Alone or Together? Social Excellence & Great Ideas

by Jessica Gendron Williams

I recently took a flight where I encountered something I have never encountered before.  I sat down that (very) early morning and prepared to take a nap – I was not going to be socially excellent.  However, my seat mate had other plans – he wanted to talk.  I proceeded to humor him.  He asked me about what I did, why I was going where I was going, and somehow we landed on the topic of Social Excellence.  He loved the idea of teaching social skills to college kids, especially since he had a 10 year old and a 14 year old.  I asked him more questions about him, learned more about who he was and why he was going where he was going.  What’s important for this story for you to know is he used to teach a hard science (think chemistry, biology, physics) at a university, was a government official, and now worked for a research company.

mad_scientistAs he asked more questions about Social Excellence, I told him about how we focused on teaching not only basic social skills, but also things like being open and curious about others.  On that cue, things when sour.  He launched in a 20 minute rant about how there were so many laws and rules in the workplace.  That being curious about the people you work with, asking them questions about them, could open the company up to litigation, blah, blah, blah.  He then proceeded to tell me that he thought being curious about people you work with is, in fact, strongly discouraged.

I rebutted with a story about teaching people to be authentic, being the best version of who they really are at their core – that it wasn’t really about being malicious or nosey, but being caring and kind.  Again, he disagreed.  He then proceeded to tell me that encouraging people to be the best version of themselves wasn’t going to help society or research.  Citing examples of major scientific discoveries, artists, writers, and the like, he indicated that every major discovery was made when someone was either heavily under the influence of drugs or on the verge of a psychotic break.  That all the good discoveries came when people were negatively deviating from the norms of society.

Just when I thought I heard all I could take – here came the last jab.  He then proceeded to inform me that many of those major discoveries happened when these people were alone.  That maybe it was better for people to be alone rather than be “distracted” by other people.  That there are some people who just like being alone: They don’t like interacting with other people – they like being by themselves.  He cited examples of scientists that he works with and researchers that he knows who spend the majority of their day, locked alone in their lab.  Then he said, forcing people to communicate with others that fundamentally don’t want to, was wrong.  Those people should be allowed to be alone.

I was in such shock by the words this man was saying.  He was the first person in my life that was actually disagreeing with values like curiosity, kindness, authenticity, and basic human interaction – that I just couldn’t believe it.  The only words that I could muster as the plane landed was, “Sir, I hear you, but I respectfully disagree.”

This conversation ate at me all day.  It irritated me.  How could someone disagree with the ideals of Social Excellence?  How could he disagree with making people better people?  How could he think that is was okay for people to live their lives – alone.  I just fundamentally disagree with all of his arguments but had little “data” to back up my beliefs – that is until Josh Orendi forwarded me a TED video later that afternoon.

This TED talk was by author, Steven Johnson and was about “Where Good Ideas Come From.” In his talk he cites a researcher who looked at a lab to see where their best ideas came from.  Johnson says about the researcher’s findings that, “Almost all the important breakthrough ideas did not happen alone in the lab, in front of the microscope.  They happened at the conference table, at the weekly lab meetings, when everyone got together and shared their latest data and findings…”  Johnson goes on to argue that the best ideas and innovation happen as a result of a bunch of people, ideas, conversations, interactions, and research that is cobbled together.  That innovation happens because we’re connecting with one-another.

You see, humans are supposed to connect with each other.  Our lives are about being together, community, and networks.  When we work together and connect with one-another we change lives – we save lives. Here’s an example:

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital has increased the survivor rate of the most common form of childhood cancer, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), from a single digit percentage to somewhere between 98 and 99 percent – practically a cure.  This effort wasn’t a result of one researcher or doctor locking himself in a lab and miraculously find the cure one day, but a result of doctors, nurses, researchers, etc. working together to find a cure.  They save countless kids lives every year, by the work they did, together.

Social Excellence merely teaches people how to better and more effectively fulfill our basic human need and desire to be with other people… interacting, being curious, learning, sharing, and connecting.  Being someone who is Socially Excellent doesn’t hurt humanity – it helps it.  I think our problem is not that we have too many people who are Socially Excellent, but not enough.  I welcome you to take the challenge of Social Excellence everyday.  To be the person who connects.  To be the person who positively impacts humanity, by being a better person and connecting with others, everyday.

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