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How to Be Interesting

Sketch of a Plant by Leonardo.

Drawing by Leonard da Vinci, via Wikimedia Commons

Nobody wants to be boring.

It’s not exactly the done thing to say “I want to be interesting”, but the enthusiastic response to Russell Davies’ article How to Be Interesting suggests that it’s something we aspire to. And with good reason. Over three years before Seth Godin told us in Linchpin that being remarkable (and therefore indispensable) is the key to a successful career, Russell said essentially the same thing:

the core skill of any future creative business person will be ‘being interesting’. People will employ and want to work with (and want to be with) interesting people.

If you work in the creative industries, this is pretty much a no-brainer, but now that we’re living in the age of the creative economy, when more and more businesses are being urged to think like media companies, it starts to look like a recipe for survival and success in any industry.

So how can we do it? Russell offers some great tips, but I want to draw your attention to the two basic principles that they follow from:

The way to be interesting is to be interested. You’ve got to find what’s interesting in everything, you’ve got to be good at noticing things, you’ve got to be good at listening. If you find people (and things) interesting, they’ll find you interesting.

Interesting people are good at sharing
. You can’t be interested in someone who won’t tell you anything. Being good at sharing is not the same as talking and talking and talking. It means you share your ideas, you let people play with them and you’re good at talking about them without having to talk about yourself.

Jonathan Morrow offers more good advice in his own piece titled How to Be Interesting, where he lists 21 techniques writers can use to be more interesting to their audiences. And of course his advice applies to all of us, not just writers. Here’s one of my favourites:

11. Unleash your inner dork: Many blog posts are like miniature textbooks; they’re instructive, well-organized, and put you to sleep with their lack of enthusiasm. If you want to become famous on the web, stop trying to sound like an all-knowing teacher and unleash the “inner dork” inside of you — the part of you that’s so enamored with your topic that everyone else thinks it’s funny… but they pay attention anyway. More on dorkyness here.

Russell and Jon are both very interesting fellows, doing interesting stuff. They’re very different characters, working in different fields, for different audiences. But they share two principles, that are critical to what makes them interesting (and therefore successful):

1. Follow Your Interests

I agree with Russell that “the way to be interesting is to be interested” but I’m going to qualify his advice slightly. I don’t think most of us can “find what’s interesting in everything”. Russell is a confirmed creative generalist, so he probably can, but I think most of us have a more limited range of interests. Which is no bad thing. In fact, I think it’s the key to a lot of happiness and fulfilment in life, let alone simply ‘being interesting’.

Rather than try to find what’s interesting in everything, I suggest we pay attention to the things we genuinely find interesting — no matter how obscure, silly, embarrassing or irrelevant they might appear.

Because when you feel curiosity, interest and fascination, you bring your whole self to whatever you’re doing, you give it your full attention, and you have all the energy and persistence you’ll need to do something amazing.

“It’s a reactive thing, like a Geiger counter; you click whenever you come close to whatever you were built to do.”

Stephen King

I’m not exactly a paragon of interestingness, but I have noticed people are frequently intrigued and occasionally bemused by my own range of interests. I’ve had my share of funny looks on mentioning poetry in a corporate setting. Conversely, some of my fellow poets have been shocked to discover my interest in business. Audiences sit up a little straighter when I mention that I’m a trained hypnotist. A friend once told me she didn’t understand how I could “write such sensitive poems AND be obsessed with football”. The other psychotherapists in my peer vision group think my interest in ‘internet stuff’ is a bit odd. And so on.

It all seems perfectly normal to me. I don’t see why being interested in one thing should mean I’m not interested in another. And apart from the intrinsic interest of each topic or activity, it makes for a pretty creative mix, when you start to find connections between them. Frans Johansson calls this The Medici Effect:

When you step into an intersection of fields, disciplines, or cultures, you can combine existing concepts into a large number of extraordinary new ideas.

To take a genuinely interesting example, Leonardo da Vinci is often revered as a universal genius, equally at home in the arts, sciences and engineering. (He was also a dab hand at organising parties and making mechanical toys, but those accomplishments tend to get glossed over.) But as Donald Sassoon points out in his book Mona Lisa, such a wide range of interests was fairly typical of his era:

In his time … the conventional separation between disciplines had not yet developed. Universalism was an attribute common to all gifted men of the Renaissance, not a unique trait of Leonardo’s…

Leonardo moved easily from science to art and back again. Only in a culture in which there were no rigid boundaries between the two could this take place…

He was in good company. Machiavelli not only wrote his famous treatise on politics (The Prince), but also a history and a play (La Mandragora) still frequently performed. Albrecht Durer studied mathematics and geometry, wrote treatises on measurement in 1525 and on military engineering in 1527, and was a supreme master of woodcut and copper engraving as well as a major painter. Nicola Angelo, unlike Leonardo, managed to excel in four distinct fields: architecture, painting, sculpture and poetry.

These days, we’re in a culture where “the conventional separation between disciplines” is breaking up, or at least becoming more permeable. As Russell says, “The marvelous thing about tinterweb is that it’s got great tools for being interested and great tools for sharing”.

There are plenty of people holding up their hands in horror at the lack of single-minded focus among the ‘butterfly minds’ of today’s Internet generation, but perhaps this is not a hideous modern aberration so much as a return to the world of Leonardo, where it was considered normal, even admirable, to flit from one thing to another. Leonardo’s notebooks are full of half-baked projects, and flying machines that quite literally never got off the ground, but nobody seems to complain too much.

Whatever interests, enthusiasms or idle curiosities drift through your mind, you have the tools to follow them up, learn more about them and connect with people who share them. I suggest you take full advantage.

2. Commit

The word ‘interest’ has its roots in the Latin verb ‘interesse’, meaning ‘matter, make a difference’. And another of its meanings, apart from ‘fascination’, is ‘ to have an interest in’ something, i.e. a stake or investment in it.

Real interest is not passive. Dilettantes are boring because they have many ‘interests’ but don’t do anything with them. Critics are boring because they sit on the sidelines, carping and moaning. Or as Teddy Roosevelt put it in more elevated language:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or whether the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and short coming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be without those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

I came across this passage in a book by my friend Raj Setty, who follows it up with a friendly challenge:

Who do people want to follow: someone who was on the field playing or someone sitting on the ringside seat commenting on how to play?

Play!

Upbeat, by Rajesh Setty

These days, we have more than opportunities than ever to play, to get going without waiting or asking for permission. Write a book and publish it yourself. Start a business. Learn an instrument. Run a marathon or climb Everest. Go on a mission to see the entire world. Start a movement.

The internet gives you the tools, the information and the connections you need. If you can’t do it all yourself, there are plenty of places where you can find like-minded people with complementary skills.

Things only get really interesting when you commit to doing something. When you have skin in the game. When you take a risk, do your best to succeed, accept that things will probably go wrong — and do it anyway.

What Interests You?


What are your interests?

What have you learned or gained from pursuing an interest that seemed silly or irrelevant at the time?

What interest are you going to follow up next?

Comments

  1. I’m about to do some blogging, and will take this post to heart, and try to channel more of my inner, interesting, slightly dorky voice.

  2. Heh, get in touch with your Inner Dork. 😉

  3. Thanks for the Russell Davies link, Mark and I’m also glad you found Jon’s article – I thought of it immediately when I saw your post’s title.

    This is an interesting contrast to a 1938media post that I read today, where he basically says that very few people are interesting at all. His tone is negative; yours is much more positive.

  4. My pleasure Mark. Just looked at the 1938media piece – looks like he’s on a serious social media comedown. It sounds to me as though he’s talking about people in certain corners of the social media space, rather than people in general. Which might make it more accurate/less negative depending on your point of view. 😉

  5. Thank you Mark, for giving me the idea to be a Dork. It’s not something I’ve ever wanted to attain before. But hmmm… hey, I’ll try anything. Once. Or twice.

    Btw – interesting post.

  6. Welcome to the Dork Side. :-)

  7. I like it that you change the focus to what “interests you” rather then “being interesting”. This translates into doing what you love instead of trying to do what you think other find interesting.

    It is of course useful to know what people like and try to adhere to that if you want good sales. But in terms of becoming inspired or creative, the latter tends to make you feel pressured and acting out of fear or rejection rather than acting out of “lust for life”.

    My take on being active in several interests is that it is a wise thing to do. “Cross-training” is proven to produce quicker results than just one single focus. Of course too many interests can make you lost, but actively focusing on 3-4 things will actually make you advance quicker in all those areas.

    Nothing wrong with specialization but my meditation and physical exercise definitely helps my creativity no doubt.

    Personally I have had a difficult relationship with money and that interest is something I am pursuing right now as well as my normal interests to further expand my world-view.

    Good post. Well put together and interesting!

    Cheers

  8. Thanks Samuel.

    It is of course useful to know what people like and try to adhere to that if you want good sales.

    It is indeed. Ideally you’re looking for an overlap between your own interests and those of your audience/customers/peers – when you hit the sweet spot where they all overlap, that’s where the real magic happens.

    I have a similar experience with meditation, exercise and creativity (although tbh the exercise has fallen by the wayside a little recently).

  9. I’ve been re-reading a book from a few years ago, “Exuberance” by Kay Redfield Jamison, and it sort of looks at this subject of being interested. I think enthusiasm is often the greatest hook. Many people can get interested in almost anything if they sense the exuberance you have for it. I think they inevitably wonder, “What is it about this that has that guy so excited?” It’s like a magnet.

    And there is also the aspect of, who wants to spend time on something they aren’t interested in? That feeling gets communicated too and when people sense you’re going through the motions, they lose interest.

  10. that’s a bloody brilliant article on being creative and remarkable, Mark

    The internet has given us tremendous possibilities to mix business with art, and that’s what I’m going to do. I want to bring the creativity to marketing/branding aspect of the digital world, and I consider this as playing, because only when you play will you produce magic.

  11. A very interesting read. I had a slight chuckle when reading about people not getting how you could like football and poetry, it reminded me of many years ago when the quarterback of the University American football team stopped me in the streets of our university town to inform me of a coaching meeting rapidly organised for that evening and the startled look when I said I could not make it as I had a yoga class to attend! Never seen the problem with having a mix of interests. I think I am right in saying that Lynn Swann the great Steelers wide receiver of the seventies did ballet class in the off-season, anyone who saw some the catches he made could be in no doubt that he understood the importance of a creative mix,

  12. @ Bill – That sounds a great book. Enthusiasm is one of my (ahem) enthusiasms.

    @ Mars – Well creativity certainly shines through on your site, more of the same please!

    @ Mark – Heh, I guess yoga doesn’t seem that macho (unless you’ve tried it and realise how difficult it is). I’d love to see a YouTube mashup of Steeler’s catches set to Swan Lake. :-)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Jon Morrow capped off a short series of posts with 21 ways to make your writing more interesting. My friend Mark McGuiness took another stab at this topic by revisiting Russell Davies’ original article and condensing the whole thing down to two […]