When Remaining Objective Means You’ve Failed

photo by the author

When you’d like to be objective about your friends, partners, or family, I hope you can’t.

Whoa. Was that impolite of me? At first glance, perhaps, but let’s back up so I may explain.

I’ve always thought being able to be objective with my friends and family is something to aspire to. I’m newly unconvinced.

Recently, my brother and sister-in-law hired a consultant to help their son plan applying to universities. When I first heard this, I was sceptical.

I’m guessing you already have your biases in play, too.

But I gave it more thought and realized it revealed a self-awareness rare in parenting.

With those whom we care about it’s through time and shared experience that we gain a depth of intimacy. This converts mere acquaintances to lifetime friends, partners to spouses, babies with your last name to… well, you get the idea.

As you move through life, you’ll go through waves of events appropriate to the the proximal ages of those around you. Your perception of these events will take many forms and be challenged in many ways.

Among classic turning points are graduating school, first big job opportunities, meeting someone amazing and marrying, child-rearing, dealing with adult identity issues, and eventually watching your own children graduate school.

For those in the thick of it much of the future seems to hinge on existential questions.

Whether to go to school in a city one knows or step into the unknown… seek a job in the arts or sciences versus something more applied in a trade or in finance. Looking deep within oneself for clues if a partner is “the one” and stumbling through well-meaning parental efforts and the challenges of marriage.

At each juncture, you’ll be positioned to be a sounding board for the myriad choices facing your friends and family members. It’s natural to seek inspiration and guidance from the people you know best.

And why not? To whom would you go? Strangers? The internet?

It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to give good advice is absolutely fatal. ~ Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Mr. W.H.

My nephew now embarks on a path to university. He’s bright, conscientious, and talented. With so many potential avenues to success, so many ways the success could be defined, he’s a tempting canvas on which to project adult hopes and expectations.

“Go there. Do that”. We’ll tempt irony by insinuating someone find their own way on a path we’ll enthusiastically point out.

Similar advice for a young person or a friend is well-intentioned and borne of love. But tacitly, it’s also arrogant.

Firstly, presumes one knows them better than they know themselves.

Sure, when one is more senior, we can all agree (well, the more senior among us) that with years comes a sense of being a few steps further up a hillside, a hillside from which one may better look back at the routes below where the going was more difficult. We may explain the paths to both our vistas and those occupied by those with whom we started our journeys.

But you cannot see all paths from where you stand. You cannot see all the paths a young person with many aptitudes could successfully take. You cannot possibly see all the places they could end up. Telling them the best path is tantamount to telling them which destination among unknowns is best.

While successful, well-adjusted young people of great potential hailing from less-than-ideal family situations are comfortingly overrepresented in media, if one were to meet my nephew it wouldn’t come as a surprise he inherits many positive traits from his parents.

For my brother and sister in-law it would have been natural, even part of their job description as parents, to direct my nephew’s thinking and applications. They have been supportive and involved at every step. They’ve answered many of life’s questions effectively for themselves when they were his age and then for their son along the way — why stop now as he faces bigger ambiguities?

However, sagaciously, they didn’t.

They chose to enlist the help of an outsider. She was vetted for compatibility but, critically, this woman didn’t know my nephew like his parents. Instead she knows well the process of selection, of schools, of common concerns, of the retrospectives of the young men and women she’s helped guide.

Obviously, the value of an objective party in decision making has been in evidence nearly as long as decisions themselves.

Like you, I’ve been in a position with my peers, friends, and family to weigh in with perspectives unfettered by proximity to the issues at stake. To be entrusted enough to provide a guiding word based on objectivity.

But what occurred to me here is that there is a pitfall.

If you’ve committed yourself to a relationship as moving and meaningful as that of your children or spouse or someone you truly love, perhaps you shouldn’t be able to be objective.

From Merriam-Webster: “expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations

With a true partner, you’ll have accrued so much connection your objectivity is long since subverted.

Indeed, I had a laugh the more I thought of this. I have a strong affiliation with empirical thinking, even since before a university degree in Physics. Clear, logical thinking isn’t just a nice-to-have but requisite for much of my career.

Modularity of thought offering powerful compartmentalization is a tool I use daily. In my work I seek objectively improved solutions.

Yet now I realize there’s much to be found in sacrificing all that in my relationships.

Be so vested in and enjoy the experience of life with those around you that you are in it. Be into them so much that the nobility of objectivity is overshadowed by the beautiful emotional landscape you’ve defined with them.

Enjoy the views.



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Geo Snelling

Geo Snelling

Writing my thoughts with the goal of prompting yours, from a timezone consisting of only 5M people. I work at a confluence of art and software engineering.