I learned this golden rule from the great civic leader John Gardner, who changed my life in 30 seconds. Gardner, founder of Common Cause, secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Johnson administration, and author of such classic books as "Self-Renewal," spent the last few years of his life as a professor and mentor-at-large at Stanford University. One day early in my faculty teaching career — I think it was 1988 or 1989 — Gardner sat me down. "It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting," he said. "Why don’t you invest more time being interested?"
If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet — their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.
I can’t say that I live this rule perfectly. When tired, I find that I spend more time trying to be interesting than exercising the discipline of asking genuine questions. But whenever I remember Gardner’s golden rule — whenever I come at any situation with an interested and curious mind — life becomes much more interesting for everyone at the table.
I remember this exact scenario playing our at a dinner years ago. We were with a client who was particularly cantankerous. My associate did everything he could to try and connect, by being interesting. He talked of his hobbies (no connection), it came up that they went to the same University so he talked about his experiences in University (no connection) and on and on. No connection.
So I stepped in and took a different approach. I found out that he loved Science Fiction (I do too) and instead of talking about what I like, I asked him what he liked. I acquired two great book recommendations in the process. I then found out that he is a renowned woodworker. As I know nothing about woodworking, I spent the next couple hours learning all about woodworking. Fascinating, I had no idea it was so interesting.
Be interested. Not interesting.