in Life Optimization

Make Conversations Actionable

I’m a big fan of making things actionable, (able to be acted upon). There’s no reason to do something unless you  enjoy that thing, or if by doing that thing you learn something new and valuable. To me, ‘valuable’ is synonymous with ‘actionable’ – that is, information that can be immediately be applied towards some action.

Extrapolating this philosophy to my life means that I should make all information I receive either entertaining or actionable. Why take in data I can’t use or don’t like? I wouldn’t watch a movie or read a book if it didn’t fit either of those criteria – so why permit uninteresting conversations?

However, I hesitate to apply this  sentiment to social conversations. The reasoning still holds – why would I want to have a conversation if I didn’t enjoy it or learn something from it? Yet restricting myself to only speaking in situations where this occurs would likely turn me into an asocial hermit who only speaks to his best friends and people I believed I could gain knowledge from. Such activity would turn me into a callous opportunist.

Socializing can be fun, especially with friends. And socializing with strangers at parties can  be rewarding when it yields new friends or nuggets of information. Yet it requires endless dead end conversations with people you don’t really care about, asking questions you don’t want to know the answer to. Like “Where are you from, what do you do, what’s your name?”. I often find myself stuck in such conversations despite by best efforts to Ask Better Questions. Your background and name can come later – once I actually care about you. If we have little in common and don’t get along, I don’t want to know your name – its a useless piece of data without anything meaningful attached to it!

Think about the interactions you have with people through commercial interactions – store clerks, ticket takers, cab drivers, and the like. You don’t waste time with them talking about the weather or how either of you feel (despite the obligatory opening ‘How are you?’). Instead, you exchange the minimum amount of words necessary to complete the transaction, and move on. The problem with social conversations is that there is no underlying purpose for them other than getting to know each other, which leads to circuitous pleasantries. I argue that this is best done through exchanging information of value. The best relationships are built on foundations of mutual value

For instance, the other night at a social dinner I spoke with several new people and learned about their travel plans, their names, and how long they’re in the area. They, in turn, learned my major, how long I have lived here, and that I had studied in Barcelona last year. Are either of us better off after this exchange?

Again, this information and such questions are fluff – they should emerge naturally, after you establish a true connection with the person. Yet these answers come earlier because we start by probing each other for similarities – looking for conversational handles we can use to turn the conversation towards something both parties care about.

Compare such interactions to the lunch I just finished with my new friend Alex, where we dove right into meaty things we both cared about – computer science, personal productivity, and the projects we are working on. The towns we grew up in did come up during the course of the conversation, but it was only to provide context for an earlier point. Our lunch time flew by  – before I knew it our allotted hour was up and we had to part ways. (This interaction was almost a microcosm of my Night at the Embassy last year – I never wanted to end a conversation!)

I left that conversation with several jotted notes of names and companies that Alex thought I should check out based off of my interest, and he left with a similar list garnered from me. That list, and thus our entire interaction, is immediately actionable. It leads down a road of worthy internet research that yields me towards personal betterment and learnings all on my own, without additional effort on Alex’s part. Yet everything I discover as a result of such advice is attached to him in my mind, which make me think of him whenever I encounter that information, and in turn strengthens our connection. Isn’t this highly preferable to a laundry list of where the person grew up, what they do now, and other personal frivolities? I think it is.

Introducing friends to media they enjoy with or without you is one of the most powerful things you can do to cement a friendship, short of spending time enduring hardship together or collaborating on a project. Whether it’s music, art, or a new friend, whenever they partake in that activity they will think of you. Since they enjoy it, they will do it a lot – and thus think of you a lot! Think of the songs that remind you of ex girlfriends or boyfriends – because they introduced you to them, or because you shared a memory with them that had that song as the soundtrack.

So I suppose my reluctant conclusion is that all conversations should  be actionable. It makes the conversation more enjoyable, provides furthering learning opportunities for both parties, and strengthens the corresponding relationship. The trick is to live by this maxim without dismissing the many smaller, less useful conversations that are unavoidable and thereby becoming a pompous douchebag. You never know where learnings can come from.

Is this too drastic of a pedagogy? What do you think – should all your conversations be actionable?