The Master said, “Do not be concerned about whether or not others know you; be concerned about whether or not you know others.”
A lot of wisdom packed into this piece of common sense, and these components can really make an impact on our lives. There are two parts to this saying. The first part is about fame and public opinion. The second part deals with our relationship with others.
Major, major caveat
I can be a pretty anti-social person. On a weekly basis I get into moods where I really don’t want to have anything to do with people. The more I think about living away from people, the happier I feel. But there’s another part of me that definitely knows that the more social I am, the more connections I can make with people, the more I am tapping into my best self. So if making a connection is hard, I get it.
It’s totally worth it though.
Fame, Morality, and Public Opinion
One of the defining characteristics of Confucius thought is the idea that if you do “the right things” by developing yourself into a moral leader, fame and fortune will come to you in a natural “effortless” way. In a significant chunk of the Analects, Confucius repeatedly teaches his disciple this principle. Is it still relevant today? I like to think so.
People that have ethics and are known to have the courage to stand for something are shining examples in our society. Ethics committees and studies in independence have popped up throughout the corporate structure of society as companies try to leverage ethics as a competitive business advantage. In the last 20 years we’ve seen prime examples of whistle blowers that have taken down massive corporate corruption. Even in the last week we’ve seen the power that (former) acting Attorney General Sally Yates had in standing up for what she believed was right.
But the first thing is to become a moral person in your own way, which according to Confucius, will lead to its own rewards.
There’s a tricky thing about morality and all this self-development. You can read about it, practice it, and try to apply it all you want, but when it comes down to it, the only way you really know you’re developing is to interact with others.
In other words, all the “self-practice” is worthless without others. Morality doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Morality is defined by your actions even when it’s not popular.
Confucius asks his disciples to be concerned about whether or not we know others. There’s a whole spectrum of knowing someone, ranging from “Oh yeah, I think I know him,” to “He’s the best friend I ever had.” Confucius here isn’t talking about quantity (the number of people you think you know), but is really talking about the quality (how well you know someone).
We live in a world where we can gather lots of followers and friends on social media pretty easily. My personal favorite are those accounts on Instagram that say “add me and I’ll add you back.” Followers seeking followers. But out of the two thousand “friends” you have, how many of those do you have a real connection with? This is part of the reason why I don’t really like networking events. I understand that it’s a great way to meet people and to forge new relationships, but at the same time it feels forced–it feels like everyone is there for an ulterior purpose, some new way to benefit themselves or their careers. Do they care about who I am, or do they just care about what I can do for them? I’ve never been able to shake that question. Maybe I’m just doing networking events wrong. You tell me.
What is a real connection with a person? At what point do you go from being an acquaintance to actually knowing someone? The truth is that we can be around people for years and known nothing about them. We may greet them on a daily basis, crack jokes with them, and share drinks, but at the end of the day are our relationships more than superficial? The irony of it all, is that we can feel lonely, even in the middle of all of those acquaintances and friends. In fact, loneliness is a real problem in the corporate space.
So what can you do to make your relationships better?
What comes out of your mouth?
In your interactions with your circles, what do you talk to people about? Are you bound to certain topics because of your environmental context? Maybe you only talk about work and work related things at work, or school related things at school. Just like you are a complex person made of different personas for each environmental context, so too is everyone you meet. Ask someone about something different than the usual.
I personally like ice-breaker questions because they can direct a conversation in a direction that you would not normally move in. You may learn something new about an acquaintance that will lead to a deeper friendship.
Here’s the thing, you don’t need to be a therapist, but talking about the deeper things build a deeper relationship. You have to give something of yourself to get something in return. There’s a bit of vulnerability that’s involved with this, so choose your friends wisely.
Evaluating Your Circle
If you’re thinking about improving the quality of the relationships you have, ask yourselves which relationships matter to you? There are some relationships that energize, and some that drain. There are people that lift you up and some that bring you down. Some relationships you just can’t escape, but you can learn how to manage them better.
When looking at your circle of associates, think about whether you’re just looking at them from one point of view. Do you know your co-workers for more than just someone that helps you get your work done? Knowing someone is about talking to someone about what they’re interested in, and talking at their level.
Here’s an example of what not to do from my own life. When I was a senior in college I was an English major that was deep into the academic side of English literature. On a drive with one of my non-artsy friends, I tried talking about all the symbolic nuances in Homer’s Iliad. I rambled on for about an hour before I realized that my friend was not really listening and just nodding along. I still feel really embarrassed about talking about things that were only interesting to me.
At the end of it all, getting to know someone is about finding things in common and connecting.