Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

There's a reason for everything: Lost's Benjamin Linus

I admit it, I'm obsessed.

There was a time not long ago when I gave up on network television altogether. That was before my friend Brian got me hooked on Lost. Through the magic of Netflix and iTunes, my wife and I were able to catch up with the live broadcast schedule midway through Season 2 and haven't missed one since. I followed The Lost Experience last summer, I poured over the Sri Lanka Video, I have one of the jigsaw puzzles that depicts a segment of The Blast Door Map, and I consult Lostpedia on a regular basis. Clearly, I need help.

Among the reasons I love the show is that the writers are constantly playing around with what motivates characters to behave in certain ways and invites the audience to wonder why as well. Through the flashback segments of the show, you discover something that has happened in a characters past that heavily influences their decisions in the present. If we could do this in our work lives, we'd all be much better off.

Engineering attracts a certain type of personality. We're typically introverted, knowledgeable, and extremely defensive. We tend to think we're always right, dismiss those who don't agree with us, and are quick to argue with those who don't analyze the world in the same way we do (aka the MBA-types of the world). Yet, like the characters in Lost, there's always a reason behind why someone says something in a meeting or performs a task a certain way.

Nobody seeks out to say things that are monumentally stupid, even if that is how your engineering mind perceives it. Instead of taking a statement that seems completely idiotic on its face, consider that there might be a good reason behind it. A reason whose foundations you don't understand. What would happen if you did?

The Lost episode that aired in the US last night (The Man Behind the Curtain) featured the long anticipated flashback of creepy genius Benjamin Linus. As the leader of The Others, he has always been considered calculating and evil. You never know if what he has to say is an out and out lie or merely a stretch of the truth. His own daughter labels him as a manipulator, but his ultimate goals are never quite clear. Last night, though, we got a window into his life and, wow, does it explain a few things. You might still not agree with what he has to say or what he does, but at least you understand a little bit better why he does it.

I won't spoil the details for those who haven't seen it on Tivo or are in other parts of the world where it hasn't been shown yet (let's just say the dude has some paternal issues and there are more Darth Vader parallels than I can count), but consider a few other Lost moments:

  • During the first show of the series just after the plane crashes, John Locke is seen standing and elated while the madness and panic in the aftermath of the crash ensues around him. It is only later in the first season during a flashback that we learn that Locke was paralyzed and in a wheelchair prior to the crash and his actions reflect his emotions at being able to stand on his own again. This information gives clarity to a moment that previously seemed very odd.
  • Season 1 also heavily featured Michael and his son Walt. Their relationship seemed extraordinarily strained with Michael being overly protective yet impatient with his preteen son. During their flashback, we see that they have only been together a few days after a lifetime apart. Walt's mother left Michael for another man and talked him into giving up his paternal rights for Walt's own good. It was only after her death that Michael re-entered Walt's life and they are essentially strangers to each other.
  • At the end of Season 2, Michael kills an innocent person for the chance to get his son back after he was kidnapped by The Others. While still cold and cruel given the previous flashback and his forced removal from his son's life his logic, even if you don't agree with it, is clear.
So, the next time somebody disagrees with you at work or says something that seems completely unproductive, give them some benefit. What would happen if you tried to play back their flashback so as to reveal why they think or act the way they do? Even if you don't agree with them, you might discover reasons you hadn't considered that will effect the outcome of your own work. At the very least, it gives you an opportunity to build a relationship by asking follow up questions of someone as you try to understand their motivations as opposed to dismissing their concerns and damaging what little ties you might have with that person

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posted by Pete Johnson @ 8:02 PM   0 comments links to this post

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