Character study

I’m fascinated with people, and always have been. I loved every single minute I spent as an English major at UCLA trying to analyze characters, situations and themes based on circular story lines and denouements driven by forces that pushes a story toward conclusion. In my working life, I ended up in market research and consumer insights, studying data and drawing insights based on research conclusions.

When people learn about my academic background and try to reconcile it with the work that I do now, they are curious about what led to my decision to work in media and consumer insights. Among a work environment filled with people who majored in business administration and advertising, I’m the one with a different background. And sometimes I wonder about this myself; why aren’t there a lot of people who share the same background as me? I’ve never wondered why I am now in marketing after a rigorous humanities education. I followed my interests and it led me to where I am now.

In my current job, I seek to understand people. Why do they do what they do, buy what they buy, drawn to the interests they have. Most of the factors that explain certain phenomena are latent, and it is only through the depth of interpretation do we reach a conclusion.

As I think back about my early curiosities, I’ve only recently started becoming interested in groups of people, in populations. I was first drawn to individuals. To specific human beings. Most, if not all, of the people I encounter that go beyond the first hello leave an impression on me. I remember certain qualities: the color of their hair, how their smile bends to one side, how their eyebrows move, the ruddy color of their cheeks. It sounds creepy, but I am very observant. Beyond merely observing, I perceive. I see the physical expression and the spirit inside of them, calm or nervous or rushed. I see how their hair falls gently on the side of their faces and I touch my temples to see if my hair has fallen the same, and wonder if they notice on me the things I notice on them.

All of these things I see sometimes distract me. It could be my greatest curse or my greatest gift, but I see detail. And this orientation goes beyond noticing the surface. I feel the energy given out by those I meet. I’m an empath; I feel what they feel, relate to how they think. Sometimes, I get an energy that borders negative, which sometimes affect me. I’ve gotten better at managing mine and others’ emotions over the years, and have turned this skill in more productive use, that helps me delegate tasks to others if sense they are looking for work or further clarify a point if I see they are slightly confused. But, still, I notice.

The past few months have been an exercise about caring less. I’ve led myself to believe that if only I cared less, life would be easier. I wouldn’t have to be concerned why a total stranger seemed distracted with something, or if a coworker sounded bothered by a project. Who cares, right? And I won’t deny that from my experience so far, it is easier. I don’t assume their emotions because I’ve trained myself to disengage at that level and only relate to them at the intellectual level. Did someone I come across look cold? Who cares if he or she is having a bad day? I’ll only ask for updates on my projects, then off I go without asking what could be bothering her. Is someone looking disoriented? Who cares if the new person on the team can’t find her way, HR will surely let her know soon enough.

But this exercise takes something in me too. While I enjoy the benefits of more efficient hours and single-minded focus on things, I leave out a lot of things on the table to. I am able to relate less. I don’t see the rich humanity of the people I meet, anymore. I am caught by surprise when someone leaves the team because I don’t notice telltale signs of discontent. I feel that something is missing in the world. And areas within me seemed to have dimmed. I know that it is about balancing empathy with objectivity, and while I think I have a handle on both and most of the time I’m somewhere around the center, finessing this is more of a practice than a downright inherent skill.

For me, a way to master it is to continue noticing the details in people and documenting them through writing. I build characters based on those that I encounter through glances, in passing, conversations, hearing, or mere presence; characters that could be part of a story I’ll write in the future, an activity I plan on doing more of soon before I age any further, and all of this will be inspired by the most mundane, every day existence that the majority don’t notice but consume a sizeable portion of my time and emotions. A never ending stream that fuels a spark in me that nothing I’ve come across has successfully extinguished.

And thus, I continue to write.