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How Not to Size Someone Up in 90 Seconds: Look for the Surprise

Ah, the thrill of efficiency and certainty—of bagging, tagging and rapidly moving on. We love applying it to our messy closets and, it seems, to people. Especially in the business arena, there are plenty of books, articles and talks that will tell you how to definitively size someone up in 90 seconds or less. You […]

Ah, the thrill of efficiency and certainty—of bagging, tagging and rapidly moving on. We love applying it to our messy closets and, it seems, to people. Especially in the business arena, there are plenty of books, articles and talks that will tell you how to definitively size someone up in 90 seconds or less. You can’t even get through one layer of your closet in that time, yet you can label, box, and place someone on a shelf. OK, sure, that type of instant read might be helpful when recruiting for, say, a customer-facing position that requires an immediate smile and friendly vibe. But there’s a difference between what someone can immediately project and the whole of who someone is or can be—and I can thank my brother for helping to remind me of that.

My brother has a nice haircut and a good job. He’s coached his kids sporting teams, put in new bathroom tile with his wife, and run marathons all over the U.S. My brother also likes to crowd into the front row at punk rock shows and scream the words to the songs along with the front man. It’s not that he’s releasing pent up rage or railing against his nice haircut. He just thinks it’s tremendously fun. Yes, the scene surprises even me. Surprises and delights. Surprises, delights and challenges me to keep the lid off the box and see what else I might find.

We are rarely the sum total of our titles: parent, accountant, sister, volunteer. Yet as assessors, we love to fill in the blanks of our questionnaire and affix the period. Move on; we have things to do. I recently met a new colleague at work. He gave me the factual run down of his resume, which is impressive, and it would have been fine to set up shop in that space. But I probed a bit more and found his gooey center when he started talking about his daughters and how the younger constantly dresses up as a princess, complete with clip earrings and at least two bracelets–two. I love that he knew that. I want my understanding of him to lean into both spaces, and look for even more light.

Seeking the surprises in others is a delight in itself. I am nearly giddy when I learn that a colleague enjoys making piñatas, or was in the Navy, or sings karaoke, or cans her own pickles. Most people are inherently interesting. Looking for those surprises—What? You’ve watched the entire “Breaking Bad” series twice?—also provides a greater freedom to look for ever-evolving surprises in ourselves: the marvelous sidebars, quirks, little-known facts, and unexpected aspects.

In doing so, we allow ourselves to expand the lines we self-impose and enrich how we meet our run-of-the-mill day. In the case of my brother, while I doubt he gets in the face of his supervisor during management meetings, I like to think he takes some of the exuberance and connection he finds at those loud, sweaty punk shows and wraps it in a way that brings added meaning to his strategy sessions. How awesome is that?

This “game” of looking for the unknown has also saved me from pigeon-holing people and has enabled me to extend compassion when it would be so, so much easier to keep my eyes rolled back in my head. Holding on to the belief that I don’t know the whole picture suspends judgment. I’m sure there are, sadly, times when bad behavior really is the whole of someone’s story but I like to think that’s the exception. I’d prefer to err on the side of possibility and hold the space for more of whatever that individual’s interesting more is.

Efficiency and certainty have their place, but when it comes to the complexity of you and of me, I like to find the unique pieces I didn’t expect. Those are the discoveries that add richness to the everyday and keep me on the hunt for even more surprises.  

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