Whenever I think of the easy mistakes we make in seeking relationships, I think of the Johnny Lee song about “Looking for love, in all the wrong places,” but thanks to Eddie Murphy and his “Buh-weet Sings” skit from Saturday Night Live, I always sing it like Buh-weet in my head. Buh-weet is supposed to be a spoof of the character Buckwheat from the classic 1950s TV program “The Little Rascals” (a combination of shorts from the 1929-1938 “Our Gang” movie series). The show followed the mishaps of a ragtag group of young friends that are as mismatched and unfortunate in their adventures as it gets.
My friend David Guldenschuh has recently pointed out how often I quote song lyrics in my column, and he’s right. It is simply the way that I think, so bear with me as I do it again. Songs stick in my head and they are always connected to some feeling, or experience, or lesson when they do. When a feeling, or experience, or lesson comes to mind, the song that goes with it comes to mind, too. Maybe it is my eternally optimistic mind’s way of lightening the memory a little, or maybe it’s some form of phonetic memory, who knows.
I happened across an article on the internet this week about Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his 3-question test for prospective employees that he created in 1998, before the company grew to the mammoth work force that it is today. It was his way of establishing a level of excellence in all of his employees by targeting certain standards in the interview process. He was aware that the company was growing and wanted to ensure that, as the pool of interviewers grew, there would always be a framework for determining if someone was a good fit and would bring the level of excellence growth requires. As I read through the questions, it occurred to me that perhaps we should consider adopting similar benchmarks in all of our relationships, be they friends, girlfriends, boyfriends or any person with whom we plan to spend a lot of time. As I considered the many students that have headed back to school this week and will be building new friend groups, or reestablishing old circles, it occurred to me these standards could be helpful to them, as well. How great would it be if we taught a bit of discernment and deliberation in picking the people with whom they surround themselves, sort of like an interview process? So, let’s pick through Jeff Bezos’ list and see how it feels.
1. “Will you admire this person?”
When you think about what you have learned about a new or old friend or prospective partner, is there anything that you find particularly admirable about them? Sometimes, sadly, kids are likely to choose things like popularity or wardrobe or recklessness as admirable traits, but let’s encourage them to look deeper than that. Challenge them to think about how this person would handle an awkward situation, for example, or how they treat people that are different from them. Lawrence Steinberg and his colleagues conducted various studies over many years that show that teens are more likely to make risky choices around their peers simply because the rewards centers of their brains are more stimulated when peers are present. If their friends are people who they believe to value risk, they are more likely to take risks in order to be rewarded with praise or even unspoken admiration. If we encourage kids to look for deeper qualities that they can admire in a friend, they will hopefully surround themselves with people they believe will reward them for deeper character choices, as well. In other words, when they are wookin’ pa nub, encourage them to seek it at levels deeper than risk-taking popular standards.
2. “Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?”
This question seems to speak more particularly to the workplace, but it doesn’t have to. We encourage our kids to always do their best, to set goals that push them to grow and advance in their accomplishments, so why wouldn’t we encourage them to seek friends who do the same? In discussing the logic behind this question, Bezos said, “We want to fight entropy.” Well, don’t we all? The people we spend the most time with will shape how that time is spent and it is only logical that we achieve more when we are surrounded by people who are interested in achievement for themselves and the group.
3. “Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?”
In determining what a potential employee brings to the workplace, Bezos hoped to encourage an understanding of the particular star quality someone might bring to the mix, noting his excitement over having recently hired a National Spelling Bee champion. Obviously we and our children would be hard-pressed to only seek superstars for friends, but there is no reason we can’t recognize what our friends are really good at and celebrate how those talents enrich our own lives.
Where are you wookin’ pa nub? Where are the children in your life wookin’ pa nub? If we become more deliberate in our expectations and teach our children to do the same, maybe we, and they, will find exactly the kind of love and friendships that we all need. Buh-weet would be proud.
Monica Sheppard is a freelance graphic designer, beekeeper, mother and community supporter living in Rome.