So-what-ness

I’ve noticed a sense of so-what-ness that permeates a lot of the conversations I’ve had or observed. It’s a sense of mild cynicism that hangs over a conversation or idea, where it feels like every sentence has to justify its significance against an unspoken “so what?”. It’s skepticism as a default; an indulgence in intellectual incredulity.

Here’s how it usually goes:

Me: I’ve been working on this cool new project that <insert cool idea here>

Friend: How does it work? What are you using to do that?

Me: It’s like x, but we do it better because y. We’re using a and b to get there.

Friend: Oh, a and b are terrible. You should use c and d. And that sounds like what z is doing, and they’ve been around forever.

etc

Sometimes it’s more like:

Me: I’ve been working on this cool new project that…

World: 🦗🦗

This is in marked contrast to conversations I have outside of San Francisco, which are much more likely to go like this:

Me: I’ve been working on this cool new project that <insert cool idea here>

Stranger: (eyes light up) Nice! <Cool idea> is awesome. I have a buddy who does <something related to cool idea>

So-what-ness, when it becomes pervasive, is a destructive mindset. It shoots down potentially good ideas and entrenches the status quo. It makes it harder to accomplish something because it makes it harder for people to care about something.

I catch myself guilty of so-what-ism more often than I’d like. Often, it’s my default mindset going into a conversation, and I catch myself being that guy while shooting down someone’s idea. Even then, it’s difficult to completely flip my perspective, try to build up an idea, and explore how well it could work (and to preempt a certain cynical response here — I’m lucky to have interesting conversations with good ideas most of the time).

So-what-ness is a strange phenomenon. It seems to be correlated with [perceived] intelligence, although I could be convinced the correlation points in either direction: to a first approximation, we tend to perceive intellectual cynicism as “smart”; at the same time, finding valuable insights and being “smart” typically requires breaking down simple ideas and diving beyond the superficial. Yet living with chronic so-what-ness blinds people to many good ideas, which are characterized by how well things could go, not the inevitable challenges and ways things could go wrong. And so we have smart people who end up being dispassionate or even self-selecting out of good ideas.

Living in San Francisco, I know I’ll be surrounded by so-what-ness. I can definitely appreciate it as a useful mindset from time-to-time. But for myself, I want to get better at recognizing when I default to indulging it, and reminding myself to consider how something might work, and how good it could be. I think it’s a better way to live.