What I learned in 2017

A computer tries to figure out the world

08 Jun 2018

At the end of 2017, I wrote down a few important things I’d learned that year. And now that we’re more than halfway through 2018, I decided to stop procrastinating and flesh out the details. Some of these things are probably obvious to you, but they were new to me!

Being right is worth nothing

School rewards us for being right: for knowing the right facts and using them to come to the right conclusions. I personally also put a lot of value on being right. But that’s not how the world works.

People might value the emotional aspect of a decision. They might prefer not to change because of inertia, or because the matter at hand isn’t very important. They might not want to admit that they were wrong. There are many other things people consider before the hard facts.

So it’s not always useful to point out the facts. Things often turn out better if I don’t. And in situations where correctness matters, because being right is worth nothing, being right needs to be combined with something valuable, like an emotionally intelligent presentation.

And even if other people don’t value being right, I can still value it if that makes me happy.

Curiosity before criticism

In a new situation, I find it easy to fall into the trap of pointing out things that are wrong. But it doesn’t help me learn. And the people who can change things usually aren’t receptive to hearing feedback in this way, because being right is worth nothing. (That saying really does apply to everything.)

I can rewrite each criticism of the format “you shouldn’t do this” into a question — “why is it done this way?” This changes the tone from confrontational to collaborative, which leads to better conversations.

Everyone’s a role model

Over the summer, I watched an interview with Michelle Obama where they asked her how to bring about change without influence. She pointed out that everyone already has lots of influence. It doesn’t seem obvious, but we each have people who are silently watching and learning from us.

It sounded corny then, and it still does now. But it’s true.

As far back as I can remember, there have always been examples of people who were watching and learning from me. This seems to be true for my friends too. It means that my words and behavior have more potential for positive or negative consequences than I think.

Vulnerability leads to closeness

This seems obvious in the context of one’s personal life, but I’d never considered applying the same idea to the workplace.

I had the opportunity to work on a really special team last year. Members of this team were comfortable with sharing just about anything over lunch: the usual workplace gossip, sure, but also life philosophy, deep-seated anxieties, horror stories of weekend trips gone wrong…you name it, we talked about it.

Sharing so much about yourself in front of people that you don’t know very well takes a lot of courage. But bringing your whole self to work also builds trust and connection. Watching this happen in an unexpected environment (the workplace) helped me realize how well it works.

Conclusions

I wrote these ideas out individually. But looking back now, an unexpected thread ties these lessons together: I learned all of them at work. I was super lucky to have worked alongside great people who taught me things in the context of the workplace that also apply to life in general.

If you’d told me these things at the beginning of 2017, I would’ve agreed with all of them. But it took the specific experiences of the past year to make me really understand.