Beyond Vibes

The precision to understand ourselves and others

This year I decided to really double down on my social life.

I wanted to create a bootcamp for my social skills, and I thought the best way to do that would be to meet someone new every day. My thought was that, through sheer exposure, I would learn how to tell better stories, become more charismatic, build empathy, and listen more completely to those around me.

Now, after more than a hundred hours of conversations (yes, seriously), I can confirm I’ve already markedly improved in all of those areas. But something unexpected was brought to my attention, as well.

A byproduct of meeting so many new people was that my natural preferences began to emerge. I found myself attracted to some people, and averted to others, and I couldn’t quite tell you why.

So when an interaction exceeded my expectations, I would say things like “He was captivating”, “Her personality was magnetic”, or “There was a real chemistry between us”.

And when a interaction went south, I would say things like, “Her vibe was off”, “There wasn’t an energy between us”, or “We just didn’t click”.

Vibe, energy, click, captivating, magnetic, chemistry.

What the hell does any of that mean?

Not having the words

After meeting so many new people, I was now sitting on hours and hours of unprocessed information. Information that could hold the key to the types of people I get along with, my biases, and even my values. But I couldn’t make sense of all the raw data. I didn’t have the language to do so.

Which felt a bit like being a toddler again, and being forced to describe a unique culinary experience with only the words “Yummy” and “Yucky”. Without deliberate and concerted reflection, I had settled for a low resolution description of the world. I had discovered that by defaulting to words like vibes, I was acting like a child.

Infinite levels of precision

Even the most detailed renaissance painters were not able to capture the striking resolution of real life. They were, after all, confined to their medium as we are with our words. And yet, their works are captivating and complete. Which suggests two things: first, not everything needs to be described in lifelike detail, and second, some level of imprecision is acceptable.

Not everything matters

If you’re a baker, it’s not essential for you to be able to describe why some spoken word poetry moves you to tears, and some does not. Simply experiencing it, in the moment and in earnest, unobstructed by language, is enough. However, as a baker, you damn well better be able to describe the texture, flavor, and consistency of a sourdough starter, just by smelling it. Very rarely does the word vibes breach the lexicon of a true professional.

If you care about what you’re doing, and you’re taking it seriously, you find those extra moments to develop clarity.

A level of imprecision is acceptable

Describing reality is an asymptotic endeavor. Meaning that, despite our best attempts, we can never quite capture the exactitude of the natural world, or our internal emotional landscape. And that’s okay. Beyond a certain point, greater levels of clarity aren’t useful to us. Not in practice at least.

Imagine you’re told to paint a picture of the ocean. You might start by dabbing your brush with the color blue. But is the sea really blue? No. So you mix the paint a bit, and create the color teal. It’s now closer, but not quite right. So you continue, and make aquamarine. Still not there. You mix and mix, getting closer with each pass. Until, finally you realize you will never capture the true brilliance and complexity of the ocean. But luckily, that was never really the point in the first place.

As a painter, our hope is to evoke a projection of the ocean, in the observer’s mind. Not to recreate the actual ocean. Getting them 90% of the way there is good enough; they’ll fill in the remaining 10%.

Which is to say, if I simply splashed some blue paint on a canvas, you might be able to guess what I was alluding to. You might not. Vague, meaningless language is the splashing of blue paint. Precision is attempting, however in vain, to recreate the majesty of water.

Sincerely out of practice

When I resolved that understanding people, and relationships, was a worthy endeavor, I very quickly realized that I was out of practice. I discovered that I was leaning on just a handful of words, to describe an overwhelming flow of feelings and natural phenomena. At times, I found myself squirming, fumbling, and even stalling out completely, when trying to describe these sensations.

But with each successive attempt at articulation, I gained a greater level of clarity. I can now describe to myself, and others, why some conversations flourish and why others fall flat. What draws me to certain people, and what repels me from others. Most importantly, I can now communicate what ‘good vibes’ actually means to me.

This process has been a restoration of sight to an area of my life, I was previously blinded to.

Making the unconscious, conscious

A writer friend of mine made the point that “Words will always do an inadequate job of expressing the complexity and texture of our internal world. They’re simply too imprecise a tool.”

To which I responded, yes, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

You may never be able to perfectly describe why someone makes you feel a certain way, or why a piece of art makes you shiver, or what exactly made you cry during a beautiful sunset. For that matter, you may never truly understanding yourself, your preferences, or your values—but that shouldn’t stop you from trying.

To do so, is to attempt to make the unconscious, conscious. To take things felt innately, and make them manifest. In its most literal sense, it’s the practice behind knowing thyself. Translating the habits, biases, and judgments we feel every day, into words we can derive meaning from. Giving narrative and structure to our internal world.

When someone asks you how you feel, take a second, or two, or ten. Don’t just answer good. Probe yourself. Give them a teal, or an aquamarine, or if you’re feeling frisky, a blue topaz.

Let the other things, the meaningless things, slide. If you don’t care to understand why The Godfather was great, and The Godfather Part II was trash, then simply chalk it up to vibes. There’s nothing wrong with that. In the end, imprecision is simply a sign that we don’t care, and we’re under no obligation to care about everything.


p.s. If you made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the like button on this essay.

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