Introduction: People Stuff

My brother, John, was asked to speak before a high school religion class many years ago. I don't remember the subject he was asked to discuss, but I will never forget an exercise he asked the kids to do.

John stood at the blackboard. He asked the students to yell out the things that were important to them. As they yelled out their answers, he wrote them on the board. After a few minutes the yelling subsided. A few seconds would pass and a voice would yell another "thing" to be added to the board. Finally, no one had anything more to share.

John stepped back from the board and asked the students to look at what they had said was important. Hundreds of items were on the board including: motorcycles, girlfriends and boyfriends, sports championships, summer jobs, dates, cars, money, brothers and sisters, college or trade school, teachers, snow skiing, parents, vacations, no classes, graduation, etc.

Then John asked them a very telling question. "What could you do without?"

He approached the board and began erasing the "things" they felt were not that important to them. Things that they could live without. Things that were not essential to life. All that remained was "people stuff": mothers, fathers, girlfriends, boyfriends, family, teachers, brothers and sisters, ...

Consider a normal day in your life. What occupies your time? How much of it do you spend using everything you learned about arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, calculus, and statistics? How much of your day is consumed by diagramming your sentences, correcting your grammatical errors, or worrying about the tense of your verbs? Is it in the early morning, the middle of the afternoon, or when the sun is setting that you pass your time thinking about cells dividing in your body, heliotropism in your house plants, or chemical reactions in your oven? How many minutes do you devote to astronomy, civics, history, and literature? These are the "things" you learned in school. But unless one of these areas of knowledge sits at the core of your job, you probably don't focus on these topics for any length of time. At least not in a normal day.

On the other hand, how much of your normal day is occupied with "people stuff". How much time do you spend talking to people? Or listening to people? Or figuring out people? Or asking for help from people? Or helping people? Or meeting with people? Or enjoying the company of people? Or wanting to get away from people? How much of your normal day ticks away with angering people or being angered by them?; Pleasing people or being pleased by them?; Disappointing people or being disappointed by them? If you're a hermit, this people stuff doesn't fill up your day. Chances are you are not a hermit. Therefore, I would be safe in saying that people stuff eats up most of your normal day.

This isn't much of a revelation. It is even less profound to say that we take the people stuff for granted. People stuff is important to all of us. Our lives revolve around it. People stuff is the source of our joys and sorrows. Our happiness and sadness depends upon it. We'll find people stuff at the heart of our fun. And in our moments of depression, people stuff will likely be the reason. When our people stuff is going well, we feel comfortable and at peace. When it isn't going so well, we feel anxiety or guilt. "Things" do not give us the precious rewards and devastating disappointments that people stuff does.

But, things are important too. We need "things" to help us with the people stuff. In fact, we dedicate a great deal of our time, energy, talent, and money to teaching "things". We build schools, organize courses, and formalize teaching methods. We write textbooks, standardize tests, and create libraries. We tax ourselves and pay tuition to buy a wide range of educational services. All of what we do in terms of education and training is focused on teaching our children "things"; "things" that will help them cope effectively and efficiently with a variety of situations in their adult lives.

You remember some of the things we learned. We learned how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers. We learned dates in history and events associated with those dates. We learned how government worked and how government didn't work. We learned about plants and animals, chemistry and physics, and speech and writing. All that we learned while we sat in our little desks focused on things. Things, things, things.

"Things" are not unimportant. I have come to realize the ultimate purpose of all the things I learned. People stuff is this purpose. For instance, arithmetic would have little meaning unless it had something to do with people. Why is it important to be able to add, subtract, multiply, and divide numbers? Ultimately, it is because "people stuff" depends on this ability.

Checkbooks, recipes, tax returns, miles per hour, sales discounts, innings in a game, time of day, and an infinite number of other "things" help us relate to people. Checkbooks record interactions and exchanges with others. Recipes provide guidelines to sustain life that we might have more time on earth to enjoy the company of others. Tax returns require us to contribute to the community our share of what it takes to enhance maintain the community of others. Miles per hour help us regulate the safety of our travel to work with or play with others. Sales discounts give us an opportunity to save a few dollars on things we need or want to improve our time with others. Innings in a game set the boundaries within which we will play a game to have fun with others. Time of day tells us when others are expecting us. We need this "thing" called arithmetic. Without it, the people stuff would become confusing, difficult, and even dangerous. Learning "things" in an organized, formal way helps us with "people stuff".

We learned about doing "people stuff" very differently. We learned it first and foremost at home. Naturally, our parents were our first "people stuff" teachers. Other big people, aunts, uncles, older brothers and sisters, and friends of the family, gave us lessons, too. Still, our parents were the primary lesson givers. They didn't put us in little desks. They didn't scratch on blackboards. They didn't ask us to hand in our homework. They didn't tell us to read aloud from our textbook. But they taught us lessons all the same.

Where and when did they teach us the "people stuff" lessons? They taught us while they held us in their arms to soothe our pains. They taught us at supper when we fed the dog beneath the table. They taught us in the backyard after we cut down mom's cedar tree. They taught us when we invaded our sister's room. They taught us in the car when we asked for a rest stop again. They taught us after we returned from riding our bikes where we shouldn't have.

Our parents and the other big people during our childhoods didn't organize classes. They didn't set learning objectives and write lesson plans. They didn't select and buy people stuff textbooks for us. They didn't schedule tests and exams to measure our retention. The people stuff we gathered was on an as-needed basis. Frequently, it was imparted to us when we were not living up to someone's expectations. Our lessons in people stuff were given and received very haphazardly as compared to our "thing" lessons at school.

When we were a bit older our snotty-nosed little friends offered their vast wisdom and wondrous insights about their take on "people stuff". These lessons were particularly fascinating and we had to pay attention to them. If we didn't, we faced banishment. These lessons were much more than just haphazard, they were confusing, conflicting, and not altogether in keeping with our earlier lessons.

No matter where, when, or how we learned our "people stuff", we were left on our own to organize the bits and pieces of information into a usable format. We had to pull together the various rules, theories, methods, approaches, and insights by ourselves. And where are they today? They're hiding in the nooks and crannies of our gray matter, traveling up and down our neural pathways, and popping in and out of our long-term and short-term memories. In truth, no one really knows where they are, but they're there in our heads, tucked away, and waiting to be summoned when needed.

Now, if in the scheme of life "people stuff" is so important, so vital to our well being as compared to "things", why isn't "people stuff" taught in a more organized, formalized way. The reason is simple. People can agree on things. People cannot agree on "people stuff".

Everyone can quickly come to a consensus about how to spell words in the English language, but arguments rage about handling interpersonal conflict. Two plus two equals four all over the United States, but ask how one should tell someone that he is obnoxious and the answers vary. Because people can agree about "things", "things" can be organized, formalized, and taught easily.

"People stuff" is very fuzzy. It will always be fuzzy. There are no specific answers for every people situation we encounter. This is the reason people stuff is so fuzzy. And when a subject is fuzzy, people don't readily agree on what should be taught and what should be left alone. Therefore, schools were not, are not, and will not be empowered to teach people stuff. So people stuff will always be taught by our parents, other big people, and our friends. Children will always learn it haphazardly.

It's okay to learn people stuff haphazardly. Those who came before us, most everyone today, and a good number who will follow us will learn about people stuff in pretty much the same way. It's kind of comforting to know most every human being has this in common. (What is not so comforting is the bizarre lessons some people get.)

So, I hope we can agree that people are the ultimate purpose for "things". If we do agree, then it would seem to make sense to learn some people principles to help us understand "people stuff". It would be nice to have a formal class in "people stuff" to put "things" into perspective.

There are classes in most colleges and universities that purport to offer these people principles. They come in all shapes and sizes and look at people from their own unique perspectives. Most of us are familiar with these courses. They include political science, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and management. Hidden within the content of these courses I found a few useful people principles. But the information still seemed remote from the nitty gritty of dealing with the common "people stuff". As well-meaning as the instructors and professors were (and this I can only assume), people studies seemed like "thing" studies. The approaches and methods they used to study people were the same approaches and methods to study "things".

I took many of these courses in my time at the university. The education I received was wonderful. I learned how complex we human beings really are. I learned to appreciate different political and cultural perspectives. I learned the general principles that guide the economics of nations. I learned the possible reasons for society developing the way it has. I learned the fantastic workings of the human mind.

While I was learning this fabulous information, I was living in a muck of people stuff. The information I received did little to help me deal with the more immediate life-threatening and life- enhancing issues with which I had to deal. I had major concerns to work through with people. Important people. People who could make or break my life at the time.

I was coping with a roommate that didn't see a problem with leaving a half-eaten hamburger under his bed. I was searching for the perfect words to ask a girl to the homecoming football game. I was unsuccessful in avoiding a girl who was stalking me. I was wrestling with the decision of whether or not to go home for Easter break. And if I went to Florida, how was I going to let my friends know that they'd have to share expenses if we used my car. My life was composed of this "people stuff" .

My understanding of the underlying political forces that gave rise to the Third French Republic offered no clue as to how to get my roommate to pick up his hamburger. Keynesian economic theory did not give me the words to keep me from going to the game alone. The workings of the central nervous system helped little in ducking the pesky girl. The scientific study of Mayan and Incan religions didn't make disappointing my mom at Easter easier. An analysis of fossilized human remains in Kenya didn't provide the script to ask my friends to part with some of their vacation money. And the appropriate span of control in manufacturing businesses gave me few directions on how to seize the overall joy I wanted.

These valuable courses discussed people on a macro-level, with a scientific flare. They divided people into groups, observed how they acted under certain circumstances, looked for distinct patterns of behavior, created theories about what was going on, and tested their theories by trying to predict what other sets of people would do. Sometimes they were right. Sometimes they were wrong.

On the other hand, the "people stuff" we face each day resides on the micro-micro-level. Groupings are not useful in one-on-one relationships. We may pretend that groupings are valuable, but then we will be justly and rightly accused of using stereotypes, prejudices, and biases. These over-generalizations are not effective and efficient when it comes to our personal "people stuff".

Where was I going to find the "people stuff" I vaguely knew I needed?

The date was September 1, 1981, a Tuesday, and the place, Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. I slipped into Lockett Hall's auditorium to attend my second psychology course. The course was one of the possible-throw-away electives I had selected at the urging of a good friend of mine. You know the kind of course. You sign-up for more courses than you intend to take and drop the ones that don't look easy or interesting after two weeks.

The course was Psychology 2004 and the title, "Psychology of Adjustment", one of those obscure titles that seemed unrelated to the course content. The teacher was Dr. Edwin O. Timmons, a pale, white-bearded professor with a bad back. He had been voted LSU's Most Favorite Professor a couple or more times. He had the reputation of being exceedingly interesting, almost to the point of being academically questionable. I had heard of this guy, but I didn't know much about him.

The first day of class gave evidence of this class's popularity. The classroom was filled to overflowing. Obviously, more students occupied the classroom than had enrolled in the course. I sat in the corner of the front of the auditorium surveying the room and withholding my adoration and criticism.

Two weeks passed and I found myself enthralled with the information this Dr. Timmons gave us. He told us simple stories that demonstrated complex theories. He gave us the down-home version of the most powerful principles. He laughed through the problems we all shared to keep himself from crying. He blended his life experiences with ours and challenged us to experiment with our behaviors. Quite unintentionally my classmates and I had fallen into the people stuff course we didn't know we were looking for. By the end of this course on Tuesday, December 8, 1981, I knew I had stumbled into a way of thinking about people stuff that was organized and useful.

At this point, let me briefly summarize what has happened since December 8, 1981. I eventually had the honor of having Dr. Timmons, "T" as many of us know him, as my graduate professor. I have worked with him since. I have used what I learned from him in my personal and business life. Outside of my parents, my wife, and a few others, he has had one hell of an impact on my life. Through my association with him, I have met hundreds of others who have been touched by "T" too. What he has shared with those of us who got to know him is "a way", not "the way", to look at ourselves and others.

This is my shot at summarizing what I have learned from him. Here is the "people stuff" with which you and I struggle in our lives. Here is the "people stuff" that give meaning to the "things" in our lives. Here is the "people stuff" that can help us get a handle on what might be going on with us and the people around us.

I wasn't sure what my intentions were when I started writing this book. I just knew that Dr. Timmons was not going to sit down and write a book, mostly because he rather work and play with people and share with them his way of looking at people. He could write a book, but I kind of get the impression he can't get excited about trudging through the mundane things writing a book requires.

Given he probably would never get around to a book, I took it on myself to compile my notes from the many years of working with T and explain the notes I took. This is pretty much what this book is, a compilation of notes I took as I listened to Dr. Timmons and how I make sense of my notes. In effect, this book is nothing more than hearsay. Dr. T picked up much of the material he shared with us from outstanding people in the field of people stuff and refashioned the content into everyday language we common folk could decipher and use. This is the magic of Dr. Timmons. His classes, his talks, and a conversation with him often feels as if you're sitting on an old tomato crate, drinking a Delaware Punch, listening to a back country sage share his view of the world.

Here's what I am getting at. I have no intention of knocking myself out tracking down source materials. Dr. Timmons has been talking and doing people stuff for nearly forty years. I could ask him to tell me where he got some of his stuff and develop footnotes, citations, and a bibliography. However, I'm too impatient and a little lazy when it comes to research (pumping Dr. Timmons for information).

Next Page: A Prelude to People Stuff