Why I Like Engineers and 6th Graders

1 Feb

Today I hung out with some sixth graders.  I haven’t done that since…well, I taught sixth grade which was a long time ago before I went to college and then moved to England and then worked in Portland, Maine and then came to Boston to watch the Red Sox and get an MBA. Or something similar.

A number of us, mostly engineers, ate lunch with a couple classes of sixth graders.  Mostly African-American (except for one) and all attending a school weighted heavily towards math and science.  I had a blast.  Our engineers had a blast.  (Granted, this was a subsection of engineers who had volunteered for the task and were therefore unnaturally extroverted.) The rest of the employees – those in HR, Finance & Administration, did not.

They came to me, one at a time, asking “Wasn’t that exhausting?  I’ve never tried so hard to get kids to like me before.”

I don’t think they were prepared for my answer: “Why did you want them to like you?  The point was to engage them in conversation, answer any career questions, get a window into their lives.  The point was never to be liked.”

Most people want to be liked.  It’s true.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But one of the great not-so-secret secrets of life is that one does not approach a group of sixth graders hoping for some encouraging words.  For some validation.  For security and acceptance.  If you go in with that mindset, you will be disappointed.  To say the least.  More likely, you will enter a mild identity crisis (even if for only an afternoon).

I think it’s the same with engineers.  Sixth graders are so insular, focused on themselves and their emerging abilities and world, too absorbed with being cool and popular but also still shyly vulnerable – willing to tell you that they love reading and hoping you won’t tear them apart for the maybe-not-so-cool-truth.  Engineers can be insular too, solving their problems, diagnosing other people’s problems, finding solutions.  It’s not about you being less cool than their robot or their math problem or their lab.  Ok, you probably are.  Just accept it.  And maybe they aren’t cool and popular, except amongst other engineers, and maybe they don’t realize their shy vulnerabilities make them more approachable.

You don’t approach a group of engineers hoping for encouragement.  For validation, security and acceptance.  You approach a group of engineers with a problem, hoping for a solution, an open mind to entering their world and learning about what fascinates them.  The same with sixth graders.

Other employees tried to begin conversations with “What’s your favorite subject? What do you want to be when you grow up?”  And then they got stonewalled, tuned out, ignored.  Not saying it’s good behavior, but it is typical.  I began my conversations with “What will the Super Bowl score be on Sunday? If you could have any dream job in the world (but you’d have to do it forever/someone who has treated you poorly also has the same job/you wouldn’t get paid for it) what would it be?  What are you interested in enough that you’d be willing to skip meals and ignore your crush in order to do?”

The answers were fascinating.  Our hour and a half flew by.  I had a great time.

When an engineer or a sixth grader compliments you, it matters.  It rarely happens. But it matters.  And when they don’t, it does not mean you’re any less of a person.  It means that they are focused on something else, something other than buoying up your psyche and making you feel good about your existence.

If you enter a room seeking validation and security, most likely you’ll end up frustrated.  Even if your interactions are positive.  But if you enter a room seeking information and bent on listening and observing, you’ll end up rewarded.  You may learn something. You may become passionate about something you never even knew the acronym for before. Or you may just survive. Enter a room completely secure in yourself rather than seeking it from others and you’ll be freed up to explore just how great other people can be.

Sixth graders.


Basically everyone.*


*except clowns


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