This week I attended the first conference in a very long time, and that setting got me to think about this strange thing that happens when you see someone that you recognize as some kind of a local celebrity and you immediately come up with all these excuses for not going over to talk to that person. It’s like your subconscious is trying to protect you from being overlooked or being ignored.
And you just forget that these people are just people. This event that I attended was not especially packed with celebrities (if you don’t count the major and the guy leading the conference). But there were still a few people I definitely should have walked up to, but didn’t. It was so much more comfortable to sit a talk with the people I knew.
The bliss of not knowing
The funny thing is that this fear is totally absent if I don’t have any knowledge about the area or field that the person is known for. I will give you an example. I used to be in a technology incubator a few years back. One day we had this event with som guest speakers and a particular theme. It was something around industrial design I think. When I arrived that morning, this guy was sitting at a table having a coffee. I said hello and I sat down next to him. And we just chatted about this and that. I remember that he presented himself, and so did I. And then the event started in a different room and we all went there.
The next time I saw this man, was when he was introduced to give a presentation about a very fancy ferry project he was the lead designer on. It turned out this man was one of Norways’ most famous industrial designers. Cars, boats, and well – he is quite well known. Or he is very well known for the people who are into industrial design. I wasn’t, so I had never heard about him.
He is very nice and not scary at all, and I have met him later as well, but I remember thinking afterwords: Would I have talked with him with this much ease if I knew who he was? I actually doubt it. Just being a tiny bit star struck could have gotten me to just smile and go and find some less famous people instead.
My friend “Sven” and his encounter with the king
It was back in the days, back in the fossil age, you might say – in my geophysicist days. I was sent to a course in this really interesting, but quite complicated field of rock physics. It is very fascinating, but I remember going back home with what I would call a fried brain and I could not have explained this to you now if you asked me.
This course was in London, and I went by myself, the only one going from my company. So I was happy when I met another person from Norway, a dutch guy working for Equinor, formerly and back then known as Statoil.
Let’s call him “Sven”. Sven was a lot more experienced in rock physics than I was, I would actually go as far as to call him a bit of a rock physics nerd. I bet he read rock physics books in bed. And maybe that made him pay a little less attention to other areas in society. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.
The royal mystery
After three or four days in this little suburb outside of London, it was time to go back home. I took my fried brain to the airport and was happy to see that Sven was on the same flight. It became evident that we were not traveling on the same budget, Sven’s seat was in front of the curtain, mine behind the curtain. Ok, Statoil – of course the are flying business class, I remember thinking.
I sat down, buckled up and prepared to listen to the safety drill (you never know you know….). The flight attendant started welcoming us – it’s so funny, this is 16 years ago, but I can still remember that this was a man: “Your majesty, ladies and gentlemen welcome to this flight to Oslo……” That’s all I got, because after that I sat there wondering about who “your majesty” might be. Would that be the king, or could it be the queen? Maybe the crown prince. Would you call him «your Majesty»? Or would he just be «your royal highness»? Back then – in the fossil ages – we didn’t have wifi on board planes, so there was no way for me to check.
A short flight later we arrived at Oslo Airport Gardermoen, the curtain was pulled back (it’s a very strange thing with this curtain, I wonder if that is one of the perks you pay for – not having the people in the back look at you…..) Well, the curtains were pulled away and at the very front I finally got the answer to my question: the royal person standing up in the front seat was the Norwegian king, King Harald. And then, to my great surprise, I saw Sven standing up next to the king! Ok, Statoil, first class, but this was overdoing it a bit, wasn’t it?
Outside the plane I hurried to catch up with Sven, eager to hear about how on earth this had happened. Sven looked quite unaffected, so I asked him – «You did see who you were sitting next to?» Sven looked a bit confused. «Yes, you mean the the man to my left? He was very nice.»
It actually turned out that Sven didn’t realize he had been sitting next to the king. Being dutch and probably not reading too much gossip about the royal family in Norway, he didn’t know exactly what Harald looked like. He had just had a very pleasant travel companion in this man in his 70’ies. And they had actually had a very nice conversation. The total lack of starstruckness from Sven’s side had lead to a very nice flight for both of them – I bet king Harald had great entertainment and a very rare occasion of ……. Unfortunately Sven had to go directly on to another flight while I was at my final destination. So I didn’t get the chance to hear more about their conversation.
The new kid in the playground
In this podcast and maybe in general I am talking a lot about being a beginner – and being ok with that – even if you are not 25 anymore, and you maybe often have the feeling that shouldn’t I have figured everything out by now?
The last few years I have constantly been a beginner. I started exploring totally unfamiliar areas where I had absolutely no experience and no formal background. And I have really enjoyed this.
One of the perks of being a beginner is directly related to the topic of today: being scared of authority figures. Because when you are the newest kid in the playground, you don’t know anyone and have no built in and exaggerated respect for any of the other kids, you also lack the reasons to feel starstruck.
I know I have approached people out of curiosity or because I really like what they are up to, just to discover a little further down the line that wow – he or she is a well known person in this field and I am almost surprised they took the time to reply when I reached out.
And this is exactly my point: people are just people. And we should remember this. Just because you have written a book, you are the best industrial designer in the country, or if you happen to be born into the royal family, you still appreciate people reaching out with genuine interest.
So what have I learned from being the new kid in the playground? Well, unfortunately it is easy to forget in the heat of the moment (at the conference, avoiding talking to the people I should be talking to), but I try to remember this: People are people. We all appreciate genuine interest from a person with good intentions. And sometimes I also use a trick which might be a bit unfair – I mentally put the “authority” in a different setting: To picture the mayor playing tuba or the king sweating over rock physics can do amazing things for your self confidence.