Some children are magnetic to other kids. They fit well in groups, because they’re so much like the others. Everybody loves them.
I was not that child.
My friends tended to be the brainy nerds and unique outcasts of the neighborhood. If everybody was playing and being social, my interests just weren’t like most people’s. I didn’t understand them, because they seemed so stupid and immature to me, which probably would have seemed strange coming from this tiny boy.
The other kids wanted me around when things needed to get done. When something needed to be built and nobody had a plan, I took charge. When students at school divided into teams for academic competition, kids wanted me to lead their team. If other kids were confused about what to do, they often turned to me.
But that didn’t mean they liked me.
I pretended I didn’t care whether people liked me, but I cared so much that I cried about it sometimes when no one was around. I didn’t know how to be like them. I didn’t want to change to be like them anyway. But I still wished they would like me for what I was.
All these years later, I still feel the same way.
When I don’t know how to do something, I’ll cheerfully confess that I don’t have an opinion. I often tell people that I don’t know enough about a subject to give advice about it. When I’m unsure about something, I say so. I often qualify an opinion or a recommendation to point out my blind spots.
But when I know what I’m doing, I’m completely confident and I’m going to say so. I’m not going to pretend that your ignorance is just as good as my expertise. I’m not going to be nasty to you. I’m not going to raise my voice. But I’m going to let you know that this is how something ought to be done.
Most people don’t like that. It annoys others when you don’t treat their opinions — about subjects they’re not qualified to have opinions about — as gold. They don’t like the explanations you can give them about why their opinions are wrong. And I have no patience in trying to carefully teach something to someone which it took me many years to learn.
I was reminded of all that today in a work situation. There was a small matter which caused a disagreement between me and someone I work with every now and then. It wasn’t a big deal. It won’t change my life or his. But it reminded me again of what I felt like as a child when I saw some kids who naturally fit in with others — in ways that I never would.
About 12 years ago, I had a girlfriend who was brilliant and competent. She was also diplomatic and had good leaderships skills. But she didn’t suffer fools gladly. When she was dealing with someone who didn’t understand what she wanted done — or who was standing in the way of something she was trying to accomplish — I would see that there was a storm brewing inside of her that she was holding in.
On the outside, she was calm and nice and pleasant, but just on the inside, there was a tiger who was ready to slice someone’s head off if necessary.
I thought about her today after I had the little confrontation at work. I imagine that someone who knows me well would probably have seen something similar in me. But as much as I try, I don’t think I do as good a job hiding the way I really feel and what I really think. Even though I try to be nice and diplomatic, I know that the subtext of my attitude comes across as, “Why are you such an idiot?!”
As much as I want to, I still don’t play well with others. I’m not nasty. I’m not mean. But I don’t have that skill that allows me to smooth over anything and get people to see things my way.
Years ago, I talked with a political associate about an idea I had. This guy was very experienced in both politics and real estate. I had come up with an idea to develop a small piece of property and build about a dozen houses, so I asked his advice about whether I should try it.
He told me I shouldn’t do it. He said there was no flaw in my proposal. It was a really good idea and should be profitable. But he said that my personality would never work insofar as getting past the planning boards and zoning boards whose permission I would need. He said he knew I could do the work and do nice developments in the future, but he said I would never be able to get these people to like me enough to get them to sign off on it.
At the time, it hurt my feelings, but I know now that he’s right.
There are some things that I do very, very well. I’m very confident in my knowledge and skills in those areas. But there are some skills — which came naturally to some children — which will never be natural to me.
I can move comfortably among any people in a social situation and leave them with the impression that I’m a likable man. I can talk to anybody about anything. Nobody intimidates me. As long as we stick to small talk — and I get them to tell me about themselves, which others typically love — they will think they like me.
But that bores me quickly, because that’s not who I am. And once the “real me” comes out, most people are confused or bored or offended.
I wish there were more people who liked and appreciated what I really am. I don’t know how to change to be what they want — and I wouldn’t change even if I knew how. I need a partner who can be the likable one and make deals and talk to outsiders, but I’ve known that for years.
In the meantime, I guess I still need a warning sign — at least on some days — that says, “Does not play well with others.”