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David has been writing and publishing since 2006.  

The Middle School Rule

Feb 6, 2024 | Reflections

Parenting a middle schooler is fraught with challenges.  

The inner life of an emerging adult – desperate not only to self-individuate but also not sure of being ready to leave the comforting dependency of childhood – is laden with minefields. Yet when walking through it, I have been surprised by the opportunities to re-learn and re-affirm some lessons myself.  

None perhaps as important as the lived reality of each of our own narcissism.

We share this lesson repeatedly – telling our middle schooler that no one is paying attention to them/their actions/choice of clothing, etc. because they are too busy being worried about what everyone else is thinking about them.  It sounds too easy to too say, and accordingly too easy to believe.  But we know it too be true.

Once in adulthood, we hopefully have learned this lesson or perhaps we just become more self-confident and so it does not feel as important to recall and consider its implications.

Therein lies the risk – a problem I see and hear at great regularity. It just manifests differently.  See if these scenarios ring true for yourself or someone you know – 

  • “I’ve submitted my resume to 25 different jobs, but haven’t heard anything back”
  • “We advertised our company, but it has not generated a lot of leads”
  • “I updated my LinkedIN profile – why am I not hearing about opportunities for work, board service, etc.”

Whether we recognize it or not, this is the Middle School rule still playing out in our daily lives. 

People are largely focused on their own lives – and specifically their own problems – not yours. David Foster Wallace said it well in his speech “This is Water,” “It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”

This natural self-directed focus sets us on a direct collision course between our needs and reality. While we are concerned most with ourselves, at times, to get what we need/want/require, we have to get that from another person.  We may have a sales quota to hit.  We might be looking for a new job.  In many circumstances, what we are interested in is dependent on another person in some capacity.  Even more challenging, we might not even know that person yet. 

But keep in mind, that other person is faced with the same circumstances and is doing the same thing. They are worried about getting their own needs met. All too often, we approach a person entirely focused on our own needs, while they are entirely focused on their own needs.

You can see why this is problematic. 

Both persons are so inwardly focused that they are unable to see the other person in front of them. Practically, this looks like interaction with a lot of small talk (the weather, sports teams), followed by a quick high level description of your job. The interaction wraps with a friendly promise to keep in touch or keep you in mind. A friendly interaction is not at issue. If neither person is able to get out of their own head, the dialogue is not going to be successful in moving forward.

What is needed though is for each party to develop necessary rapport, but then begin to seek to understand what sorts of problems the person in front of them is facing.  This requires empathy!

Not the sort of “I feel your pain” empathy of Hallmark movies, but the careful action to put your own needs aside for a moment to focus on the person in front of you. It begins by asking questions to understand where this person is and what challenges they are facing. This doesn’t necessarily have to be about personal matters, it can be directed focused on job and role. 

In my experience, this sort of affirmative inquiry typically leads to three things occurring.

First – it can be helpful to talk through something with a person. By asking good questions and listening, you are giving a gift to someone else – the ability to think out loud about a matter.

Second, you may have some ideas about how to solve the problem. When a person is unpacking an issue, you may have encountered a similar issue, read a relevant book, or know someone who is a specific expert in that area. When appropriate in the dialogue, you may have unique insight to offer.

Finally, you, yes you, might be the answer to the problem expressed. This is most likely a rare occurrence. In fact, if it is happening with a high degree of regularity, most likely you do not fully understand the types of problems you are best equipped to solve (jack of all trades as it were). The key is to graciously, without excessive pressure, offer yourself as the potential solution. Consider asking a light touch question such as “Would you be open to a separate conversation about how I/we/my firm might be a good fit to help in this matter?” (hat tip to David Fields for structuring this question)

But wait, if I’m so busy helping others solve their problems, isn’t there a risk that my own needs do not get addressed?

Possibly, but in my experience highly unlikely for several reasons.  First, reciprocity is a powerful force.  When we help others, there is a natural almost instinctive desire to help us in return.   Second, helping solve a problem feels good!  We will experience happiness and satisfaction in being of service to others.  This may in fact give us the perspective to see whether our needs actually need addressing.  Third, you will likely build meaningful enough relationships with a handful of folks who become committed enough to you personally to want to help you out. By all means, do not become a doormat for others.  Keep tabs on your personal energy levels and guard against burnout.

We all face the challenge and opportunity of the Middle School rule.  We need the self-confidence to step into our lives not beholden to the whims of others. But at the same time, if we can set our ego aside, engage in empathetic listening, we open up a world of opportunity for ourselves and others.


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Nashville, TN