A Tale of Two Castles

One castle is atop a hill I call Relationship.

I have certain set of standards for any relationship. These standards were learned the hard way. There was a time when I would sacrifice anything to a relationship. It didn’t matter what kind of relationship; if there was chance I could help, I would. Eventually I learned that any relationship based on my philosophy (or perhaps need) to give to it, to help, eventually led to some form of being taken for granted. Eventually, I adopted the implicit contract idea, which goes like this: If any relationship is to succeed, the implicit contract of that relationship means that each person involved has to contribute something to the relationship. That contribution does not need to be equal, or in the same form for each person, but it needs to strive for value, some level of equity, and respect for each other across the board. For me, this contract only protects me and allows me to recognize a one-sided relationship before I have poured too much of myself into it. At that point, it’s too late. There is nothing the other person can do to re-balance the contract, unless of course my house catches on fire and that person drags me out before I burn to death. In other words, it’s a guideline to remind myself what will happen if I don’t select relationships with some form of balance, and if I don’t eliminate the soul-sucking alternatives.

The other castle is on the hill of Being Right.

As my sister-in-law says, “Nobody gets a full deck.” We are all wrong sometimes. We are all crazy sometimes. We are all reacting to things right in front of us and things stored in our emotional attics at the same time. There is no way we can rightfully claim to have a complete handle on life. If you claim this completeness for yourself, you are either woefully boring, or you are dead wrong, and I hope for your sake you are not forced to learn the hard way. The interesting thing is that it’s very hard to defend a muddy, messy human relationship and to defend “being right” at the same time. On the other hand, you can defend a relationship as being “right for you” all day long, and that’s good enough. It’s far harder to defend a relationship as being wrong for you, at least for me. I can find value in almost anyone.

I have what can probably be referred to as an ex-friend. We’ll call her “M”. M is a very skilled artisan and a very smart person. She’s the kind of person who could share ideas and accept thoughts from other people that would improve her artistic work and her life. Unfortunately, M has decided to defend herself in the castle of being right. She can make no mistakes, and therefore she can accept no critique. As an artist, she could rationalize this as defending her vision, and I understand it fully. I have been there too many times myself.

The problem, I have learned, is that vision is based on initial assumptions. If I make flawed initial assumptions, my skill, experience, and brainpower don’t matter at all. I’m going to solve the wrong problem. The only defense against flawed assumptions is to ask as many people as you can get to sit still for the questions. There was a time in life, a much younger time, when I would do anything to avoid the appearance of not knowing what I was doing. Now, I understand the first trick is to make the one initial assumption that is guaranteed to be right: It’s probably wrong. My assumptions may be wrong in total, or they may only be wrong in the finer points, but somewhere along the line, my assumptions are wrong. Thanks to my brilliant and analytical wife, I have learned how to qualify my assumptions and conclusions to a fine degree, and I include that with every opinion. I tell her that if I say something without a qualifier, she should probably proceed as if I know it for a fact.

Recently, M was entered in an Olympia tradition known as Arts Walk. Local artists team up with downtown Olympia businesses to showcase their work for a weekend, and it’s a good time for all. Western Washington is chock full of fine artists and craftspeople. My wife and I happened to show up at a time when M was not working her display, but I did my usual synthesis on the situation, including standing around listening to the conversations of people viewing M’s work. The only reason I would do this is to be helpful to M, who I regard as someone who was doing something cool. I wanted to help. My flawed initial assumption…

I collected information that could have helped M refine her process and presentation, and I did that framed upon my own evaluation of the value of her work. Sharon and I cruised a significant portion of Arts Walk, and while we enjoyed looking at the artists’ work, I was also doing a marketing analysis for M at the same time. I understood a great many things that can’t be seen from the hill of “being right”.

Eventually, M asked me what I thought. Knowing her, I knew that certain things could not be touched, but I did offer two specific thoughts. I said, “In general, I thought they were great! One (out of 9 pieces) seemed a little sparse, and one was sitting on a craftsman bookshelf that was the same price as one of her offerings. That could confuse the value equation.” She didn’t respond to these comments, as I expected. I knew I had brushed up against, or crossed, the line of offense while offering helpful feedback. I have known M long enough to know that she was closed to feedback, but I couldn’t be honest without at least a partial analysis of what I saw. What I left out was that she was vastly overpricing her work. I could point out twenty examples of other work at Arts Walk that sold for her price point with much more artist time in the work. By the same token, I could point out work that was done with a similar process to hers, selling for less than one-third the price. Buyers are passive experts. They may not know how things are done specifically, but they do know how to spot the level of artist attention in the work. I don’t care if you are watching CNN or cruising Arts Walk, you are an expert in marketing evaluation, and there are definable patterns in human response. I also left out that I personally would have, even though I really like what M does, spent my own money on a dozen other choices. Yet, she was offended.

I would like to say that I was taken by surprise, that my helpful critique wouldn’t have led her to a better place, but I wasn’t. I knew even the most analytical response would amount to a line of siege weapons on her castle. Frankly, as much as I have tried to help her, she has been sneering at me from day one. She would disagree profoundly of course. She considers herself completely open minded, with not the slightest clue that she is indeed the opposite. In the Olympia tradition, in this day and age, that’s no surprise either.

So, today… I saw her working in her shop and wandered over. I repeated the offense of my observations, again leaving out the real elephants in the room, and she put on a grand performance of sneering and eye rolling, usually simultaneously. I was clearly in the land of grand offense, as if I were marching around her castle with my naughty bits hanging out, farting in her general direction. Given that I was trying to make sure she had heard the information I was offering in a helpful way, information she had never bothered to respond to, I became offended too. Life is too short for a prejudged, unbalanced relationship. M offered her pre-judgement of the value of my lifetime of experience in the first conversation, and nothing I have done, including crawling under her kitchen sink to replace a faucet has changed it, so I retreat to my hill and my implicit contract, and I say, “That’s enough.”

Good luck solving a problem with flawed assumptions. Lord knows, I’ve tried often enough.