One thing is for certain: at this moment, somewhere in the world, a group of people are getting together. Maybe it’s for the holidays or a date or just drinks with friends after a long day. They are chatting and talking and then, right as their conversation gets going, we can safely predict that the absolute worst person in that group will say the following: “Ugh, guys, can we please not talk about work?”
They’ll say that because they aren’t good at what they do for a living or because they don’t know how to deal with stress or difficulty without resorting to pointless complaining. Or perhaps they just have some silly notion about what’s proper and appropriate.
But the result of their problem is a new problem: Talking about work becomes taboo. Even though it’s pretty much the best thing to talk about.
“It’s absurd and unfair,” says Jack London’s title character in Martin Eden, “this objection to talking shop. For what reason under the sun do men and women come together if not for the exchange of the best that is in them? And the best that is in them is what they are interested in, the thing by which they make their living, the thing they’ve specialized on and sat up days and nights over, and even dreamed about.”
One of my least favorite things ever is when someone gets a bunch of smart people together…in a noisy bar where no one can hear anything. Or has a party with interesting, awesome guests….and then hires some crappy band to play and makes conversation impossible. But the worst is when a group of adults, comes together and some controlling moron decides that the best thing to do is to treat them like children—forcing them to play silly games and icebreakers.
What a waste.
Let me tell you about my dream outing: Smart people get together in a quiet restaurant and talk for several hours about things that interest them. They talk about work, what they’re good at, what they’ve been reading about or thinking recently and all of them leave provoked, inspired and with some new ideas and perspectives.
Unfortunately, most get togethers aren’t like this. Usually because some idiot is afraid of what might happen in an authentic, unprompted exchange. It’s similar to something I’ve noticed when I speak at conferences. A lot of speakers avoid doing a Q&A after their talk. They only want to give their prepared remarks. I suspect it’s because deep down they don’t trust themselves or don’t actually know much about what they’re supposed to be experts about. I suspect they dislike talking shop because they can’t keep up. They’re worried about being challenged—and embarrassed.
I don’t know about you but I picked my ‘shop’ because it is endlessly fascinating to me. I chose what to do for a living because I can’t help but want to talk about it. Why would I not be able to answer questions about it? Why is it so strange to want to hear and connect with other people who feel the same way—in private or in public? Why is it somehow OK to talk about politics or trivialities or the goddamn weather but not the thing we picked to do with our lives, the thing that supports our families, that gets us out of bed in the morning?
Nassim Taleb likes to say that the best way to make discoveries or breakthroughs is to go to cocktail parties, that “You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity.” Each one of my books was a result of dinner conversations—conversations I couldn’t not have. Coming home after having not been able to express my thoughts as well as I would have hoped is what drove me to sit down and write. Some of my best articles come from chats with friends. In fact, this article came about because of the Martin Eden quote which I was exposed to when hanging out with another author…talking about about books and publishing.
In other words, talking shop.
Sure, there are other things that fascinate me. I love talking about those too. And sure, far too many conversations about work devolve into complaining, gossip or bitching.
But I would argue that if you don’t want to talk about work, it probably says something about what you choose to spend 8-10 hours a day…and not something very good. And certainly not something that avoidance is going to do much to fix.
You’re good at what you do—it’s why you went to school for it, dedicated your life to it, made a fortune in it, whatever. I want to hear about it. I’m good at what I do. I’d love to talk about it.
Let’s exchange—as Jack London put it—the best that is within us. Let’s not let controlling, obnoxious, or petty people determine what is “proper” for us to talk about. Let’s not waste our time with silly pleasantries and superficialities. Who has the time? Who has the energy?
Oh and if you don’t like talking about work—it might be worth considering another line of it.