The other day I was having a chat with an ex colleague of mine. We were talking about various things that we used to be involved with together, that we no longer are, and the different things we are doing now and how we’ve kind of drifted in separate directions. One of the more interesting things we discussed was how people tend to categorize things. Even when I referred to this person, you’ll notice I referred to him as an ex colleague. Not an old friend, or an old co-worker, or an old boss, but an ex colleague.
What does that imply? Other than our actual relationship, it is an example of how we are constantly looking out at the world and sorting everything into categories and compartments. I was playing poker the other day with a couple of buddies (notice I used a different word there to describe these people) and noticed they each stacked their chips differently.
We weren’t playing for money, or anything, just pretend. We were using different colored chips, but they were all the same value. If you aren’t familiar with poker or gambling with chips, usually different colored chips have different monetary value. In this case they were all worth the same thing.
One guy had his all neatly stacked accordingly to color, even though we had agreed that the value didn’t depend on color. Even he would make a bet; he would make sure that each chip was the same color. And many times, the amount that he would bet was dependent on how many of each color chips he had.
The other guy had a seemingly opposite approach. When he made bets, he made sure there was an equal amount of colored chips in each bet. Since we had four different colors (red, blue, green and yellow) he always made his bets in increments of four.
While we were playing and shooting the breeze (notice how with buddies you shoot the breeze, but with colleagues you have discussions) I started thinking about categories that people carry around in their heads, and how we are always sorting things we encounter in the world and putting them into different categories.
I suppose this tendency served us well in our evolutionary past, as it made life or death decisions more or less automatic. Safe or unsafe, delicious or poisonous, familiar territory or far away from home. But sometimes it can be very limiting.
My two buddies are a good example of this. They were both completely limited on how much they could bet based on how they chose to sort their chips. When an opportunity came up that called for a different sized bet (like sometimes in poker you want to call without raising) they didn’t seem able to break from their pre set strategies.
It’s interesting when you examine how you sort things, experiences, even people. Friend? Enemy? Helper? Detractor? There’s that old saying that you should keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, but I think the deeper truth is to be able to notice the enemy and the friend in all people. While I’m not advocating walking around like Richard Nixon thinking that everybody is out to get you, I think it helps to keep people and their behavior in context.
One very useful and powerful skill to have is to be able to rearrange your own categories that you place people and things into, and be able to routinely examine what you’ve placed in those categories and determine if they don’t deserve an upgrade or a downgrade.
Everybody knows somebody that is completely trusting and gullible, and is always being taken advantage of (a salesperson’s dream customer). This is an example of somebody that is unable or unwilling to put people into the “not to be trusted until further notice” category. Of course on the opposite end of the spectrum are the always paranoid and “Trust No One” crowd.
When you get down to it, people are a collection of their behaviors and capabilities. And as people grow and learn, many times their behaviors and capabilities change over time. Some for the better, some for the worse. There’s no reason why shouldn’t always be updating your categories, so you can better use the resources that are always around you.