Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you how terrible I am at correspondence. (Seriously, the worst.)
Despite the fact that I love receiving new message notifications, or that I always intend to get back to the people who contact me, the fact is that I rarely return emails, texts, or phone calls. And it’s not that I don’t see them (despite the fact that I used to say I didn’t). Nor is it that my phone has died (despite the fact that I used to say it did). The truth is, I’ve either seen the message yet forgotten that I haven’t replied, or, far more frequently, I find it too mentally exhausting to respond.
I find this particularly odd because, in person, I’m a fairly good communicator. Hell, I can even be great at times. In fact, in any given month, I typically receive a dozen or so invitations for coffee/drinks, almost always from acquaintances or recently made connections, with whom I’ve run into in person either through CreativeMornings (a monthly breakfast lecture series I host in Boston) or one of my talks (usually at a tech conference on the east coast). These invitations are always welcome; in most cases, I’m actually downright flattered to receive them. Yet still, a form of this odd, antisocial behavior presents itself: I cancel 99% of all of the invitations I initially accept.
The question I’ve been asking myself recently is: Why do I do this, especially considering how excited I am to receive the invitation in the first place? Fortunately, I think I may have finally come across an answer, and believe it or not, this tendency to cancel plans may be entirely outside of my control.
In the last few months, I’ve become obsessed with reading about social neuroscience, a fairly new field of study concerned with “identifying the neural processes underlying social behavior”. Put more simply, social neuroscience seeks to better understand the relationship between the brain and social behavior. In the most recent book I’ve read, “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior” (an absolute must read, and the main reason I haven’t written in the last few weeks), the author, Leonard Mlodinow, discusses what the most recent findings in neuroscience tell us about how our brains have evolved to allow us to be increasingly social beings.
“Some scientists believe that the need for social interaction was the driving force behind the evolution of superior human intelligence… Other primates exhibit social intelligence, but not nearly to the extent that we do. They may be stronger and faster, but we have the superior ability to band together and coordinate complex activities. Do you need to be smart to be social? Could the need for innate skill at social interaction have been the reason we developed our higher intelligence – and could what we usually think of as the triumphs of our intelligence, such as science and literature, be just a by-product?”
Mlodinow goes on to explain that the “sudden appearance” of this increased intelligence (at least in evolutionary terms) seems to be far from accidental. In fact, there seems to be a direct, albeit “curious” connection between the gradual increasing size of a certain brain structure in primates and our respective social group sizes.
“To be precise, the size of a species’ neocortex – the most recently evolved part of the brain – as a percentage of that species’ whole brain seems to be related to the size of the social group in which members of that species hang out. Gorillas form groups of under ten, spider monkeys closer to twenty, and macaques more like forty – and these numbers accurately reflect the neocortex-to-whole brain ratio of each of these species. Suppose we use the mathematical relationship that describes the connection between group size and relative neocortex size in nonhuman primates to predict the size of human social networks. Does it work? Does the ratio of neocortex to overall brain size apply to calculating the size of human networks, too?… In the end,… the human group size comes out to about 150, just about what the neocortex size model predicts.”
There you have it (finally!): a reason why I find it so difficult to follow through with my commitments to new people. And not just any reason. A scientifically validated reason. You see, it’s not my fault I find it oddly and painfully difficult to follow up with people. I’m not a bad person for failing to follow through with my plans. The simple fact is, I’m limited by my anatomy. Given that I routinely speak in front of groups from more than 150, and I already count my collection of friends, family, and colleagues at greater than 150, it is just unreasonable to expect myself to be capable of accommodating more people. The size of my social group has simply outgrown what my brain has evolved to handle.
See what I did there? I justified my own bad behavior.
Each day, we all make commitments, both to ourselves and to others. We express our intention (even excitement) to follow through with the commitment, make elaborate plans by which we’ll accomplish satisfying that commitment, and then, far more frequently than we should, we bail on that commitment. Whether it’s heading to the gym, meeting up for a coffee, going on a blind date, or calling someone back, we’ve all backed out of something. Worse, we usually lie about why. Worst, we usually justify to ourselves the reasons we’ve cancelled on our commitment, and thus the lie we gave for why we’ve cancelled.
For me, this is no longer an option, and it sucks… But it’s also sort of great.
You see, because of this commitment to honesty, I simply cannot get out of plans or commitments for bullshit reasons. I can’t tell someone ‘I’m stuck in traffic‘ when I just left late. I can’t say ‘I forgot I have another meeting‘ when I don’t want to turn off this GoT rerun I’m watching. I can’t say ‘I don’t feel well‘ when I’m feeling antisocial. And because I can’t get out of commitments for false reasons, I’m either forced to admit that I just don’t want to, or I have to bite the bullet and actually follow through.
In the end, I nearly always follow through.
And this has been one of the most positive aspects of my pursuit of honesty over the last few months: Because I am no longer able to lie to others about the motivations of my actions (or in this case, inactions), I am forced to acknowledge when those motivations are inexplicable, indefensible, or even downright reprehensible. And in these moments when I become aware of my bad behavior, I make a commitment to no longer allowing myself to continue forward with it. In effect, by refusing to hide behind my own lies, I succeed in revealing my faults to myself. From there, a path toward improvement becomes clear.
So the next time you want to back out of your own plans, ask yourself if your justifications for failing to follow through with those commitments are accurate, acceptable, and authentic. If not, do yourself and others a favor: either be honest, or shut the fuck up and go.
In the end, you’ll both thank you for it. I promise.