Understanding What Keeps a Person Up at Night

Sleep

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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