the 42nd monkey

Lee shared a thoughtful and entertaining Cracked article* by David Wong about the Monkeysphere. In short, the idea is that we can maintain less than 150 relationships (our monkeys**), so there’s no way for us to care about everyone.

Lee also shared a Derek Sivers article that hits right in the gut. As Lee pointed out, reading the two together makes it obvious that the abuses Derek talked about came from people working outside their Monkeysphere. They ended up shouting at their email, not realizing there was a person on the other end.

After reading them both, I had to ask myself: Why do I think I’m different? I do try to treat people with respect, even when “people” are an abstraction so far removed from my life that I need complex software*** to remind me how to treat them well. I also interact with lots of people over the course of the day, far more than the ~150 my Monkeysphere would allow me to care about.

First I thought there might be some notable difference between in-Monkeysphere people and out-of-Monkeysphere people. Maybe I just follow a set of rules about interacting with people (see also: enlightened self-interest), without really feeling it on the inside. Then I read a tweet from Dave Masten:

“My dad’s leukemia just took a turn for the worse. Sad.”

That hit me in the gut, too. And then I figured it out. They *are* in my Monkeysphere. All of them. Sara and Valerie are in there. Dave’s in there. You’re in there, dear reader, even if I don’t know you at all. They’re the 42nd monkey.

Here’s how it seems to work, based on whole minutes of self-examination: one of my monkeys**** is an abstract monkey. Programmers might call it a variable, mathematicians might call it an equivalence class, and politicians might call it a constituent.á When I interact with someone who isn’t in my Monkeysphere, that person becomes the 42nd Monkey for that interaction, even if it’s only a few seconds. When the time comes to deal with someone else, they become the 42nd Monkey instead.

The 42nd Monkey suffered a loss. The 42nd Monkey is working toward a deadline. She slept badly last night, and she’s just trying to wake up. He’s glad it’s Friday. She doesn’t have a lot of time, but she’s willing to talk. He wonders if all this trouble is worth it. She hopes she’ll meet someone nice tonight. He’s awkward at parties. The 42nd Monkey, in short, is a real human being.

The 42nd Monkey isn’t so different from the other monkeys in my sphere, so I try to treat him with the same respect. More importantly, I realize I’m probably outside of the 42nd Monkey’s monkeysphere, so I give her the benefit of the doubt. She’s not yelling at me to make me feel bad; it’s because her child is crying. He’s honking at my car, not its driver.

Why does this matter? Because I don’t agree with David Wong’s conclusion that “it’s also impossible for them to care about you.” (Emphasis his.) I can be your 42nd Monkey just as you are mine. It might only be for 5 seconds, but if that’s the time you’re spending with me then that’s all it takes.

* I know! Can you believe it? Not a phrase I’d ever imagine writing.
** Yes, humans aren’t monkeys, and most of the images in the Cracked article aren’t monkeys either. Step back and embrace the wider point here.
*** A digression, but here’s an example from right now: My phone is told by my calendar application to remind me when someone I’ve never met is scheduled to call, so I’ll know not to send that call to voicemail, which I ordinarily would do because their caller ID isn’t in my address book.
**** There’s probably more than one monkey, but for now let’s assume it’s one monkey. (In a vacuum[4].) That way I can name it, instead of saying “Monkeys 42 through 42 + n, where n < 108″ each time.

One thought on “the 42nd monkey

  1. It’s rare that I read an article (let alone three) entirely. Thank you for taking the time to write it. More so, thank you for taking the time to think it through, and then think it important enough to communicate it.

    Cheers to you, friend. Thanks.

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