“Oh really? He’s nice isn’t he?”
“He was at a meal I went to at that new German bar. He’s alright.”
“What does that mean?”
Think about leadership. The person who can sail the ship in calm waters is not necessarily the person we want at the helm during a raging storm. Difficult situations requires a higher calibre captain. Someone made of stronger stuff.
Think about an average person going through an average day. Perhaps a colleague. It’s easy for them to keep a level head most of the time. To come across as patient, thoughtful, helpful, kind.
Typically, life isn’t that dramatic. True storms are rare. And similar to fair weather sailors, it’s easy for us to act normal in simple situations.
Whenever we’re around other people, we wear a mask. I don’t care how honest and true to yourself you think you are. Everyone, to some degree, plays to the crowd. You act differently in the workplace compared to how you act with close friends. I’m not condemning it. Acting according to the situation you’re in is prudent. But all of us wear a mask.
In fair weather scenarios, that mask stays on. The persona that we construct around ourselves stays intact.
People only see past our construction—or we see past others’—in two scenarios. The first is in times of stress. The second is in times of relaxation.
Nassim Taleb defines something as antifragile if it gains from the Extended Disorder Family. If it gets better when confronted with uncertainty and chaos. The masks we wear are fragile. Chaos, uncertainty and situations which expose us to the unexpected force the mask to slip. In times of stress, we cannot hide our true selves. Others see us as we actually are.
The only other time where that mask is lifted is when we are relaxed. When all threats to us are concealed. When we are in a comfortable environment, around people who have earned our trust and respect.
If the above is true—and I’ve seen no evidence to say that it’s not—then there’s two interesting insights.
The first is that the two ways to unmask someone’s character are identical to the two triggers of creativity. Draw from that what you will.
The second is that one method of unmasking is easier than the other to achieve. Unmasking via relaxation takes time. Trust needs to be gained. You need to become a true friend. Which naturally, you cannot do for every person you meet.
The only way you’ll see what most people are really made of is by seeing them in situations where they are exposed to high levels of stress and disorder.
This realisation presents you with a few options. It gives you three ways in which you can unmask an individual.
- Deliberately create disorder to see how they respond. This borders on manipulative behaviour, but it’s acceptable if the person in question is going to be put into high stakes situations. Think about special forces preparation and all the things their recruits go through.
- Wait for disorder to happen naturally to them. And it will. As Nassim Taleb points out, the passage of time brings about disorder. People and organisations die, things break, problems arise. You just have to wait and observe their reactions.
- Befriend them, either truly or artificially. They need to trust you enough to let their barriers down. To be comfortable enough around you that their self-consciousness melts away.
The only other option? Withhold judgement.
During high levels of stress and during the complete absence of it. These are the only situations in which you’ll glimpse someone’s character. And if you haven’t observed them in those situations? You don’t know them at all.