On Earnestness

"He’s nice, but he’s just too damn earnest. Where’s the edge?" a friend asked me in discussion of somebody else.

In an old post I asked which traits have a backstop — that is, for which personal characteristics is more of it always a good thing? For example, flexibility is a good character trait, but too much flexibility is bad. Persistence might be a trait that is valuable nonstop, but it’s hard to think of any others.

Earnestness, to me, definitely has a backstop. I value earnestness to a point. But I cannot spend large chunks of time with someone who won’t mix their style with irony, joking, or edginess in general. (I’m not exactly sure these social styles oppose earnestness — earnestness is hard to define.)

Say you had a shitty day. You come home and I innocently ask, "How was your day?" The earnest response would be, "Oh Ben, I had a really tough day. My car broke down. And I got in a disagreement with a co-worker. And worst of all, the supermarket was out of my favorite type of drink. It was, indeed, a tough day." The more amusing response would be, "How was my day? Oh, I had a super day Ben. Just super. First my piece-of-shit car broke down in the middle of the freeway, then my co-worker and I argued about some feature that was in the works, and finally the supermarket didn’t have my drink, which was icing on the cake."

Clearly, too much non-seriousness is hard to take. But in small doses, I find it endearing and funny. It’s a balance.

In general, in terms of the personalities I’m attracted to, I like people who can make fun of themselves, who can deliver good rants if the time calls for it, who know how and when to say "fuck," who aren’t afraid to say something that may not be politically correct, who aren’t entirely predictable, who try to get to the bottom of things (in other words, they rarely say "Whatever…"), who are open to changing their mind, who through it all have a big heart and sense of humor.

That’s my take. What’s yours, on earnestness?

14 Responses to On Earnestness

  1. Lily says:

    Persistence? That’s an odd trait to pick as one that doesn’t require moderation. Persistence needs to be tempered by wisdom in when and where to persist, otherwise you can never allow yourself to be persuaded to a colleague’s point of view on that feature, never pull out of a bad choice in time to mitigate the consequences, and never reevaluate the your priorities in the light of further experience and new information. Sure, quitting solely because it’s hard is bad, and you certainly you always need to be persisting in something, but if persistence is unchecked… I know a number of people who suffer from overpersistence, and they’re without exception obnoxious, unhappy, and unpleasant to be around.

    Like everything else, earnestness is a balance. If there was a simple rule for something that worked best in absolutely every situation, it’d be easy.

  2. Annie says:

    Ben, were you the one who blogged the quote “Don’t be so modest, you’re not that good.”

    I forget if I read that here, but it sums up my take on so many people who are hyper earnest.

    Often, the most unbearably earnest people I meet consider themselves to be “activists” of some sort. They tend to replace decent facts and logic with this ultra earnest stance on such mundane, gray, no-big-deal points. There ends up being a fine line where earnesty starts sounding doomsday-ish.

    Modesty is a treat, when dished out appropriately. But it’s close relative, earnestness, is often overreaching and inappropriate, causing awkwardness and warranting eye rolls.

  3. “… there isn’t time to run each and every decision past ethical philosophers.” (vide your old post)

    Every man and woman should be an ethical philosopher.

  4. Chris Yeh says:

    Earnestness is not the issue…the problem is that it seems like extreme earnestness is incompatible with having a sense of humor.

    Can you think of any super-earnest comedians?

    I also agree with Marc. We have a word for people who are extremely persistent: psychopath.

    Personally, I’m certain that I don’t want people who are trying to reach me with hare-brained business schemes to display unlimited persistence.

  5. Krishna says:

    Silliness is a trait that’s common to most of us, hence universally excused and loved. If you’ve to be taken seriously, you’d better be silly.

    Extreme earnestness can be forgiven when the topic demands all of listener’s mindspace and thoughtful response – say, while illustrating an intricate concept at a seminar of like-minds.

    On other routine occasions (“How was your day”) and if you don’t want to risk losing friends, I’d better be self-derisive and blighty – in one word `holesome’ ;)

  6. Luke says:

    wise words.

    haastek.co.uk

  7. Is there any trait that fits that description? That you can never have too much of? I thought of integrity, but an excess of integrity doesn’t necessarily make you a happier person, or even more succesful in business.
    Wouldn’t too much integrity devolve into something else, individuals who can’t deal with the real world or are paralyzed when making decisions? Then again, I’m talking about excessive amounts, not just more. Just a thought. Everything in moderation, no?

  8. Martha Farag says:

    I’d say humility is a trait that does not require discernment—maybe because humility depends on discernment most of the time in order not to turn into pride (or fake-meekness, even if the person is fooling themselves with their humility).

    Who doesn’t love a humble person? What person have ever become great, and a great contribution to this world, without being humble?
    If one is humble, they do not care about who gets the credit, and that is probably the key in excelling in life.

    I can’t think of an example where too much humbleness had a backstop.

  9. Ben (non-Casnocha) says:

    I remember meeting with an overly earnest client a while back. It was one of the most emotionally draining meetings I’ve ever sat through (and miracle of miracles, my wrists made it intact). Earnestness might be a “good” quality but it’s not a likable quality. They are two often different categories. A sense of humor doesn’t make anyone a more productive employee or a better friend per se, but it makes that person far more enjoyable to be around. “Nice” is not a redeeming quality!

    To the last comment: too much humility grates much the same way over earnestness does. It might be worse.

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

    I think humility also has a backstop. Yes, it’s hard to think of any that really don’t have diminishing returns (or negative returns) at some point.

    I agree that if you can be super earnest and have a sense of humor, that’s golden. But this combo seems rare.

  11. Martha Farag says:

    I still don’t see why though….

  12. khc says:

    In somewhat hijacking the thread to overall characteristics that only increase: Integrity and love. While there are hard calls in life, practice provides discipline. From the role models in my life, they make the former look easy to pick the right way, regardless of details. As to the latter, this is why we choose to be around the people we do: how close to this can we get, in various ways.

    As to earnestness, I think it does have a backstop. Don’t think so about humility, or maybe I just can’t come up with the example.

    Interesting that we are focusing on how *we*, as other people, are affected by a person’s personality trait rather than the inherent value of the trait itself.

  13. Erik says:

    Anton Chekhov famously said, “The secret of boring people lies in telling them everything”.

    I think too much earnestness comes down to this.

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