More To That

An illustrated, long-form blog that delves deeper into the things that make us who we are.

The Reciprocity of Interest (A Reflection)

I recently finished Robert Caro’s wonderful memoir, Working. For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Caro, he’s pretty much the Michael Jordan of political biographies, the best-in-the-game at delving deep into a political figure and using that person’s life to illuminate a greater insight into the human condition.

Caro has spent the majority of his writing career crafting epic biographies on two figures: Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson.

Robert Moses was the man that was responsible for building the infrastructure of New York City as we know it today. He built fifteen expressways, sixteen parkways, almost every park in the city (which amounted to 20,000 acres of parkland), and the seven great bridges that link all the boroughs together. Astoundingly, Moses did this without ever being elected to political office of any sort.

Lyndon Johnson was the 36th President of the United States, responsible for passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in a time where it was thought it would be impossible to do so, for establishing Medicare or Medicaid to expand healthcare coverage for millions of Americans, and for passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that would allow black men or women to walk into a voting booth in the South. But on the other side of his legacy, his decision to push the U.S. further and further into the Vietnam War resulted in the needless deaths of 58,000+ Americans, which ultimately led to his downfall.

Caro spent many years writing about his first subject, Robert Moses, which culminated in the 1,336-page book, The Power Broker. This book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, and is widely considered to be one of the best biographies ever published.

After the publication (and success) of The Power Broker, he wanted to write about the nature of political power at the national level, so he turned his attention to Lyndon Johnson. He published his first book on Johnson in 1982, and has published three more volumes on Johnson afterward (in 1990, 2002, and 2012); he is currently working on the fifth and final volume of this acclaimed series.

The first thing that will strike anyone about Caro’s work is the sheer depth of it. How could someone spend almost four decades writing about one man… and still not be finished? On average, it takes Caro about a decade to publish one book, and keep in mind that his entire book writing career has revolved around only two subjects: Moses and Johnson.

As you can imagine, Caro has a deep commitment to unearthing every possible detail about his subjects’ lives. He has spent countless hours going through old files and documents that would provide a solid framework of these men’s lives, and follows a mantra that his old boss once told him: “Turn every page. Never assume anything.”

But the part about Caro’s process that intrigued me most was how he interviewed people. He states in Working that he conducted 522 interviews for The Power Broker, and for his Johnson books, that number went well into the thousands. In order to understand the way these men thought and viewed the world, he needed to understand the people that were close to them, and those that they impacted – for better or for worse.

In order to get a better idea of Johnson’s relentless quest for power, Caro wanted to interview people that knew him as a young boy – childhood friends and family members that had insight into the background that crafted him. Caro initially thought he would just have to do a chapter or two on Johnson’s youth since it was well documented (there were already seven biographies of Johnson out before Caro started his). He thought he would just need to do a few interviews in Johnson’s hometown (located in the Texas Hill Country), and that would be all he needed.

However, whenever he would interview folks there, he said that “they would always tell you the truth, [but] they wouldn’t volunteer anything; their answers would be terse, brief.” They wouldn’t give him any details into any story, while making it known that there were certainly things they were omitting from their recollections of Johnson.

This made Caro realize that these folks didn’t quite trust him; that they just saw him as another one of these “portable journalists” that would come in from big cities, stay in Hill Country for three or four days, and then report back to the rest of America about this remote area that Johnson grew up in. They viewed Caro as just another outside trying to get the scoop on a powerful political figure from decades ago.

After reflecting on this, Caro then details the solution he proposed to his wife, Ina:

I said to Ina, “I’m not understanding these people and therefore I’m not understanding Lyndon Johnson. We’re going to have to move to the Hill Country and live there.” Ina said, “Why can’t you do a biography of Napoleon?” But Ina is always Ina: loyal and true. She said, as she always says: “Sure.” We rented a house on the edge of the Hill Country, where we were to live for most of the next three years.

Now that’s dedication.

Caro then talks about how that big move made all the difference:

That changed everything. As soon as we had moved there, as soon as the people of the Hill Country realized we were there to stay, their attitude toward us softened; they started to talk to me in a different way. I began to hear the details they had not included in the anecdotes they had previously told me – and they told me other anecdotes and longer stories, anecdotes and stories that no one had even mentioned to me before – stories about a Lyndon Johnson very different from the young man who had previously been portrayed: stories about a very unusual young man, a very brilliant young man, a very ambitious, unscrupulous and quite ruthless person, disliked and even despised, and, by people who knew him especially well, even beginning to be feared.

When the people of Hill Country saw Caro’s commitment to going deeper than anyone before him, they were more than willing to offer up interesting stories about themselves and their relationships with Lyndon Johnson. When they saw that Caro was genuinely interested in getting to know them better by actually moving there, they were open to discussing anything at length – even things they didn’t even quite realize themselves.

As Caro states:

If you talk to people long enough, if you talk to them enough times, you find out things from them that maybe they didn’t even realize they knew.

Reciprocity is a deeply human thing, and it applies directly to the nature of interest. If you show someone that you’re interested in them, they will reciprocate that curiosity by revealing what makes them so interesting.

Believing that someone is boring is a failure of recognizing that fact. Boredom is almost always the result of a lack of curiosity, or the inability to see anything or anyone through the lens of a question.

In a way, boredom is arrogance. It’s the acceptance of the belief that nothing is worth your interest because you already know what you need to about yourself, others, and the world. A curious mind is a humble one, as a prerequisite for curiosity is the acceptance that there is more to life than what you think you already know.

What Caro helps to reveal is that everyone is the source of something interesting if you show them deep interest. In Working, he describes so many situations of people that originally seemed like periphery characters that ended up being central to the story once Caro started talking to them.

The first thing he needed to show them was that he genuinely cared for what they had to say, that what they said mattered to him. When the people of Hill Country knew he wasn’t a passing journalist that wanted to use their stories and be done with them, they knew they could place their trust in him.

The second thing was that he wanted to understand who they were, and he came with the right questions for them to answer. When you cultivate a sense of trust and combine it with a question, the desire to share one’s life opens up immediately.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, especially with what’s going on in the world today.

When it comes to the people we’re closest to, that first part – the trust – has already been cultivated, but it’s the second thing that’s making a big difference now.

I think we’re finally taking a moment to actually ask people the right questions to open each other up. We’re asking how they’re doing, how their days have been, how their parents are doing, how their children are doing, how their partners are doing, how their work has been impacted, how they’re staying fit, the questions go on. We are taking a good moment to be interested in the plight of others, and in return, we are understanding how interesting it is to be that person.

Sometimes it takes a new environment for curiosity to bloom. Travel has historically been one of them (of course, with caveats), and it looks like right now is another one of those environment changes.

But does the environment need to shift so dramatically for us to recognize this?

I’ve argued that life is almost always a framing problem, and some frames are more practical than others. It may not seem practical to view the people closest to you as continuous sources of curiosity, but don’t you think there’s a lot more to them than you think you already know?

The reality is that we don’t even know ourselves very well, and for me, writing is one way for me to uncover some of the layers that comprise my consciousness. But for others, the best thing we could do to uncover those layers is dialogue, and it’s essential that this dialogue comes from a place of real curiosity.

A thoughtful and well-intentioned question shows people that you’re tuned into what they think, and what they share will likely reveal something deeply interesting. After all, the more opportunities you have to show interest, the more you’ll get back in the form of knowledge and experience.

As long as you remain interested in the lives of others, there will be no shortage of intriguing stories that will inspire you to live a more meaningful existence. This, in turn, will be shared with other curious minds, and the cycle continues.

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