Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


Writing 5 min read

Each of us has a very personal and implicit sense of ‘normal’. I do, and so do you. Each of us also assumes that we all share that definition; that it generalises. Naturally, we’re all wrong.

When we encounter others who clearly don’t share our views or responses, those others are categorised as strange, and the world becomes a little less predictable and understandable. It happens every day, and it’s a sad thing. It’s one of the main ways we end up feeling isolated from each other.

When I was younger, I was convinced that the important part of what I was doing was the output itself. The functionality of the software I’d written, or the inherent craft and artistry of the words. The cleverness or even just the correctness of the thing itself. I believed that my journey towards validation had ended when the product was finished, and I’d released it into the world. Good job, I thought; next challenge.

As I’ve grown a little older, I’ve realised how misguided I was. The truth is that the importance of something you create doesn’t even exist yet while you’re making it, and you start at zero when it reaches other people. The most important, and most life-changing lesson I’ve learned is that everything is about people’s reactions.

At first, I rejected that notion outright. My goals - and my dreams - had to have a higher purpose than just impacting on my fellow humans. But I eventually had to admit that there just isn’t anything else in our current sphere of existence. We have each other, and that’s all.

Then, I came to accept the basic fact of it, but chose to see it as incidental. The actual results of my work would (hopefully) be felt by humans, but I was doing it for the sake of the work itself. I clung to that idea for a few years before realising how nonsensical it was.

Eventually, I began allowing myself to acknowledge what I’d always inwardly known: that there’s no higher purpose than making an emotional connection with another person. That the success of an endeavour isn’t in the broad strokes and metrics - the sales, or downloads, or ratings, or comments or whatever else - but in the myriad individual moments where someone would be briefly touched, or empowered. Ephemeral, unmeasurable, rarely reported. But critical.

It’s not inconsequential. It’s not unimportant. It’s your job. It’s the only job that even exists.

It’s also incredibly difficult, because of our subjective definitions of normal. Other people are confusing creatures. We’ve reached consensus on a few things - at least as far as our laws go - but there are exceptions and footnotes and grey areas even for those. We walk around in the world of our own minds, and gamble with every interaction, hoping the other person shares enough of our viewpoint to allow meaningful communication. Often, they do; but sometimes they don’t. There’s risk involved.

It’s possible to offset some of that risk, by trying to find the deeper pattern - the reasons that others react differently than you do. Many of us don’t even try: we just accept the confusion, and then find ourselves endlessly frustrated by how different others are. We should try.

It’s a process of abstraction. if you’re surprised that someone reacted in a certain way, you were probably assuming that some part of your own response was a constant, rather than a variable (to borrow the language of my former career). There are a lot of variables. Culture, language, upbringing, experiences, beliefs, mood, blood sugar, current ambient levels of physical or emotional comfort, amount of sleep last night, and hundreds of other factors. Every single one can skew the listener (or reader, or user) away from the response you expect.

So what can we possibly do? We don’t even know what all the variables are, much less the values of each one, for a specific person, at a specific time. We never will. It seems hopeless.

Take heart, though. I think it can be enough to just acknowledge that these factors exist, and that others aren’t strange or unknowable because of them. Unpredictable in the absolute sense, certainly, but not beyond useful understanding. We can still find common ground by making allowances.

A friend of mine told me that, when dealing with people, it’s best to assume positive intent. You can view it as a shortcut (since, truthfully, the vast majority of people do have positive intent), but more importantly it’s a conscious choice that makes the world a better place for you.

I’ll be honest: I find it very, very hard to do. I’m naturally judgemental. I take things personally, and my default response is retribution rather than understanding. I’m writing about this because I’m bad at it. I’ve made some progress, but I have to be on my guard constantly, second-guessing my responses. It doesn’t come naturally. It’s a huge pain. It usually requires swallowing an emotion I’m already feeling, and trying to reassess a person I’ve already impulsively passed judgement upon.

But I still have to try, because it’s my job. All of the work that I’ve ever done - software development, writing, speaking, or whatever - was only incidentally about the output. The real task was to build lenses that sit between people and the world; things that refocus, and shape, and colour the perceptions of other human beings. Once you strip away the metaphors and constructs, everything is just humans affecting the perceptions and feelings of other humans.

That’s a compelling realisation. It’s freeing. Nebulous goals are replaced with the clarity of asking some simple questions: how can I best get this message across? What are others going to take from this? How is this going to make them feel?

To build a lens that suitably alters the view of another, you need their prescription: their emotional acuity, and the dioptric correction of their many biases. We don’t really have a chart for that, at least not one that’s useful in a day-to-day context, so we have to learn gradually by trial and error. Better in, or better out?

Then we repeat the process for each person, and try to find the best average correction. The next tricky part is that we have to pre-apply it ourselves, so that whatever we say is in focus by the time it arrives at the other person. That’s the theory.

In practice, it’s not possible to reach everyone in the same way (or at all), but it’s at least possible to have the right goal in mind, rather than just a means to an end. You can (and should) reframe any human endeavour to be about the humans, not the endeavour.

Part of my reluctance when switching careers was a voice in the back of my mind asking “Does this matter?”. I agonised over it.

It took me a while to even qualify what I meant by the question, until I realised that it was simply about having an impact on people. I’ve found a lot of peace in the realisation that, actually, I’ve probably opened up more opportunities to connect with others. And that’s incredibly important; it’s of overriding importance.

That’s what we need. Ultimately, disagreement is bred from misunderstanding, which is the unavoidable product of ignorance. We can’t know everything we need to know about others, but we can acknowledge that - probably - they do have a reason for their reactions, and that it’s as valid as ours. They have a perspective. They will have a reaction.

We can also take a moment to ask the real questions before we send that email, or publish that article, or post that tweet or comment.

How will this make others feel?

Would I want to feel that way?

Is this how I want them to think of me?

We use faintly dismissive terms like “soft skills” to talk about the only thing that even remotely qualifies as a noble purpose for our lives. We all huddle here on this single world, simultaneously together and apart, and our biggest problem is that we won’t judge and filter our actions by their impact on other people.

Whatever you do, your actual job is to foster positive impact on the rest of our species. No more, and no less. The thing itself probably doesn’t matter, but our basic shared humanity does. We have nothing - and no-one - else.

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