Realize the Truth Yourself

So much of what you’ll hear and what you’re taught may turn out to be incorrect on closer scrutiny.

Whether it’s advice from the experts, what you hear in the media, or what your mother told you, if it is of any consequence, take the time to work out for yourself whether it is factual.

Swami Vivekananda on Realizing the Truth Yourself The great Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once instructed, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.”

Idea for Impact: It’s not sensible to believe any assertion unless you have good reason for doing so. If you care whether your beliefs about the world are reliable, you must establish them on the sound, relevant evidence. Until you can organize that evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you must suspend your judgment. The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote in Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel (1917,)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.

Stop Trying to Prove Yourself to the World

When you assess your life and become conscious of how you look at the world and how you look at yourself, you may realize that you often obsess about what people think of you.

'Seeds for a Boundless Life' by Blanche Hartman (ISBN 1611802849) In the delightful and poignant Seeds for a Boundless Life: Zen Teachings from the Heart, the Soto Zen teacher Blanche Hartman (1926–2016) explains that freeing yourself from being controlled by what other people think is the key to living life with a composed and peaceful mind:

I noticed somewhere in the early years of my [Buddhist] practice that my big effort was to get people to love me. I really wanted people to love me. And what I discovered in practice was that it really didn’t matter what other people thought. The one whose love and appreciation and approval I wanted was right here, and I wouldn’t give it to myself. What I found out was that no matter how much approval I got from outside, it didn’t count if I was not able to appreciate myself and be willing to be who I am. Whatever this is, it has becomes this over an accumulation of the actions of body, speech, and mind of more than eighty years. It’s my creation in a way. And yet it’s really helpful if I acknowledge it and befriend this being that I have created with the help of all the beings with whom I have shared my life.

Be Your Own Person

Stop trying to prove yourself to the naysayers and critics. Avoid assertive behavior and insubordinate conduct that intends to prove you’re worthy to others. You don’t need others’ approval.

Idea for Impact: Don’t fritter away precious time and energy seeking to prove your worth and worrying that you could fall short. The right people will love you for who you are.

Office Chitchat Isn’t Necessarily a Time Waster

When Employees are Happy, They Work Better

Office Chitchat Isn't Necessarily a Time Waster Managers who disapprove and clamp down on impromptu encounters that people have at their desks, in the hallways, by the elevators, in the lunchroom, or by the water coolers can create a work environment that’s unpleasant, even repressive.

If truth be told, what may seems like idle chitchat actually forges links between people and encourages a culture of openness that can help people work toward common goals.

Informal, spontaneous conversations between coworkers, especially between colleagues from different departments, will not only give people a chance to know each other better, but also create a feeling of collaboration. The camaraderie that grows from employees sharing a little fun can go a long way toward fostering a feeling that they’re part of a team.

Chitchat is About Building Relationships

During those inconsequential “idle moments” of office conversations, important information is being exchanged. You’re learning much about others and offering details about yourself.

  • Whom can you trust? Who possesses strong convictions? Who has a broad experience or in-depth knowledge?
  • Who is a stimulating brainstormer? Who has the wherewithal for workarounds to problems?
  • Who can open doors for you? Who can facilitate otherwise hard-to-get connections?
  • Who can influence the leadership decisions? Who can evangelize your project to the right people? Who can bend the leadership’s ear? Who can be your cheerleader?
  • Who can lend a consoling ear in moments of problems or crisis? Who sees the bright side of problems?
  • Who can help you with questions on software, help you decide health insurance plans, or fix the printer?

Casual Conversations are About Networking and Leaving Positive Impressions

Small talk and casual conversations are an important element of collegial workplaces. People like talking about themselves, so if you can remember a nugget of information from the last time you met (kids, pets, and travels are great topics) bring it up.

To be respectful of others’ time, remember this two-minute rule: unless you’re discussing a topic of some importance, try to wrap up your small talk and casual chats in two minutes. Pay attention to your listener’s non-verbal cues and adjust the extent of your conversation. You can always arrange to convene later, “I’d love to hear more, but I’m in a rush. Why don’t I call you afterhours? How about we meet up for coffee this weekend?”

Nevertheless, don’t let chatter go too far and negatively impact your productivity or those of others. If you’re considered as too chatty, others may to resent bumping into you. If you tend to talk too much about yourself, you’ll be judged self-absorbed and interpersonally clueless.

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace

Likeability is Important in How You Will Be Perceived in Your Workplace Cordiality is a significant persuasive technique because people are much more likely to feel warmly towards those they like. They’ll do things for you if you earnestly show interest in them, chat with them on a regular basis, and make them feel good about themselves.

Colleagues who don’t chat can come across as arrogant or abrupt. Highly competent but unpopular professionals don’t thrive as well as their moderately competent, but popular counterparts.

Small Talk is a Critical Tool for Creating a Personal Bond with Your Coworkers

Even though an office is primarily a place of business, chatting about non-work topics and establishing rapport with coworkers is important. People who know and like each other tend to have each other’s backs and help out when necessary.

Even if, eventually, you’ll be accepted or rejected based on the more tangible aspects of your work, the fact of the matter is that these interpersonal impressions matter a great deal along the way and can even shape how people judge your more actual work.

Idea for Impact: Balance your dedication to your workload with a cooperative nature, you will gain needed allies to get things done and to help your career progression in the company.

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence

Five Signs of Excessive Confidence Confidence is generally a respectable and necessary workplace trait.

However, there is a darker side to confidence.

People who display overconfidence, hubris, and narcissism engage in self-destructive behaviors at work because their self-aggrandizement blinds them from their personal judgment and their managerial and leadership performance.

If you believe you may be displaying any of the following signs of excessive confidence, you need some coaching and feedback. Ask a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor for some honest feedback. Work to change your attitude—promptly.

  1. You tend to believe that your ideas are the only ones worth acting on. When others contribute ideas and suggestions, you tend to turn them off while promoting only the ideas that you come up with. You tend to get angry with others for their unwise and impractical suggestions. You are resistant to learning from others or from previous experiences.
  2. You tend to act on solutions without input from others. You believe that it is up to only you to supply new ideas and solve problems. You are convinced that you are the only one who knows as much as necessary to do the right thing. When others summon up ideas and suggest watch-outs, you tend to brush them off with “I know that” statements.
  3. 'What Got You Here Wont Get You There' by Marshall Goldsmith (ISBN 1401301304) You tend to express an opinion on everything—even when the topic of interest is outside your area of expertise. You act as if you’ve accepted the reality that you have to work with less-qualified people who just can’t get the right things the right way (i.e. your way.) If only your opinions were considered and if you had your way, your team and company would do “so much better.”
  4. You tend to defend your mistakes and your failures. You don’t recognize your limitations and the mistakes of your ways. You can’t take help. You are closed off to others’ feedback and suggestions for change.
  5. You tend to externalize blame. You’re often a victim of everyone else’s failures or a victim of external circumstances. You gripe that others just don’t understand you or they aren’t qualified enough to see the wisdom of your ways.

If you can’t recognize and accept the problems related to how your behavior comes across to other people, you may be derailing your managerial and leadership potential.

Idea for Impact: Greatness lies in balancing self-assurance with self-effacement. I recommend leadership coach extraordinaire Marshall Goldsmith‘s outstanding What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. Addressing already-successful people, Goldsmith describes how personality traits that bring you initial career success could hold you back from going further!

Don’t Be Interesting—Be Interested!

Management Guru Jim Collins’s “Golden Rule”

Jim Collins's 'Golden Rule': Don't Be Interesting---Be Interested! In the December 2005 issue of the now-discontinued Business 2.0 magazine, 30 business visionaries disclosed their “golden rules”—attitudes they swear by more than any other. Jim Collins, the renowned leadership consultant and author of such bestselling management books as Good to Great and Built to Last, recollected a lesson he learned from his mentor, the American intellectual and public servant John W. Gardner:

One day early in my faculty teaching career, John Gardner sat me down. “It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”

If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet—their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.

I can’t say that I live this rule perfectly. When tired, I find that I spend more time trying to be interesting than exercising the discipline of asking genuine questions. But whenever I remember Gardner’s golden rule—whenever I come at any situation with an interested and curious mind—life becomes much more interesting for everyone at the table.

The Technique to Become the Most Interesting Person in the Room is to Find Others Interesting

Becoming likeable requires creating lasting impressions in others by becoming genuinely interested in them In the conduct of life, people tend to focus more on becoming more interesting—i.e., impressing others with their personae and their stories. While trying to become more interesting is a worthwhile pursuit, it is certainly not everything in becoming accepted and well-liked. Becoming likeable requires creating lasting impressions in others by becoming genuinely interested in them.

John Gardner’s advice (via Jim Collins) echoes self-improvement pioneer Dale Carnegie’s legendary advice that the ticket to one’s success in life is one’s ability to make others feel good about themselves. In his masterful manual on people skills, How to Win Friends & Influence People, Carnegie writes, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”

It is a common fallacy to assume that you must just be an interesting person to get people to like you. Observe this human tendency in the next networking meeting or social gathering you attend. Most people tend to be absorbed in just one thing: being interesting themselves—blabbing “I did this … I did that … I like this … I’ve been there” and offering bits of information that nobody else but them really cares about.

How to Build a Bit of Intimacy, Even in a Brief Conversation

Become genuinely interested in others and make them like you Making others like you amounts to making them feel special about themselves—making them feel that you really “get” them. The next time you meet someone new at a social setting, try this easy technique to be more interested.

  • The key to become absorbed in a conversation is to focus on being curious about others. So, tell yourself repetitively, “This seems to the most interesting person in the world. Let me discover why.” Look for opportunities to connect.
  • When you meet someone new, make eye contact and smile. Introduce yourself with a simple “Hi, my name is Joanna Kovaleski. I am Megan’s real estate agent.”
  • Pay attention and make them feel like they are the only people in the room.
  • Ask a question or two about the person before talking about yourself. “How do you know Megan and Eric?” “Is this your first time in Chicago?” As I’ve written previously, chatting with somebody in socializing situations should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest. These prospects will all be missed if your initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations such as “What do you do for a living?”
  • Ask a follow-up question based on what they have just said. Try to understand who they are and why they are there. Learn about their interests and hobbies.
  • Say more about yourself. Use what you’ve just learned about the other person so far to selectively highlight anything you have in common.
  • Then, ask one question to bring the focus back to the other person.
  • People love to talk about themselves; so, make them. Everyone’s got a story to tell.
  • Don’t talk too much or too little. Try taking your focus off yourself.

Idea for Impact: Become Genuinely Interested in Others and Make Them Like You

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) To be interested in other people—and consequently get them interested in you—is a significant social skill you must develop and hone. But don’t feign. As Carnegie cautions in How to Win Friends & Influence People, “The principles … will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks; I am talking about a new way of life.”

The following books have helped me with improve my socializing skills. Perhaps you’ll find them useful too.

How to Handle Conflict: Disagree and Commit [Lessons from Amazon & ‘The Bezos Way’]

How Amazon’s Jeff Bezos Propels Innovation

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos once remarked that it takes five to seven years before the innovation seeds that Amazon plants flourish enough to have a significant impact on the economics of the business.

Since its founding in 1994, Amazon has made endless investments in expanding its business models. It has successfully used its money-making ventures to bankroll explorations into peripheral lines of business. Many of its capital allocation decisions haven’t yielded strong profits; yet, Amazon has flourished beyond everyone’s expectations and its growth potential is undeniable.

Central to this innovation strategy has been Bezos and his leadership team’s foresight, early commitment, and stubborn confidence in the prospect of R&D. Under Bezos’s direction and long-term focus, Amazon still operates as a founder-driven start-up in several major areas.

Bezos has a compelling cultural influence and has institutionalized his distinctive entrepreneurial mindset across the company. His core values are codified as Amazon’s 14 Leadership Principles, one of which is “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”:

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

“Disagree and Commit”

Jeff Bezos’s latest short-but-compelling annual letter to his shareholders contains pearls of wisdom on leadership, management, and teamwork. Read the letter; it won’t take long.

Speaking about high-velocity decision making in an ingenious culture, Bezos says he encourages Amazon’s leaders and employees to use the phrase “disagree and commit” to disagree respectfully and experiment with ideas:

Use the phrase “disagree and commit.” This phrase will save a lot of time. If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, “Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?” By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.

This isn’t one way. If you’re the boss, you should do this too. I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren’t that good, and we have lots of other opportunities. They had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with “I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we’ve ever made.” Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.

Note what this example is not: it’s not me thinking to myself “well, these guys are wrong and missing the point, but this isn’t worth me chasing.” It’s a genuine disagreement of opinion, a candid expression of my view, a chance for the team to weigh my view, and a quick, sincere commitment to go their way. And given that this team has already brought home 11 Emmys, 6 Golden Globes, and 3 Oscars, I’m just glad they let me in the room at all!

Entrepreneurial Lessons from Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos: Disagree and Commit Bezos’s “fail-and-learn” refrain echoes what he wrote on risk-taking in Amazon’s first annual shareholder letter in 1997: “Given a 10 percent chance of a 100-times payout, you should take that bet every time … Failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment.” That letter has become Amazon’s manifesto on the benefits and methods to long-term thinking and Bezos quotes that letter in every year’s annual letter.

To “disagree and commit” compels people to step out of their comfort zones and to sincerely commit to a project’s success. There is no room for sabotage and disruption—neither can people wait in the wings to exclaim “I told you so.” To “disagree and commit” is to be willing to take prudent risks by acknowledging that others may have diverse beliefs, approaches, ideas, and styles.

Idea for Impact: Embrace Failure because it Leads to Innovation

Many people want to be curious, creative, and experimental—they like to take initiative and investigate new products and solutions. But, when facing difficult choices, they’re naturally afraid of what they don’t know. Self-doubt sets in. They resort to safe and predictable processes. This mindset stifles the very inventive approach they want to apply and foster.

Fear of failure and self-doubt are not usually rooted in facts. They’re emotional. Don’t let this emotion make you play it safe. Don’t overthink your way out of challenges. Understand the types and amounts of risks that are acceptable to you. When facing the prospect of failure, you’re more likely to get unstuck by trying low-risk actions. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Innovate.

Success may instill confidence, but failure imparts wisdom.

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

The Curse of Teamwork: Groupthink

Many teams tend to compromise their decisions for the sake of consensus, harmony, and “esprit de corps.” The result is often a lowest-common-denominator decision upon which everybody in the team agrees. This predisposition for a team to minimize conflict and value conformity is the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink.

'Victims of Groupthink' by Irving Janis (ISBN 0395317045) In the 1970s, American psychologist Irving Janis defined Groupthink as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” Janis argued that Groupthink “undermines critical analysis, legitimizes ignorance, reinforces collective biases, and promotes a group self-image of infallibility.”

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork

Teams are prone to Groupthink and a variety of other detrimental decision-making approaches, but are seldom aware of it.

  • Groupthink suppresses dissent Individuals resign to group pressure, thereby conforming their opinions to a decision that they believe will achieve consensus. Groupthink discourages dissenters from “rocking the boat.” Over time, nonconformists are gradually shunted aside or excluded from the team altogether.
  • Groupthink engenders self-censorship. Individuals who disagree with the chosen course of action remain silent because they reason they cannot change others’ minds. Consequently, the team tends to focus its discussions on ideas that everyone agrees about rather than ideas that everyone disagrees about.
  • Groupthink gives team members greater confidence in their collective decisions than their individual decisions. Therefore, Groupthink leads individuals to publicly endorse ideas and decisions that they view as common for the group, even if they personally have reservations about them.
  • Groupthink stifles creativity and independent thinking. When individuals are unwilling to bring up and confront difficult issues, the team fails to examine alternative viewpoints that could be contentious. This leads to irrational and flawed decisions.

Antidote to Groupthink in Teamwork

Negative Effects of Groupthink in Teamwork An awareness of Groupthink and other group dynamic biases combined with some hands-on intervention, self-reflection, and control can help teams make better decisions.

  • Create an organizational environment where individuals can freely voice their ideas, challenges, and concerns. Individuals must feel comfortable with taking interpersonal risks, admitting hesitations, and challenging one-another. Absent an inclination to avoid conflict, a team can easily discuss and debate different perspectives.
  • Think about the right information required to make sound decisions. Consider the strongest counter-argument to every idea.
  • Do not suppress disagreements or dominate the dissenters. Carefully examine the reasons and implications of alternate viewpoints.
  • Divide a team into sub-teams or partnerships and set each sub-team to work on a problem independently. Encourage them to take into account the plusses and the minuses of each idea.
  • Designate one team member as a devil’s advocate to argue enthusiastically against all contemplated ideas. This can force the team to discuss and debate the concomitant merits and demerits of different ideas. In Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process (see my book summary), the devil’s advocate wears the “black hat.”
  • Invite outside consultants and subject-matter experts to discuss key issues and review decisions.
  • Appoint a moderator who can engage the team collectively and individually by gathering all points of view, giving feedback, and challenging the team’s thinking. Ideally, the moderator should be an independent third party who can be comprehensive and forthright.
  • Step back regularly from the team’s deliberation process to reflect on the effectiveness of the team’s decision-making and intervene where necessary. In the Six Thinking Hats process, De Bono suggests adding reflection time at the end of each meeting to analyze the process’ effectiveness.

Idea for Impact: Sometimes, Teamwork is Overrated

Don’t get me wrong: teamwork can be very powerful, but only when teams consist of individuals who have the right expertise and who are willing to voice their forthright opinions, dissent, and build consensus. Avoid teamwork when one person or a partnership with complementary skills and styles may achieve identical objectives.

To prevent Groupthink, establish an environment where speaking up is encouraged and rewarded. Welcome disagreements, avoid dominating dissenters, and contemplate the strongest counter-argument to every idea.

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing

This spring, I attended the 2016 annual meeting of shareholders of Fairfax Financial Holdings Limited in Toronto. Fairfax’s chief executive Prem Watsa opened his remarks with the following joke:

A young boy enters a barbershop.

The barber whispers to a customer, “This is the dumbest kid in the world. Watch while I prove it to you.”

The barber puts a dollar bill in one hand and two quarters in the other. He then calls the boy over and asks, “Which do you want, son?”

The boy takes the quarters and leaves.

“What did I tell you?” says the barber to the customer. “That kid never learns!”

Later, when the customer leaves the barbershop, he sees the same young boy coming out of an ice cream store licking a wafer-style ice cream cone.

He summons the boy and asks, “Hey, son! May I ask you a question? … Why did you take the quarters instead of the dollar bill?”

The boy licks his cone and replies, “Sir, because the day I take the dollar, the game is over!”

Being Underestimated Can Be a Great Thing Although the barber sought to characterize the young boy foolish, the joke was really on the barber.

The barber never suspected the boy’s recurring motivation to seem stupid. Additionally, the barber never learned his lesson or questioned his own assumptions.

Idea for Impact: As the above joke attests, being underestimated, underrated, or misjudged can often have its benefits. Don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Don’t let them make you feel small. Embrace their misjudgments with equanimity. Believe in yourself with humble confidence. Then outthink, outsmart, and outperform. Surprise them.

Stop Trying to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change

Stop Trying to Change People

Change is seldom as easy as we think it will be

Consider how many people engage in smoking, obesity, problem drinking, procrastination, rage, and other self-defeating behavioral patterns. Despite being fully aware of the negative consequences of their behaviors, these people tend not to change.

Many people are unsuccessful when they try to change their own behavior. People are creatures of habit, and habits evolve over time. They become so deep-seated and instinctive that people are often oblivious to the behaviors and consequences that their habits drive.

It is therefore very hard to change old habits even when they’re bad. Consequently, people find themselves incapable or reluctant to make essential changes in their lives. They discover that habits are persistent and necessitate many consistent repetitions to change. Even when they are motivated enough to change, long-lasting change entails much commitment, consistency, and discipline.

When do people change?

The American self-help author Tony Robbins once wrote, “Most people are unhappy with some area of their life, but are not unhappy enough to actually do something about it. Unfortunately, 90% of people fall is this category.”

People typically don’t change because someone tells them that they need to. Many people change from their own accord as the result of physiological vicissitudes in their lives or from psychological impositions of external circumstances: transition to adolescence, retirement, becoming a parent, a job loss, or the death of a spouse, for example. Nevertheless, very few people change from within—deliberately, willingly, and on-purpose.

People don’t change until they think they need to

The Italian astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei once said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” Helping people change involves helping them want to change, instead of trying to persuade them through guidance, counsel, urging, social pressure, or other forms of inducement.

People don't change until they think they need to Therapists (and mentors, coaches, and managers) are most successful in bringing about long-lasting change only in people who are intrinsically motivated to make the change. Therapists have little success with people who have no interest in changing.

Effective therapists explore, understand, and tweak their clients’intrinsic motivations toward change. They understand their client’s motivations, listen to any reluctance about change, and sensitively try to fortify those elements of their clients’ intrinsic motivations that may favor and hence facilitate the intended change.

Idea for Impact: When people do not want to change, don’t try to change them

As children, spouses, parents, friends, managers, and colleagues we are continuously attempting to point out others’ errors and expecting them to change. Even when our concerns are genuine and our attempts to change others are sincere, we often fail to bring about real behavioral change because people don’t change until they think they need to. So, don’t try to change people when they do not want to change.

They may change in a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason or a significant emotional event that astonishes them to change, people go back to their natural state.

Harboring expectations of being able to change can only lead to frustration and futility. Therefore, as the Buddha taught, lower your expectations of people, appreciate people as they are, and thus raise your own joys. Alternatively, find the people who have the behaviors you want and teach them the skills they need to be productive.

Stop asking, “What do you do for a living?”

How to Start a Good Conversation

I despise being asked “What do you do for a living?” when I first meet someone.

I didn’t like being asked “What does your dad do?” while growing up in India.

Many people routinely use this question as a conversation-starter with strangers. It could be argued that they intend to inoffensively learn of somebody’s area of expertise or interests and then engage them in a meaningful chat.

Stop asking 'What do you do for a living?' about indirectly sizing up people However, this question is often about indirectly sizing up the other’s socioeconomic status. People may be assessing, “How valuable are you? How much money do you make? What is your social status? What is your financial status? Are you richer, smarter, and more powerful than I am? Am I above you or below you in the socioeconomic ladder? Are you worth my time?”

Look, we live in a judgmental world where a person’s identity is at first ascertained by what he or she does for a living. Nevertheless, when becoming acquainted with someone in an informal setting, conversations shouldn’t be about inquiring after the other’s livelihood or about scrutinizing the other’s standing in society.

Chatting with somebody in “socializing situations” should be less about discerning the details of the other’s life and more about building a bit of familiarity to initiate stimulating conversations, debates, discussions, and exchange of ideas about topics of mutual interest—prospects that will all be missed if the initial interaction starts with annoying cross-examinations.

So, let’s try to make a conversation without seeking to interrogate one another.

If you’re looking for clues to a person’s passions or areas of interest to engage them in conversation, start with simple questions such as “how do you know Maria and Joe,” “is this your first time in Chicago,” or “what does your name mean?” Wait for personal details to flow into the conversation naturally. Or, wait further into the conversation before popping the “what do you do?” question.