions and discipline would be much different today.
Usually, we discuss age groups in wide swaths, like 18-34 or 40-65, but this generic approach hides a ton of detail that would help us understand each other better. Even our preoccupation with “generations” (Boomer, X, Y, Millennial, Zombie, Codger) mixes too many variables when it comes to understanding any specific person.
Clearly, we don’t learn much when we ask someone how old they are now. The more relevant question is, “How old were you when….?”
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I know a number of people who never want to be early for anything, and they drive me crazy. (Okay, it’s more a putt than a drive, but it pushes my buttons either way.)
The people I am talking about—and they know who they are—seem to view punctuality as a power struggle. They believe the person who arrives first has the most free time and, therefore, is least important. The person who is last to arrive finds everyone else waiting for him, which means HE is the most important. Everyone else has lost status while he was texting in the driveway.
This is actually a cultural protocol in some nations, especially in business meetings, so I see the point about status, but I’m happy to give the power to whomever needs it most. If someone feels special because I am waiting for them, that’s my no-cost gift to their egos. If they get off on the idea that I’m anxiously longing for their arrival, I’m happy to bring joy to their (terribly insecure) lives.
My own view of time is not quite so hierarchical, and I find it very helpful to arrive early.
When I get somewhere ahead of schedule, I can stop in at the men’s room to see if I’m having a bad hair day or if I’m suffering from booger droop. I can check my notes to remind myself why I am here, or I can find out whether Beyonce liked my like on Insta. If it’s a social event, I get to spend more time with friends, shoveling, um, wisdom on them from the moment the bar opens until they’re stacking the chairs.
Mostly, I like being early because it lets me finish early, which I think of as highly efficient and productive. If we can start 15 minutes ahead of schedule, we can finish early, as well, and I can free up more time to watch Jeopardy!. (I feel so much smarter now that James is gone.)
Yes, there are those unfortunate days when I arrive a half hour early and my interlocutor is 20 minutes late and I run out of posts to like or BREAKING NEWS!!! from CNN. By the time the meeting begins, I’m feeling like a real putz for cooling my heels for almost an hour, and I have no doubt that the person I am meeting feels the same way about me.
Of course, if I was really worried about other people’s disapproval, I’d never venture out of the apartment and I’d hide in the closet when the Grub Hub guy shows up with my donuts. But I am braver than that, ready to put myself out there and risk being thought of as less important than the alpha in the room.
If I’m ever an hour early, though, I think I’ll just spend some time loitering in the men’s room. As regular readers know, that’s always a source of mirth.
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Ransoming our privacy, big words, and the illusion of knowledge, among other deep thoughts for this week…
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I spent a good portion of my life on the commuter train, juggling a cup of coffee and a donut and a broadsheet newspaper or two. When boredom set in, I’d play a game I almost always lost: Seat Selection Psychic.
Anyone can play a round of on the train, the bus, a fast-food restaurant…pretty much anywhere that seats aren’t assigned in advance. Somebody walks in and you try to anticipate where they will plant themselves for the duration of their visit. Aisle or window? Booth or table? Alone or next to someone? Same sex or opposite?
Per usual, this game said nothing about the people I was watching, because it was really a test of the assumptions I make when I first see someone. What’s their gender, race, age? How are they dressed? Are they carrying coffee or a briefcase or a grocery bag or a protest sign? We use all of these visual cues to get a sense of who the person is, whether they are friendly or cold or professional or unemployed or fugitives from another galaxy.
I know a few people who would be wizards at this game, but I am clearly a Muggle. Over a period of years, I don’t think I ever predicted the new rider’s destination accurately. Still, the exercise reminded me about the limited insights provided by first impressions.
People, like ogres, are like onions. It takes a while to peel back all the layers. Some people grow on you as you get to know them better, while others prove to be less human than they appeared at first. We like to pride ourselves on our ability to size people up quickly, but we’re off base much more often than we’d want to admit.
It might be true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but we have many chances to make a good impression or, at least, a real one. Fairly often, I’ve found my first impressions to be just a trifle shallow and arrogant, only to be softened and better informed by subsequent encounters. That experience has made me better at withholding judgment, which just might enable me to get better at life.
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Maybe they don’t mean it that way, or perhaps they do, but there are some statements that I hear repeatedly and they just rub me the wrong way. If you were writing a blog, you could be whining about this stuff, too…
Time for some audience participation: what comments drive you up the wall or over the edge or around the bend? Add your faves to our comment section this week and we can all cringe together.
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I always cringe a bit when I read a news report that refers to "informed sources."
Often, it seems, it's only one informed source and we never know exactly who informed the source about whatever he or she or they are informed about. Sometimes, there are two informed sources, but it’s possible that both received their information from the same person, so they really should count as one source.
When the source is a few levels down in the food chain, it's like a game of telephone, where the story changes just a bit with each retelling. It can make a huge difference if the "informed" source was the actual doer or six steps removed from the scene of battle.
Worse, there is a pathology I noticed in my days as a news reporter and, later, as a consultant, that can skew the story significantly. This isn’t about bias or agendas; it’s about life.
When we interview people for insights, the best informed people will often be the ones who say the least. Perhaps they give us the smallest amount of time or they are more circumspect about how they speak. As rule, people whose words are impactful will be careful in their choice of words.
That means, often, that the guy who gives you the best quotes and the largest amount of time might also be the least informed or least connected or least powerful person on the interview list. Of course, that person might have tons of spare time to spend as a source.
There’s a difference, of course, between least connected and least powerful. The most connected and powerful person might be in the best position to see the big picture, understand the competing issues, and deliver on his claims, or he might be out of touch with the daily details or too protective of the status quo. The least powerful person might be a whistleblower or most familiar with the way plans are actually implemented. Other times, the least powerful person turns out to be a crank.
It doesn’t matter if I’m reading something from the right or left, about business or art or politics, simply calling someone an informed source doesn’t do it for me. Of course, if the person is referred to as a well-informed source or a senior-level source, that changes everything. Those are the people you just know you can trust.
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Who writes this stuff?
Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.