Knowing a Man vs. Knowing About a Man

Sportswriter Joe Ponsnaski is in the middle of writing of biography of Joe Paterno. And then last week happens.

On his blog, Ponsaski reflects on the man, and starts with this:

Writing a book comes from the soul. It consumes you — mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all of it. I have thought about Joe Paterno, his strengths, his flaws, his triumphs, his failures, his core, pretty much nonstop for months now. I have talked to hundreds of people about him in all walks of life. I have read 25 or 30 books about him, countless articles. I'm not saying I know Joe Paterno. I'm saying I know a whole lot about him.

Love this distinction.

Editor of Modern Love Column: “Hard Stuff” More Interesting than Romance

Daniel Jones, the editor behind the insanely popular Modern Love column, talks about trends in submissions:

What is the one relationship theme or essay topic that you see over and over?

I see a lot about Facebook.


That’s got to be the single most written-about topic. It’s just invaded modern life so much that people can’t get away from it. The more surprising thing I see a lot of for a column called “Modern Love” is people being diagnosed with and dying of cancer. It’s gotten to the point where it becomes a red flag, something to avoid. When I’m reading, where I get to that line of “and then he was diagnosed,” or “and she was stage 4,” whatever… It sounds horrible to say it, but, really, there’s just way too much of it.

Have you seen a shift in the trends of the topics you see, from when you first started the column?

In the past year, I got a bunch of stories about people dealing with siblings – or friends, or lovers – who were dealing with going through gender changes and surgeries – like, people whose daughters became sons. That’s not something I saw any of for years. I think the public acceptance of that has shifted, at least in what I see in what people are willing to talk about publicly.

And this on romance vs. the hard stuff:

Do you consider yourself a romantic person?

Umm… I don’t think I’m all that romantic. I think I have romantic dreams about what my life should be, but I’m not getting all excited about Valentine’s Day or anything.

Then, do you think it’s at all ironic that you’re the editor of a column about love?

I think it’s just more about how complicated human relationships are. I pretty much equate romance with naiveté, you know, before “the hard stuff.” And I’m more interested in the hard stuff.

Friends: People Who Have the Same Flaws as Us

Anne Lamott:

A person's faults are largely what make him or her likable. I like for narrators [of novels] to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I. Preoccupation with self is good, as is a tendency toward procrasination, self-delusion, darkness, jealousy, groveling, greediness, addictiveness. They shouldn't be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting. I like for them to have a nice sick sense of humor and to be concerned with important things, by which I mean that they are interested in political and psychological and spiritual matters. I want them to know who we are and what life is all about. I like them to be mentally ill in the same sorts of way that I am; for instance, I have a friend who said one day, "I could resent the ocean if I tried," and realized that I love that in a guy. I like for for them to have hope — if a friend or narrator reveals himself or herself to be hopeless too early on, I lose interest. It depresses me. It makes me overeat. I don't mind if a person has no hope if she or she is sufficiently funny about the whole thing, but then, this being able to be funny definitely speaks to a kind of hope, of buoyancy.

That's from her 1995 classic, Bird by Bird.

The Opposite of Love is Indifference

Many opposites are not nearly as different as they first appear. For example, as Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel observed, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference; for at a minimum, to love or hate someone is to have intense emotions toward them. We see how the similarities between love and hate often outweigh the differences when one is transformed into the other, a phenomenon that literature — from Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Harlequen Romances — has exploited and explored for millennia.

The psychological proximity of love and hate is part of the hard wiring of the human psyche. Dan Gilbert explains, in his book Stumbling on Happness, that the same neurocircuitry and neurochemistry triggered in response to stressful events ("fight or flight") are also triggered in response to sexual arousal. As a result, when we are stressed in the presence of a person we find sexually attractive, we have a tough time telling what we are responding to: are our passions inflamed (hate) because of a stressor, or are we aroused (love) because of the attractive person?

In the 1994 movie Speed starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, Bullock's character, Annie Porter, appeals to this possible confusion when she notes, upon finding herself in the hero's arms after several near-death experiences, that "relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last."

Call it an "emotional paradox": two very different dispositions — loving and hating — can have far more in common with each other than a seemingly intermediate state.

— Michael Raynor in his business book The Strategy Paradox. His thesis is that the strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure.

The Fantasy That There’s Always Someone Better Just Around the Corner

Yesterday's Modern Love column was one of the best. A great example of how a short story can convey some of the key dynamics of dating / romance better than lengthy exposition. Hard to excerpt, so read the whole thing, but here's the ending:

In the months that followed, I was determined to become a better version of myself — prettier, smarter, more ambitious — and looked for the same in new boyfriends. As it turned out, though, they were looking for someone better, too. In New York, and especially in the movie business, it’s hard to dispel the fantasy that there’s always someone better just around the corner.

Yet by embracing this notion, I had allowed my life to become an ongoing cycle of shallow disappointments that left me longing for someone like my Tim Donohue, who could be satisfied with exactly what he had and who he was. Even more, I longed to be that kind of person again, too.

The “I’m Proud of You” Litmus Test

How many people in your life can say, "I'm proud of you," and you take it fully and without any sort of resentment or dismissal? Whoever those people are, they are probably your mentors.

Someone who credibly says "I'm proud of you" usually has two characteristics. First, he is probably higher status / higher power. Most of the time, having pride about someone else comes from a place of superiority. Second, he must know you well. Most of the time, to be proud of someone means you know where they've been and how far they've come — pride is a word about growth. If a homeless guy on the street (lower status) or Bill Gates (don't know him personally) tell me they're proud of me it won't have a huge positive effect.

To be sure, "I'm really proud of you buddy" can sometimes occur between friends. But this seems less common. Usually friends say "I'm so happy for you" or "Really nice job!" but not the p-word. And family can often be proud, but as with most things family, the obligation and bias dull the effect.

This topic came to mind because I recently saw a friend / mentor and told him about a meaningful professional accomplishment. The next morning, I woke up to an email in my inbox that was one line: "I'm really proud of you." It felt great, and as he falls into both of the categories above, was fully appreciated.

It got me thinking, "How many people could send me that sort of email?" And that's how I arrived at the "I'm Proud of You" litmus test.


Here are other litmus tests I've blogged about.

(thanks to TK and Andy for helping think this through.)

Rolling the Dice When Young and In Love

I'm told an absurd number of Modern Love columns turn into book deals. Given the competitive submission rate, whatever the editors choose to publish tends to be pretty good. This past Sunday's column was one of my favorite.

It's about a popular romantic predicament for people early in life: They fall in love with someone in high school or college. They'd marry the person if they were 35, but they're too young to marry, and still have things they want to do before settling down. Do they commit to the girlfriend or boyfriend in their early 20's even if it means sacrificing other goals? Or do they roll the dice and break up, go do other things, and hope that later in life they can re-connect? (Or, have faith they'll find someone even better.) I've seen men and women play it both ways, with success and with failure.

Mike Ives, in the column, discusses how he chose to part ways with his high school sweat-heart a couple years after college. He figured they'd get married eventually. He traveled the world and lived life. He enjoyed his youth. Three years passed without seeing his girlfriend. He realized he missed her greatly. He wanted to re-kindle the love of old. Alas, by the time he saw her next, she had gotten involved with a new man and was firmly on the road to marriage. It's not clear he made the wrong decision; after all, good decisions can have bad outcomes. The story is poignant either way.

For the first half of my 20s, the Rest of My Life had appeared to wait patiently. And time, like a gift certificate, seemed like something I could hold on to and cash in later. But that night I felt as if the rest of my life was already upon me. Time was short, and I couldn’t think of anything to look forward to.

I grasped for something winning to say. Nothing came. I was drunk. She walked into the station and didn’t look back.

“I Know What It’s Like to Feel Thirsty”

This two minute clip from White Men Can't Jump is the best relationship advice for men from any movie, according to Brad Feld.


Speaking of movies, I watched The Maid recently, a Chilean movie about one family's relationship with their maid. Excellent and highly recommended for anyone interested in the delicate dynamics of an outsider in the house, and especially recommended for those with experience living or traveling in Latin America. Finally, I recently re-discovered Alec Baldwin's famous scene on The Art of Selling from Glengarry Glen Ross. Awesome.

Three More Litmus Tests

One way you quickly learn about a person is by obtaining a small, easy piece of information that tends to suggest a larger, more complicated trait.

For example, I’ve found that if someone blogs or reads blogs regularly, they are almost always above-average interesting. Litmus tests of this sort are especially helpful when reality collides with someone’s aspirational identity — situations where self-delusion dominates direct answers. If you ask someone, “Are you okay being alone?” most people will say, “Yes.” If you ask, “Are you concerned with how strangers might perceive and judge you?” Most people will say, “Not at all — I’m independent.” But then you might ask, “Do you mind eating at a restaurant alone?” Ah-ha! (Admittedly, there are obvious limits to these things.)

Here are three litmus tests I heard from other people which I found interesting:

1. In how much detail do you plan vacations?

Some people plan their vacations / adventure travel in hourly detail and book all hotels and flights in advance. Others book one roundtrip flight and figure out all the details once on the ground. Where you fall on this question is supposed to reveal whether you are a need-to-be-in-control planner or flexible and adaptable.

2. Do you like sharing your food and tasting others’ food at a meal?

If someone offers you food off their plate to try, do you tend to take it? This is supposed to reveal whether you appreciate diversity and are inclined toward experimentation.

3. Were you popular in high school?

High school is an awkward experience for many teenagers still trying to find themselves. Unless you’re a stunningly beautiful girl or a star athlete guy, to become popular in the treacherous hallways of high school requires strict fidelity to the moving target of what’s cool. If you were popular in high school, you probably took the easy path of conformity rather than the hard path of self-discovery. Or at least that’s my sense of what this litmus test implies.

All seem relatively reasonable, though I see myself as the exception to the first two. I happen to plan my trips more than most but I am also quite adaptable, or so I think. I’m not keen on sharing food at a meal because once a plate of food arrives I’m firmly focused on getting the job done sin ayuda. Yet I still see myself as highly experimental and appreciative of new experience.

It does seem generally true that popularity in high school is negatively correlated with intelligence and independent thinking. As far as I can tell, the only girls who are popular in high school are either really attractive or backstabbing mean girls. However, high school popularity for both genders seems positively correlated with networking and communication skills.

The comments in my post on litmus tests three years ago had some interesting other examples.

Is Being in a Relationship a Time Sink?

Many people focused on building their career view being in a romantic relationship as a time sink. Several entrepreneurs have told me that they don't have time for a relationship. To evaluate whether this is true, we need to look at the three possible relationship states pre-marriage.

1. In a Relationship. A relationship takes a lot of time. You may spend every weekend with your significant other and one or two days during the week. During much of that time you are 100% with the other person. Sometimes you are able to double book time by watching movies, buying groceries, washing dishes, etc. but mostly this is maybe 15-20 hours a week (sometimes much more) of time you'd otherwise have free. (Obviously the "maintenance level," as they say, of the significant other affects time commitment.)

2. Single and Looking. You're dating around, or sleeping around. You're going on first dates, trying to impress, and following up on leads. (Using your preferred CRM system, no doubt.) You'd like to be in a relationship so you spend a bunch of time thinking about your ideal mate, comparing and contrasting the various folks you're meeting, and pining wistfully for the relationship of old or idealizing the relationship you someday dream of having.

3. Single and Not Looking. If you're not trying to go on dates and you're content being single, you'll have tons of free time. Weeknights and weekends are yours, and you profit from the power of low expectations.

My thesis is that In a Relationship is just as much of a time and energy sink as Single and Looking. There are various reasons, but one big one. With Single and Looking there's a great deal of emotional energy spent contemplating your lack of dating success, there's stress around existing dates, and of course, wondering, "Is she interested? Am I interested? Do I play like I'm interested?" You spend a lot of cycles thinking about your dating life even when you're not going on dates. The energy spent for In a Relationship, by contrast, tends to be concentrated to the time you're actually spending with the person. There's more certainty, less general / random anxiety and wondering. Easier to focus on work when you are working. So even though the "scheduled time" for a boyfriend or girlfriend is greater, the total energy commitment is about equal to the single but looking person.

Single and Not Looking is the best for those who want as much as time as possible for professional projects. Emotional wonderings are minimal since you're expecting to be single anyway. This is sustainable for a few years or so, or for lots of smaller chunks, but ultimately not a realistic long-term option unless you cut off your penis.

Bottom Line: Being single and looking takes just as much time and energy as being in a relatively low-maintenance relationship.

(thanks to Andy McKenzie for helping brainstorm this.)