I’m a self-absorbed prick
8 minutes | Jul 16, 2020 | 11 rewrites
I’m a self-absorbed prick. I had suspected it all my life, but the sudden realization came one night, one year ago.
That night, while trying to fall asleep, I remembered a conversation I’d had with my friend Alessandro 2 days earlier. Here’s an illustrative excerpt:
[Ale and me at a bar’s terrace, after 2 or 3 beers]
ALE: I don’t know man, I feel shitty. I had a two-week vacation and I wanted to use it to improve my vector graphics skills. What did I do instead? Waste it playing video games again! I am a lazy ass, definitely not a persevering guy. Monday started alright, but then when I…
ME: There! That’s your problem! You are always saying “I am not like this, I am not like that”. Well, if you believe that you are immutable, that you can’t change, of course you won’t change. It’s like Confucius said: “The man who says he can and the man who says he can’t are both correct”. You just have to believe in yourself.
ALE: easier said than done.
ME: look, I had the very same problem 5 years ago. I was out of a job and I wanted to write a book. I had plenty of time to write, nothing else to do, but I wasted the first 2 weeks binging Netflix series. It felt terrible. But I did not quit. What did I do? I… [I’m gonna spare you the 5-minute “heroic” tale that Ale, too good of a friend, patiently put up with]. That’s all!
ALE: well, I see what you mean. I know how hard you struggled and I was proud of you when you finally climbed out of the pit. But I think that my case is not the same. We are different. The thing is that I started on Monday by…
ME: it is the same, but you always like to whine. The solution is simple: sit in front of your computer, open Illustrator, start drawing and DON’T STOP until you’ve been at it for 4 straight hours. The next day, do it all over again. That’s all you need to do. Easy!
ALE: yes, I know. But, on Monday, I actually…
ME: you’re at it again. Look, it’s like Yoda said: “Do it, or don’t. There’s no try”. All you need to do is flip a switch in your head. Decide that you are not gonna quit and just draw, draw, draw. Stop whining. You can do it, I know you can. I believe in you. By the way, speaking of Yoda: the new Star Wars movie is out. We could go watch it, Gabriele and Leo would join for sure. How about tomorrow evening?
ALE: Yeah… I guess. Let’s go, Alice told me it’s good. The last one was pretty boring, but let’s give this one a chance. Have you read any reviews?
ME: Cool, I’m gonna tell Gabriele and Leo. See you tomorrow then?
[I signalled the waiter for the bill and took out my phone to whatsapp Gabri and Leo. End of conversation]
That’s me. A know-it-all that doesn’t let you talk. What a dick. I never listen and often –like that day– I don’t even bother faking it. When I should’ve been listening I was busy doing other things like:
- Try to quickly guess what Ale meant (before he finished expressing himself).
- Classify Ale’s problem into one of the standard ones in my head (like there’s only X types of problems he could have and I know about them all).
- Think of the main issues with what Ale was saying (like there has to be an issue).
- Prepare my reply, armed with pretentious quotes, self-glorifying anecdotes and boiler-plate advice.
Listening is “giving one’s full attention”, and that’s not what I did with Ale. I can’t be listening if I’m doing other things in my head. And I can’t be listening if I’m talking.
Is not listening to your friends a problem? Yes. Definitely. When a friend talks to you, he wants 3 things:
- He wants to let off some steam. Talking about your problems has healing power. Even if there’s nothing I can do to help, the mere act of talking it out would comfort Ale.
- He wants to feel important, to feel that what he says matters and is interesting.
- He wants to see that I care, that I’m interested, that I love him. That I am his friend.
In short: when a friend talks to you, he wants you to listen.
Although you might find it hard to believe, I’m actually not that bad of a friend. I love and care for my buddies. When I notice I’m doing something wrong, I try to change. And that night one year ago I realized what I already knew: I needed to listen more.
So I read on how to be a better listener. It turns out that it is pretty easy, I just have to:
- Shut the fuck up (and never ever interrupt).
- Nod and mumble an occasional “hmm”, “aha” or “yeah”.
- Stand the uncomfortable silences (to encourage to develop further).
- Ask questions (ask for details and clarifications).
Putting it to practice was easy, and my conversation game stepped up. Just right now I was talking with Ale again. We hadn’t seen each other for a month, and he told me about his break up with Alice, his plans to become a digital nomad, his struggles with videogame addiction and his newly acquired Kickboxing skills.
I listened and learned.
Ale is an amazing artist and a kind and fascinating creature. I’m lucky to have him as a friend.
Problem solved? Not so fast, Lucky Luke.
I learned how to listen, and I do it from time to time. Easy peasy. The difficult bit? Doing it consistently. Day in, day out. The conversation I just had with Ale was great, but I can’t say the same about the rest of my conversations this week. That’s my current problem: I know how to listen, but I only do it every now and then.
Why don’t I always listen? Sometimes because I am bored, sometimes because I have other things in my head, sometimes because I have no time… but, most of the times, I don’t listen because I just forget to.
When it comes to keeping the goal of “I have to listen more” upfront in daily consciousness, I fail miserably.
Listening: I want to, I know how to, but then life happens and I forget to.
No problem, I got this. I am going to form the habit of listening more. I can do it.
But since I fight against 25 years of bad inertia, it’s gonna be challenging. I’m gonna have to build some tools to help me. Exciting: once again, technology to the rescue!
Let’s call this “Project STFU”.
Legal Notice--- fill with a joke about Project STFU, Project TRAITU, etc ---
Project STFU consists of 3 tools. Each tool solves a subset of my problem while preparing the ground for the next, more complex, problem (which in turn will be solved by the next, more complete, tool). The 3 tools are:
- WHATSAPP-tool. I spend a lot of time on Whatsapp and written conversations are easy for computers to analyze, so let’s start there. I’ll build a program that reads my Whatsapp chats and computes a metric that measures how good I am at listening. Having a metric to track will keep me on my toes.UPDATE: WhatsappTool is already available. You can read an explanation of the tool here and try it out yourself here.
- JIMINY. Time for oral conversations. This is an order of magnitude harder than WhatsappTool, but still technologically feasible. Jiminy will be a little device that I carry with me at all times and records all my oral conversations. Once my conversations have been recorded, Jiminy will turn them into text and compute the same metric as WhatsappTool. To build Jiminy, I’ll need a mic, an arduino, and some Python code. Challenging, but feasible. If I can, I’ll have Jiminy work in real time (and make it buzz or vibrate when I’m talking too much).
- MDMB (Maxwell’s Demon in My Brain). When I was a child, I read about Maxwell’s Demon and was fascinated by it. The physicist James Maxwell, in a thought experiment about entropy, theorized about a tiny demon that controlled a small door between two chambers of gas. The demon, knowing the state of all the gas molecules, quickly opened and shut the door so that only fast molecules passed into one of the chambers. As a result of the demon’s behaviour, entropy decreased1. À la Maxwell, I want a little demon in my brain that controls what electrical impulses to let out. When my brain fires an electrical impulse to my body, the demon assesses: was I going to talk and interrupt Ale? The demon shuts the door and my jaw muscles don’t receive the electrical order to move. Was I going to talk, but this time to ask for clarifications or further details? The demon opens the door and I can speak freely. The demon would act as a gatekeeper, and it would constantly remind me that I have to listen more. So this is what MDMB is: an implant in my brain that knows my intentions and controls my actions.
Once I complete Project STFU, I will be the best listener there is. Being the best listener there is will make me a better friend. Being a better friend will make me a better person (and that’s what Project Traitu is all about).
I already developed WhatsappTool. Read here a detailed explanation of what it does or try it out yourself here.
I’ve concluded the first experiments to develop Jiminy. Promising. If you wanna know more, stay tuned.
MDMB will be trickier because I know nothing about neuroscience. Even worse: brain implant technology is not advanced enough yet. That’s why I asked Elon Musk to look into it. He founded Neuralink and has made some minor progress, but if we really wanna do this I’ll need him to step it up. Check out his progress here.