Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Sometimes a thought just catches your eye and makes you think.
James Clear, he of Atomic Habits fame, sent this out in a recent newsletter: “Don’t worry about being the most interesting person in the room, just try to be the most interested person in the room.”
There is such pressure these days to be an eye-catching, lively, engaging person in every social gathering—to have “rizz,” as the young put it. You don’t want to be, to use more of the modern parlance, an NPC—a non-player character. Wherever you go, you have to be one of the main acts, one of the reasons other people gather. Don’t be sidelined, don’t be an extra. Be the most interesting person in the room.
James Clear’s advice is different. For your long-term success, it is more important to be interested rather than interesting. He explains:
“The interested person asks about others and leaves a good impression because people like talking about themselves. The interested person is genuinely curious about someone’s craft and learns a lot about how things work. The interested person engages with more people and—because opportunities come through people—is more likely to catch a lucky break. In general, the interested person learns more and tends to be well-liked. And in the long run, it’s hard to keep down someone who is well-learned and well-liked.”
I endorse this thinking wholeheartedly. Let me riff on it this Sunday.
At a young age, very few can be the most charismatic people in the room. But there is something else anyone can be: the most interested in learning. This means you have to show up in a state of acute curiosity—ready to learn from every interaction.
How does this learning occur? By paying deep attention to everything going on around you. By asking people about themselves rather than rambling on about yourself. By observing nuance and subtlety in people’s behaviour. By really focusing on people who know things and who are worthy of your interest and admiration.
I say this from personal experience. As a lifelong introvert, I have always struggled with being in loud gatherings, and it takes a lot for me to appear in them. But from a young age, I learned some tricks about how to conduct myself when I would rather be home alone with a good book.
The first trick is to treat every person you meet as you would a good book—full of things you can learn. Humans, no matter how modest their station, have so much to teach you, if only you can pay attention. A deep understanding of human beings is an essential part of most types of success. You will need to figure out your human kin and their many complications if you are to work with them, sell to them, or lead them. And the best way to do that is to interact with them. Introverts struggle with small talk at the best of times, but one conversation opener I have always found invaluable is to ask the person I find myself talking to about themselves. Who they are, what they do, what they feel about the issues of the day, how their life is going. I find these questions often open up a great gush of information.
I do this not only at gatherings (because in truth I go to very few these days), but everywhere. I remain very interested in the lives of taxi drivers, waiters, guards, messengers. Some of the greatest wisdoms I have gathered in my life have come from ordinary conversations with ordinary folks. This is the knowledge trove I have mined to become an advisor to those in high places, far more than anything I was taught in school.
Being interested is a lifelong trait. Interested in the world, and what makes it so good—and so bad. Interested in things that work, and things that fail. Interested in the different perceptions and responses of people when encountering the same situation. Being interested makes you interesting in the end, because you acquire unique knowledge and insights along the way. Every person you meet is a library of stories, a bundle of experiences. By being interested, you’re giving them the gift of your attention; but you are also gifting yourself new perspectives, ideas, and insights.
The problem with being the most interesting person in the room is this: when you reach that supposed pinnacle, your learning ends. You are the one spouting rather than imbibing; you are full of yourself, and you have no room for anything else. If this happens to you at a young age, then you have placed a roadblock on your own intellectual and emotional advancement.
So the next time you find yourself in a room of people, or just in a one-on-one conversation, stop trying to be impressive. Lean in, ask questions, show genuine interest, and listen actively. Ask about someone’s greatest challenge this year, or what has changed their thinking lately, or even something as simple as how they are doing. And then really listen, with heart as well as intellect.
Making others feel worthy of attention is a superpower in a world that’s increasingly starved of real connection.
(Sunday Nation, 28 February 2024)