Stranger 38, Day 38 – Meet Erik, the “Thinker”

Stranger 38, Day 38 - Meet Erik

I thought today would be really difficult to find a Stranger to talk to while I’m out hustling and bustling at a trade show. Instead, it’s turned out to be wicked easy. Not just because I’m in a conference full of sales people, but because there are just so many people walking around EXPECTING to be talked to. So despite having a full plate of everything to do between setting up my company’s booth, speaking to lots of people throughout the show, setting up side panels, etc., meeting people with no motivation to sell but to connect was quite easy. At least, it was today — the first day of the conference.

So here’s a fellow vendor that was near my company’s booth.

Meet Erik, 47

Who are you?

“Oh, that’s a fascinating question. I like that. I like that opening.”

Erik continues, “I’m at a trade show, so my first answer is Vice President of Product Marketing… but that’s not who I am. That’s a very American-centric perspective where we define ourselves by our jobs.”

“I could go in… I’m a father of two, or I could say I’m a husband of one for 24 years.”

“Or I can say I’m just me.”

“How’s that for a fuzzy answer?” He laughs. I respond that the purpose of this answer is to let the Stranger take me where he/ she wants to take me.

“Yeah, I know! That’s why I was laughing about it… because of the situation we’re in, my initial reaction is to talk about my company. I can talk about the products and stuff. So if I go down the professional path, I’m a dilatant who’s been playing in incentive compensation for two-and-a-half decades. Finally telling people what to do or creating technology to fund it, and take care of it. But on the flip-side, that’s just more because I fell into it. I enjoy science. I enjoy data. I enjoy analytics. I enjoy what motivates people. So I’ve chased down the incentive side of motivation as opposed to any part of motivation, and I find that interesting, but how does that drive things. But again, I wouldn’t say that is WHO I AM. Who I am is a much more complex answer. I do a lot of different things. I am everything from a Scoutmaster to a church leader to a father to a husband to a guy who would like nothing better than to sit in a pair of shorts and kick back on a couch reading a random book!”

What are your passions? Do you have any dreams? If so, what are they?

“My passions right now are probably focused on family. I’ve got one son who is a senior in college, and one son who is in 8th grade. So if I think about the things I really care about, it’s going to be my immediate family more than anything else. After that, in terms of passions, what gets my attention, then it’s the next-next circle of the network if you think of the monkey spheres — you know communities you can reach out and touch… immediate family. Then the best of friends. I just came off my 25th college reunion where I got to see my best friends who truly changed my life at different stage… critical, crucial developmental stage, and that’s huge. So I’m passionate about that. I’m passionate about understanding things… the data side of my work, or even articles in the newspaper. Or for that matter, reading that Today I Learned column and read it. Because I like gathering information and finding out how and where and why things tick and why they happen. We get overly simplistic answers to complicated questions, and overly complicated answers to simplistic questions. The more I can jump in the data is always fascinating.”

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned by understanding data and how things work?

“Most of our assumptions are wrong, and some of them are right. If you start with individuals, I can’t tell you how to motivate a single person, but I can tell you ways to motivate 100 that will work on 70% of them. That’s a key things to realize — we are all individuals, but if you put enough of us in a group, you’ll start to find patterns. Patterns are fascinating! There are so many patterns in the world you can track. Even in the same sets, think of the worst, most negative behavioral patterns you’ve met. If you found 100 people that acted in the same way, I bet you can find some underlying causes and effects and patterns within those 100 people. So instead of saying, ‘Fred over there is a horrible individual’, say, ‘wow, people like Fred got there because of the following reasons…’ The more we can understand that, this is where we are getting the larger picture… can be so fascinating to me. If people were like, ‘oh, I don’t care about that’. No, you might not, but if I get 100 of you, I can get something.”

I started thinking about those who committed a crime (“criminals”), and how easy it is to point the finger at the person, and analyze and judge them on what they did. However, we’re quick to ignore the history and how that person comes to that position. Erik jumps in…

“There’s a documentary on Netflix right now called the Thirteenth that actually covers that subject. Talks about the incarceration of African Americans at a higher rate than any other group. When you did into that, and [my friend who is Senator has pushed on this subject], as well on the issue of they called it the ‘get rid of the box’ where you have to check a box if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony on an employment application. If not, you run into a situation where you mess up at 17, you have no money to defend yourself, so you cop to a felony so you only get a couple years. And for the rest of your life, you cannot get a white collar job. That doesn’t work. So once you can’t get the white collar job, and you have trouble getting the blue collar job, the only jobs left to you are to continue in crime. And now, you’re just another statistic of a repeat criminal.”

“That’s the type of patterns we can talk about. Yeah, you can look at individual occurrences whether it be Black Lives Matter and someone says, ‘well, look at that one person, maybe he deserved to be shot’. Yes, but if 1000 were shot, are you telling me every… single… one of them deserved it, or can you look at the larger group. This is the thing that interest me is the individual cases are there… I want to look for the larger sets of numbers and hold it and maybe we have something here.”

“Criminality is huge. Judging somebody because they slipped once? Even twice? Maybe three times?! Especially many of us, if we led an interesting life, we’ve probably done something that arguably could’ve put us in prison. Maybe a good attorney can get us off, maybe not. But when you look at the numbers and what it costs and availability to get a good attorney, and the threat of pleading down and getting something versus risking 20 years in the pen. What do you do?”

Thinking about that, and being human, we have those quick judgments — good and bad. How do you take all that you’ve learned with patterns, when you meet someone for the first time, or 4th time, how do you continue to have an open-mind?

“First, that’s hard because I want to categorize you within the first 5 minutes of meeting you. I need to know whether or not I wish to continue talking to. There’s also something Mr. Ben Franklin said, ‘Upon your death bed, there will only be five people who matter to you’. It’s an ugly statement but there’s a certain accuracy as you start looking at your own group of friends — the people you truly consider soulmates. The types of friends. And there are good friends, and it keeps going from there.”

“Or if it’s a business, if this is somebody I’m going to be do business with or not. That could be work for, work with, hire… I have to make snap judgement. I have 30 minutes to decide if I want this person to comeback and spend five hours with my team in different interviews before I hired them. I HAVE to make snap judgments. I have two minutes with the resume. 30 minutes on the screening call. Five hours in a review for someone I’m going to spend 40 hours a week with.”

“Part of that, though, I would say is having more than one person. I will tell you one of the best things that’s saved me, in my case, is a strong marriage. We meet somebody, and we will argue with each other — it’s not in a negative way. It’s we basically agreed on rules of engagement — whoever goes negative first, the other one has to look for positive. Sometimes it’s a pain because we both want to despise someone out there. Let’s step back, breathe. Is there anything good here? What are we missing? What part of the equation have we not contemplated? What part of the experience have we not thought about? Because there’s so much you don’t know about people. You have no idea if I have a terminal disease. No clue. You don’t know anything about me other than what I told you in five minutes. But we’ve still been talking off and on for 30 minutes. I can go down the path and you’re like, ‘where in the heck did that come from?’ You don’t know. We don’t know either.”

“But… whatever is in my background can trigger behavioral pattern by me that you might just categorize me as an a$$hole. But if you actually knew more about me, ‘oh, I see where that come from. You still shouldn’t talk or act or behave that way’. But now that I see that source, there might be something interesting to play with there.”

Thinking about that snap judgement — what are you trying to get out of it? How do you try to make that judgment whether or not you want to keep talking to that person?

“You make the judgment automatically until you decide to make the judgement.” I ask him if there’s something he’s looking for.

“No. I just listen. Just curious.”

“… I try to be, at least. Again, unless I’m in a specific or narrow situation where I’m having to… if I’m doing a hiring decision, are they interesting? Are they nerdy? Can they write? I’m in product marketing — I need interesting, nerdy people… who can write. Three characteristics I need. I try to figure that out as quickly as possible.”

“But there’s that whole aspect — can I spend 40 hours a week with this person? Can I go on a road trip with this person? Can I go to a trade show where I’m spending 18-hour days with him? Am I going to want to see this person at 6 o’clock in the morning after setting up the booth? And 9 o’clock at night as we’re leaving a reception? The answer is no, I have to think it. And I don’t have time to test it.”

Who (and why) are two people in your life Giovanni should meet? (Thanks to Giovanni, Stranger 37)

“Ooohh, that’s a fun one!” He appreciates not knowing Giovanni, so he has to really think about two people. He thinks on this for a while.

“I’m trying to think two fun ones randomly to meet knowing nothing…”

“Adrian. Who was an attorney. Left law. And wrote a book on soul food.” I ask him why Adrian — what made him so fun. “Complete change in career to chase something he loved. He went from one thing and went to another.”

“Joe. Decorated marine in the first Gulf War. Ended up with a drug habit, and is now a preacher.” That’s fitting because Giovanni was a former Marine, too.

What would you like to ask tomorrow’s Stranger?

“You have 10 grand. You can’t keep. Who or what do you give it to and why? And you’ve got to do it in 24 hours.”

After the handshake.

Okay, so transcribing and capturing Erik’s meet was a lot of work and probably not as “clean” as some of the other Strangers. Erik is a real thinker. He’s observing the world, and he doesn’t take what’s in front of them at straight face. He sees what’s in front of him, and he wants to understand the full story behind people. It makes sense then, that despite “falling” into incentive compensation, he’s very much kept himself in incentive compensation. In many ways, the psychological and, perhaps more importantly, the sociological elements of companies and teams are fascinating to him. I use the word “fascinating”, too, because he used the word often and as he said it, each time, I could really sense that he meant it. He was really drawn to understand the whats and the hows and the whys of people and actions.

So meet Erik. No longer a Stranger.

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