Sonder is a neologism that has been most often defined as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” The word draws upon both German and French words meaning “set apart and unique” and also “to probe”.  I have recently become a fan of this word because it describes something that almost seems foolish, but is 100% human.  We know on a cursory level that every person on earth has a story of some kind.  They were born, educated to an extent, work or fill their time in some way.  Everyone has an iteration of a dream or goal in mind.  People vacillate in terms of motivation or liveliness, but the rich experience we call being alive is poured out to some degree on all people.  We know this yet we have all had the experience of treating others or being treated as though this were not the case.

I myself am guilty at times of focusing on the tasks at hand through the narrow lens of my own understanding and my own skills.  A recent experience in feeling sonder caused me to think about this in my own life.  I was struck by the thought that the person in their car next to me heading to work had a life just as complex and full as my own, if not more, and I will never participate in it at all.  Sure you can make the case that just by having observed this person I have been a part of their life’s story, but I do not believe I made any tangible impact in his life.

This seems tangential to a business blog, but I can’t help feeling that building your network and seeking out diversity in your relationships can build a more complete team or company.  If the human experience and the life I lived is vast and colorful, but really no more so than the life of a stranger on a train, there must be enormous potential for understanding the questions we face when we begin to hear the stories of others and draw upon their experiences as well as our own.

It seems pretty simple to say that more people with varied experiences make a more complete team, but I am thinking about this both philosophically and in terms of business.  Shared experience is excellent, but similar to the dialectic of Plato, divergent understanding can help sharpen our pursuit of the truth.  There are 7+ billion people on earth right now, and the richness of their lives can add great perspective to anyone willing to engage with them.  That thought still blows my mind.  If you were to take and add up all of the thoughts I have had in my lifetime, even the greatest thinkers would be less that the amount of thoughts had by all the people alive right now in less than one second.

The Art of Being Effective: Narrowband Listening

People have a singular propensity to place complete confidence in their own brilliance and clarity of understanding. I recently experienced an example of this a few a few months ago.

I was in attendance at an onboarding for a strategic project. The project could be considered similar in scope to IBM’s decision to divest themselves of their hardware business and bet billions on transforming themselves into a software and services firm.

Surprisingly, this example won’t be about the team presenting, but rather our dear friend Drake from the audience.

My go-to coworker, Drake, raised his hand near the end to ask a bold question: “didn’t we already do this?” Perhaps it was the simplicity of the question that proved monolithic to the presenter as they struggled to get a little more detail out of Drake. (Or perhaps it was that the vision invoked sensors and futuristic technologies that had yet to be invented.) Drake clarified “well, didn’t we make a website a few years ago?”

And there it was. Drake had only seen the ideas of others within the bandwidth of his own knowledge and would not consider the limits of that (certainly considerable, but finite) bandwidth. I ran into Drake after the meeting and tried to connect the dots with him, but he just sighed under his breath, “well, I guess we’re just doing the same thing with a different label. I wish I could be naive like you.” Rather than listening for how he might be misunderstanding, Drake dug in.

To me, seeing other’s thoughts in a limited bandwidth is unavoidable. However, the unwillingness to grapple with the limits of that bandwidth and seek to develop a broader receptivity stagnates learning and restricts progress in a dynamic, unknown environment.

This story could go on. Drake also struggled to understand the different responsibilities this role would demand. He thought of the greater autonomy as a license for power and was dissatisfied when others did not bend to his expectations, but that feels like a post for another day.



*I often take some license with Drake’s words and reactions to drive the point home. Don’t hate my androgynous punching bag too much.