What’s Your Throughline? It Might Surprise People.
You know that moment when you see someone you haven't seen in 30-40 years, and you can't place their name? It's okay if you're at a reunion because at least you have name tags.
Unfortunately, no one wears a name tag at Whole Foods. A while back, I was standing in the long (and slow) line at the checkout when I noticed this guy staring at me. I knew I knew him, but couldn’t recall the context. He reintroduced himself, and I realized we knew each other in the San Francisco commercial real estate business decades ago. After paying for our groceries, we shared some sushi, where he shared with me his story. I quickly realized that if I didn't have a history with him, I probably wouldn't be talking to him now. He wasn't the kind of guy I would seek out.
This modern elder has evolved from Hippie to Yuppie to NIMBY to Trumpy. As we ventured into the dangerous waters of discussing politics, he told me the January 6 hearings had helped free him from his cultish fascination with our 45th President and that he would prefer voting for the love child of Liz Cheney and Gavin Newsom. Of course, that person doesn't exist…yet…or they're not old enough to be President.
Because of our different political philosophies, I might have written him off. He seemed like a guy from the 1960s who's graduated to his own 70s and has a slight conspiratorial bent to him. But, because I'd always found him sort of fascinating (he was famous for lighting up doobies with real estate developers in the 1980s), I asked him one question that led to a 90-minute enlightening conversation.
The question was this: "What's your throughline?"
I wanted to understand what's been consistent in his process of moving from Hippie to Trumpy. I sense that he loved self-reflection in the 1970s when he hung out in the baths naked at the Esalen Institute, but he hadn't experienced much of it lately. Listening to him, I did my best to impersonate a cultural anthropologist with strong curiosity and little judgment.
It turned out his self-professed throughline is "freedom." He grew up in a hyper-conservative Midwestern family and rebelled by moving to San Francisco and hanging out in Haight-Ashbury. He was a "make love, not war" Hippie who realized that he needed to make a living for himself because his family had disowned him. This was when he moved into his Yuppie phase, initially focusing on residential real estate sales and growing into commercial real estate development. While he fancied himself a free-loving artist, he appreciated the freedom that the real estate business offered him, or as he put it, "I could make my own hours."
Once he made some dough, he moved to Marin, bought a home with a hot tub and started volunteering in his community. He started a family, then began worrying about how much development was happening around him. It was cramping his family's style, so the Hippie turned into a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard), opposing all kinds of new development in his bedroom community. Strange irony is that the real estate guy opposed the type of real estate that infringed on his and his family's freedom.
His metamorphosis was complete when he lamented how difficult it was to do business in San Francisco. While still a Democrat, he voted for Trump in 2016 because he felt the whole governmental system needed to be blown up and reordered. He kept saying to me, "Order, Disorder, Reorder… that's the sign of a healthy society." He also appreciated that Trump was no culture warrior and considered him a libertarian. Today, he's a bit freaked out by the current state of affairs as he's a long-time supporter of abortion and gay rights and strict urban gun laws.
Why am I sharing this story? To be honest, if I'd met this guy at a random party, I probably would have walked to the other side of the room. The moment I realized we had different political philosophies, I would have labeled him. But, knowing his history and hearing his throughline around his rebellious perspective on freedom helped me humanize him. Fortunately, we did this throughline exercise for me as well. Ironically, my throughline was also freedom, although my definition was much different than his.
Now, for those who regret the idea of me introducing a little politics to my politics-free Wisdom Well, I would suggest you're missing the point. I'm not talking about politics or ideologies, but our need to become "first-class noticers," especially as we age. If we develop this skill, we can see beyond what's on the surface or obvious. I don't know about you, but I think the world could use a little more of this. I know I could.
So, the next time you meet someone who tweaks or provokes you, explore their throughline. You may find that you have more in common than you think, that this person is a human just like you—full of fears, frailties, loves, and longings.