Extraordinary Experiences Don’t Necessarily Make You Popular

That's me, standing on top of the Bering Sea.
Me, standing on the Bering Sea.

I have, objectively speaking, done a lot of cool stuff in my life. I once spent six weeks on an icebreaker in the Bering Sea. I’ve seen toucans, monkeys, and whales in the wild. I keep going to Switzerland. I was once on the local news in Kumamoto, Japan. Actually, it may have been twice. I don’t remember.

Does this sounds like bragging? I know, I’m sorry. It’s really not supposed to. Bear with me for a moment.

These were great experiences. My adventures have informed my life and how I look at the world. But I’ve become more and more likely to downplay them, especially with people I don’t know well. “That’s pretty normal, for a journalist.” “Day to day, it was actually pretty boring.” “I was an hour from an international airport the whole time.” Etc.

I think there are a lot of reasons why I’ve come to talk less about these crazy things. One is that bragging is, obviously, lame. Another is that these experiences do seem pretty normal; I know a lot of people who have been published in the same magazines as me and have seen a lot more tropical birds than I have. Everyone else who was on that ship in the Bering Sea has spent a lot more time on ships than I have.

A study published recently in the journal Psychological Science offers a hint at another reason for the downplaying—something that hadn’t occurred to me before.

For the study, subjects came to the lab in groups of four. One watched an awesome video and the other three watched the same mediocre video. Each knew the rating of their video. After watching, the subjects were put at a table together and given five minutes to chat. Before and after this whole exercise, they reported how they felt by marking a point on a line with ends labeled “not very good” and “very good.”

The people who had seen the great video felt worse afterward than the people who saw the okay video. It turned out that the people who’d watched the really good video felt left out, a powerful social experience. Later experiments showed that people aren’t very good at predicting how a special experience will make them feel. The researchers conclude that extraordinary experiences make people unhappy because they don’t realize they’re going to feel excluded.

Like a lot of psychology research, this study’s connection to real life seems tenuous. The mean age of the video watchers was 20.73 years; I think it’s safe to assume they were mostly undergrads at Harvard, where the study was done. And watching a video is not exactly a Big Life Experience.

But the basic point, that people don’t realize a special experience will make them feel excluded, makes sense to me.

I learned this lesson…well, it took me a while, but I think I learned it eventually. During high school, I spent a couple of summers at an intellectually stimulating, world-broadening, life-changing nerd camp; in September, my friends had only so much patience for my stories. Same with my first trip to Switzerland, for a six-week summer homestay. And the college term in Australia and New Zealand, and my pre-grad-school summer internship at NPR. Somewhere along the line, it sank in that my experiences weren’t necessarily intrinsically interesting to other people.

Which is fine. I am in no way complaining. Thank goodness I learned that lesson before I bored *every* human on the planet with pointless anecdotes. Anyway, this is all entirely human. We care a lot about our immediate experiences and our own lives. Here, I’ll steal a quote from the press release. This is Gus Cooney, one of the coauthors:

We all appreciate experiences that are fine and rare, and when we get what we want, we’re always eager to tell our friends. But I’ve noticed that conversations always seem to thrive on more ordinary topics.

Generally people are interested in these extraordinary experiences, to a point, but it’s hard to really have a back-and-forth; it’s more of a Q&A. Fun for the person with the experience, but with limited rewards for the conversational partner, once their curiosity is satisfied.

The researchers make a slightly wacky leap to suggest that people who have paid $250,000 to fly on Virgin Galactic are going to be bummed afterward because no one will want to hear about their little jaunt into suborbital flight. I suspect that anyone who has $250,000 to spare has either racked up enough extraordinary experiences to know how people will respond already—or else they can pay people to be their friends. Of course, those people have something else to be bummed about now. The paper came out before Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane broke up in midair.

The funny thing is, my whole career is based on the idea that other people will be interested in my experience. Maybe in all those years I spent making eyes glaze over, I eventually got a handle on what does interest other people, and on the fact that other people might have extraordinary experiences of their own they’d like to talk about. I write it down, somebody pays for it, and everybody, I hope, wins.

photo: Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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12 thoughts on “Extraordinary Experiences Don’t Necessarily Make You Popular

  1. This might work the other way also – individual horrible experiences, as opposed to great ones, only generate conversation in groups who have experienced similar unpleasantness. In South Africa it is easy to talk for hours about home invasions, hijackings and violent crime because everyone has their own story to tell. Across the border in Botswana, where crime is minor by comparison, a first hand account by a victim of crime tends to be a monologue and the conversation soon shifts to when the rains are going to start.

  2. I’ve come to realize that our experiences are for ourselves, and that it is pointless to try to share them by conversing. That’s what artistic expression is for.

  3. Oh, I like that thought. Of course we’ve all been enchanted or engrossed or fascinated by other people’s experiences, but maybe that’s generally after they’ve been repackaged and rethought, whether as a really well-told story in a bar or as a book or a poem or a particularly good photo album.

  4. First, interesting piece on a subject I haven’t seen talked about. Next, I would love to hear about your adventures, but I know that’s not your point. Also, as you point out, it is probably easier to connect with people through writing, but not just because the reader can picture themself on the adventure, but because the reader has relaxing space for reflection on the story without conversational pressure of “what can I contribute? What can I ask? Should I know what/who/where X is? Is that something everyone else knows and will I sound dumb for asking?” (Or maybe that’s just me….no, I know it’s not.) Also, on the adventure-sharing end, I often find I feel deflated after attempting to share a deep personal experience verbally; my attempt always feels inadequate, kind of like trying to describe a powerful dream and I’m left with nothing but “and then there was a dwarf. Um, he said ‘there is a door.'”

  5. This is a very interesting topic… and I may have a slightly different perspective.

    I work with a number of professional speakers as clients and some of them have some amazing stories to tell. The one thing they quickly discover as the present their stories from the stage is that the accomplishments, by themselves aren’t all that compelling. To engage with their audience, speakers need to 1) “bring the listener along for the ride” which means giving enough details and emotional insights so the audience feels like they are experiencing the adventure and 2) there is a message or point that comes out of the story. If it is the bare facts, it really isn’t that interesting. If it is a properly presented story (with struggles, challenges, triumphs and then new challenges as a result of the triumph) then it is much more interesting. The art of storytelling is much more than “just the facts”. It is all about transferring the experience to the listener.

    The moral of this story? If you want to tell better, more interesting stories, visit a local Toastmasters club! Or better yet, attend one of their District Conferences where they showcase some of the best speakers in the area. More info at http://www.Toastmasters.org.

  6. Dave, that’s a great point, and the more I think about it, the more I’m agreeing: It has to do with how good you are at telling stories.

  7. Helen – Wonderful piece. Especially this: “Generally people are interested in these extraordinary experiences, to a point, but it’s hard to really have a back-and-forth; it’s more of a Q&A. Fun for the person with the experience, but with limited rewards for the conversational partner, once their curiosity is satisfied.”

    I mostly agree, but I think you’re missing a key piece: The disconnect between Storyteller & Audience often comes not when “their curiosity is satisfied,” but when it becomes obvious that there’s virtually no overlap between the world of the person talking & the world of the person listening. If the story is about a parallel universe that never intersects with the listener’s world, then the disconnect begins….

    Do you remember the PR campaign that NGM attempted to launch many years ago? It was a multi-platform effort (TV, radio, newspapers) featuring images of NGS explorers doing all sorts of exciting things — flying bi-planes around the Pyramids, diving along stunning coral reefs, climbing glaciers, and so forth. The campaign’s tagline: Join the Adventure. … Immediately after management previewed the campaign for staff members in the auditorium, I turned to a friend and said: “This won’t work.” Why? Because the subtext of the campaign was all wrong. The subtext said: We’re on an adventure and you’re not. We’re doing cool things, and you’re sitting at home in your Barcalounger eating Cheetos. But if you send us 15 bucks, you too can Join The Adventure.

    Telling people that the real adventure is happening elsewhere isn’t just counter-productive, it’s insulting too. And wrong. (FWIW: Someone in Marketing told me the campaign was rolled out in a few test markets, and failed miserably — although he never told me why.)

    In my humble opinion, NG’s message should have always been this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uF2SU3ChA8A

    Summing up: I think you’re definitely on to something interesting here. Write more on this subject, please!

    Hope all is well w/you…

  8. What a great topic and discussion! I don’t think most people have extraordinary experiences in order to be popular or to impress others. Don’t forget that unless it’s for work, the usual routine is to do these things with family or friends, so the shared experience has a social meaning more important than its value as a story for those who weren’t there. Finally, I don’t care how good a storyteller someone is, there’s only so much I can stand to hear about someone else’s safari in Africa or mountain climbing expedition. If I want to hear more than the abstract, I’ll ask. If I don’t, then please don’t be offended if I remember something I have to do and excuse myself.

  9. I’d add that while I love ice breaker and monkey stories up to a point I could listen to them forever, ok, much longer, when there’s a lot more you in the narrative. I think ice breakers are cool. Monkeys are awesome. But it’s Helen who I love very much and Helen who I, even as the person who frequently plays it safe, relate to. Maybe this is just another way of saying, as the commenters pointed out, it’s about how you tell the story. Nice piece!

  10. What a thought provoking piece, Helen. Thanks. I have been teaching a first-semester freshmen class on adventure writing this semester and have come away reflecting on the idea that the reason we tell stories is different than the reason we listen to them or read them. This class was part of a program at the University of Montana that’s supposed to help newly arrived students think about “big picture questions” as they begin their undergraduate career. The big picture question my class tried to wrangle had to do with how we learn about ourselves by exploring the physical landscapes around us. Not just by knowing the place. But by knowing ourselves consciously seeking to understand our place in a place. I assigned trails. They wrote personal essays of exploration. I read them and gave feedback. And while we discussed the power of universal themes and individual experience, what I took away as a reader was a deeper understanding of how stressful the lives of college freshmen are (I learned something about people I cared about.) And what they took away was a sense of relief from stress and perspective on the community they now call home. (They seemed to learn something about themselves.) Their adventures were interesting to both of us, but for different reasons.

  11. Great discussion. (Hi Nadia!) I run into this issue a lot as an editor of essays—people often think that an extraordinary experience is the most important ingredient in a good essay. But my favorite essays are sometimes about very humble things. It’s voice that draws me in, and it’s the insights—insights that mean something to me as well as the teller—that make essays stick with me. The best essays manage to bridge the gap between the writers’ experiences and the readers’—and by doing so, I imagine, make us both feel a bit less lonely.

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