It’s quite natural to want to associate with people who have particular qualities. After all, the people around you make up your River, and you want it to work with you, not against you. So let’s imagine that you want people around you who are ambitious, kind, and intelligent. You specifically don’t want people who are petty, selfish, or foolish.
Okay… now what?
People don’t walk around with labels on their foreheads saying “Ambitious” or “Petty.” (And even if they did, how accurate or truthful could they be?) So we have to use proxies. Of course, the most accurate way to determine these traits is by interacting with that person multiple times over an extended period, but by that point they’re already in your River. Plus, clearly you can’t just absorb everyone you meet into your life at full capacity – there isn’t the time nor the space, for you nor them.
So instead, proxies. But which proxies we use often says more about us than about the people we’re trying to attract or repel, and like any offloaded decision, it runs the risk of giving many false results that harm us in the long run.
Here’s an example. Let’s say that I highly prize having intelligent people in my life. But I don’t have a superpower that allows me to tell how intelligent someone is by looking. So I proxy some piece of data that’s easier to evaluate. Because it seems correlated, I choose “education level.” It’s easy to ask in even an initial conversation where someone went to school, and for how long, and for what, and it doesn’t seem wildly intrusive. So if I was comfortable proxying “education level” for “intelligence,” I have a more efficient solution.
The enormous problem, of course, is that “education level” is not a good proxy for “intelligence.” Depending on why I wanted intelligent people in my River, it may even have negative correlation! For instance, suppose that if I was more self-aware, I would have realized that I wanted “intelligent” people in my life because I think of intelligent people as more free-spirited, creative, and inventive. Well, filtering by education level is not a good way to determine how free-spirited someone is, for sure! If I’m looking for out-of-the-box brainstorm buddies, getting rid of everyone who didn’t navigate the Ivy League probably isn’t a good strategy.
So that’s the danger of using a broad, society-imposed standard proxy. Instead, what if you used a more personal one? For instance, I could pick a few books that I both very much enjoyed and felt were intellectually stimulating and evaluate people’s intelligence by whether they read, understood, and liked those books. There are two problems with this strategy. For one, your experiences are unique to you and are just one possible path out of trillions. Someone could be completely within the category of “intelligent” as you would define it, but has simply never encountered those specific books. For two, there’s a whole lot of bias in the idea that you can define positive traits by their proximity to your own experiences.
It’s easy to sort by “people like me.” But that’s a sad River indeed.
So what are you left with? You can’t use the proxies of society because they’re too broad to be able to apply to your specific needs, and you can’t use the your own proxies because they’re too narrow to apply to the rest of society. So how can you possibly figure out who possesses the traits you want in your life?
Well… you can use any of that. Society’s proxies are actually fine. So are yours. So is your neighbor Steve’s. So is throwing darts at a dart board. As long as you’re prepared to be okay with being wrong, and changing.
Your life isn’t a vault. Entering and exiting is as easy as you let it be. People can come in for a while, give you something wonderful, and then leave. That’s okay – in fact, it’s expected, good even. There really is no risk-free way to tell who’s going to be a perfect life-long companion, if such a thing even exists. Start somewhere, anywhere, and adjust as you go.
There are very, very few non-reversible decisions in life. Meeting someone isn’t like jumping off a cliff, with no easy way to “un-jump.” It’s taking one stair. If you don’t like the slightly different view, you can go back the way you came, and take a different one. If you filter too strongly, you can miss the very best ones.