Understanding What Keeps a Person Up at Night


What is the one thing that gnaws at you when it’s quiet and you are alone, driving to work at 7:30 in the morning?

— Tomas Tizon, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist

Tizon presented this question to aspiring profile writers. He says if you do a profile on somebody you want to understand the person's pain — you want to understand the person's central, private anxiety and of course this doesn't come from asking about it directly.

Perhaps you can use this idea as a litmus test for how well you know someone.

Think about a friend.

Do you know his one, looming insecurity or anxiety? When your friend lies awake at 1:30 AM, unable to sleep, do you know what she dwells on? When he sits on his couch alone watching TV, late on a dull Thursday evening and his eyes drift, what preoccupation slowly comes to the fore?

Most people carry some flavor of one dominant anxiety: Am I beautiful enough? Am I smart enough? Am I going to let down my father? Does my spouse love me? Will I be found out? Will I be "successful" in the real world?

It's the stuff advertising and pop culture prey on.

The reason it's hard for a profile writer or even a friend to get at these fundamental anxieties is that sometimes they operate at a sub-conscious level. For example, a student might explain anxiety about getting good grades by his desire to go to X graduate program. Sub-consciously it may be about deeper insecurity over his intelligence and the related need for validation.

Whatever it is, if the New Yorker asks you to profile a person, or you're simply trying to deepen your understanding of a friend or colleague, you want to figure out what is really keeping him up at night.


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4 comments on “Understanding What Keeps a Person Up at Night
  • I feel that this rule applies to a lot more than just profile writing. It’s a critical aspect of good sales technique, and more generally, an important way to build relationships. And as we all know, building relationships is how EVERYTHING gets done in this world.

    Kind Regards,

    Alexandra Levit
    Author, They Don’t Teach Corporate in College
    Blogger, Water Cooler Wisdom

  • Ah, what a good question. Sometimes I don’t even realize that externally, I’m furrowing my brow or thinking hard about something that I can’t get out of my head and a friend will say, “Woah, what’s going on in there?”

    I think it’s the same sort of question around, what makes you tick? The insecurities and worries that some people have that keep them up at night don’t have to be negative. I think they are the very pieces that let us thrive and evolve.

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