What Makes a Person Interesting?
Think back to a time when you met someone who was so interesting that you hung onto every word they said, and you wanted to spend more time with them to know more.
Maybe it was at work, a networking event, a party, or a wedding.
That’s what happened when I met Mark last week. It was just another introductory meeting, and that’s why I was so surprised.
It got me thinking about others I’ve found interesting. What was it about those people that made me want to learn more, and to spend more time with them?
And why does being interesting make such a difference?
Why being interesting matters
Being interesting is a huge advantage at work and in life. People want to spend time with you when you’re interesting, and they’re more likely to enjoy the time you spend together.
That means you’re more likely to do well in an interview. Heck, you’re more likely to get an interview in the first place. And you’re likely to have a bigger, stronger network. You’ll probably have more friends too.
Personally, I love interesting people because I know I’ll learn something new, gain insight into something I hadn’t thought of before and, frankly, have more fun.
Most of all, being with someone interesting automatically makes you more interesting – not just by association, but because you collect more interesting material to pass on.
What was interesting about Mark
When Mark walked in, he looked like any Midwestern guy in a suit. But then he told me his story.
Growing up in a tough inner city neighborhood. The culture shock of attending an Ivy League college where he rowed crew with prep school graduates. Volunteering on the Obama campaign. Becoming the youngest department head in the history of the organization. And turning down a job at Harvard to pursue his mission of helping inner city youth.
But what really stood out were three things.
First was the fact that Mark and his brother borrowed 25 books from the library every weekend when they were kids. I suspect that this reading habit helped Mark develop the mindset that led him to a lifetime of interesting experiences and gave him broad perspective.
Second, his mission to help those like himself from less privileged circumstances, and give them better life opportunities. This carried him through the entire arc of his education and career. And he expressed it with such authenticity – it was obvious that this is who he is.
Third, he was a great communicator – telling his story succinctly and powerfully, actively listening to mine, and creating a personal connection.
3 traits of interesting people
When it comes to being interesting, in my experience, it boils down to the following three traits: perspective, authenticity, and connection.
1. Having a perspective beyond the usual
To be interesting means having a perspective that’s different from the usual. Having something to say and contribute that adds to the conversation, whether that’s broadening or deepening it.
In contrast, someone who agrees blindly or simply regurgitates what’s said is not so interesting, although you might find them reassuring.
The key to having an interesting perspective is what you feed your mind. This could be the books you read, the shows you watch or the podcasts you listen to. It could also be the experiences you have, whether through travel, adversity or peak experiences.
While you don’t need to experience the range of exploits of The Most Interesting Man in the World, it ‘s important to have variety and breadth. Both in terms of the areas you know about and the sources of your knowledge.
In an age of technical specialization, this is more important than ever. At work, success often requires knowing a lot about a narrow slice of the world. For example, coding, electronic trading, or tax regulations.
But if your specialization is all you know about, it’s hard to develop the kind of broader perspective on the world that makes you interesting. Even to the people in your own field.
Having a broader perspective is at the heart of creativity, critical thinking, and curiosity – all 21st century skills that are essential to success in life and at work. When you travel in multiple circles, you have the chance to pass on new ideas and cross-pollinate and enhance the way others think.
How are you feeding your mind so you can develop your own unique perspective?
2. Authenticity – showing up in a way that makes you uniquely you
Another element of being interesting is showing up in a way that shows people what makes you uniquely you.
Here, I’m reminded of best-selling author J.K. Rowling who leaned into what she uniquely does – storytelling – and has fascinated us all. It’s what she was meant to do. As her quote suggests, no one could make her do it, and no one could have stopped her from doing it.
“Writing for me is a kind of compulsion, so I don’t think anyone could have made me do it, or prevented me from doing it.”
– J.K. Rowling
While fame and money are outside our control, it’s the act of showing up as your authentic self that becomes interesting and attractive to others.
Most of us struggle to show our whole selves, so we respect those who are brave enough to actually do it. It takes courage to let go of societal norms and lean into who we really are. But unshackled is the only state when we do our best work and fulfill our true potential.
The key is not trying to replicate what others do. Like trying to be another Steve Jobs – there’s only one. Instead, it’s finding your own unique voice and way of being. That’s what makes you interesting… and positions you for success.
How much of your true authentic self are you bringing to your work and your life?
3. Connection – how you engage people
The third aspect is how you engage people. Are you making a personal connection? Are you genuinely interested in the other person? And how do you go about sharing what you know?
At a recent dinner, two people who are equally interesting on paper showed up entirely differently. They had similar backgrounds – scientists from disadvantaged neighborhoods who overcame hardship to rise to the top of their fields.
But one person listened to and built on others’ comments. He shared anecdotes from his son’s experiences in sports as well as from his research. He brought up new ideas. The other person said very little.
The rest of us left the dinner feeling like we got to know the first scientist well, and couldn’t stop talking about how interesting he was. But the other one is still a mystery.
When it comes to connecting with others, it starts with sharing what you know. Think of that as contributing.
Then it’s about doing that sharing in a natural way as part of the conversation without dominating it. That’s what I call conversing.
And finally, it’s about cross-pollinating. Bringing in ideas from another field that helps people do what they do better and get a new way of looking at things.
How are you connecting with others by contributing, conversing and cross-pollinating?
How you can be more interesting
If you want to be more interesting than you already are, then here are three things you can do.
And by the way, they will probably make you a better person in the process.
Read (and watch and listen):
Feed your mind with things that are off-piste from what you usually read, watch or listen to. Explore different areas. If you only get your news from one channel, you can’t possibly be seeing the full picture.
Seeing the world from only one point of view might feel more comfortable. But it can limit your possibilities and reduce your ability to think critically. And make you less interesting.
Go ahead and tell someone else about something you’ve just learned. You’ll not only enlighten them, you’ll also cement what you’ve learned and become a source of interesting knowledge. As they say, you really learn something when you have to teach it.
If you read a great book, extract quotes from it and work it into conversations. Write about it in a blog or article. Or leave the book on your desk for your visitors to notice and enjoy.
When you can offer an observation from a similar situation, don’t be afraid to say, “Hey, guess what? I just learned this really cool thing that can help us do…”
It’s not about spouting off or sounding arrogant. Simply share so others can benefit from a glimpse into a different part of the world.
Whatever you’re passionate about, go and pursue it. And if it takes you outside of your comfort zone, even better. When you do what you uniquely do, you free up the real you. And that feels great!
And at least once a year, do something more significant that’s different from what you usually do. Whether that’s where you vacation (or, for some of us, just taking a vacation!), ticking off an item on your bucket list, or taking up a new hobby, it will help shift your thinking in some way.
What’s not interesting
The opposite of interesting is boring. And the surest way to be boring is having the same conversation or interaction over and over again.
So don’t be that colleague who only talks about himself. The friend who keeps banging on about the same topic. The family member who’s always whining and complaining.
Also, don’t be that person who has nothing to say. Unless you’re a reclusive billionaire, in which case there’s probably plenty of interesting things about you, it’s hard to be interesting when you give out no information.
If you’re an introvert, the good news is that information can be given out by other people and come from other sources – it doesn’t have to come from you alone. You could be a recluse like Howard Hughes, but still be fascinating to others based on what you’ve done and the ideas you have.
What will you do?
What I’ve learned is that any of us can be interesting.
For some, it’s a matter of feeding our minds with a greater variety of knowledge and experiences. For others, it’s how we connect with others to share what we know.
And for many of us, we’re still working on bringing our full selves to work and life.
What about you?
Leave a comment below to let me know what you will do to be even more interesting than you already are.
(Photo credit: Bobby Quillard)