Liked vs. Well-Liked

I love Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I studied it for the first time during AP English in high school, but I have read and seen the play many times since then. I have always been enamored with the anti-hero, especially in American literature. Willy Loman’s quiet desperation resonates with me and I think Miller does a masterful job of winnowing this perspective through the relationship of Willy and his sons. He is seemingly obsessed with being popular and known by all. It’s such an authentic human characteristic to desire this type of attention.

One of my favorite themes from Death of a Salesman is the ongoing concept of  being “liked” or “well-liked.” Willy categorizes people this way and he consistently reminds his boys that they will thrive because they are “well-liked.” Not surprisingly, He puts himself in with those who are “well-liked,” despite all the evidence to the contrary. To Willy, only those who are “well-liked” truly succeed, although it is very apparent that Willy is not one of those who is blessed in this way.

I had a chance to look at this more intricately in the winter of 1993. In January of that year, I started traveling around America by Greyhound bus. I spent the next nine weeks traversing the country, eventually visiting 37 states and logging over 12,000 miles by way of the prodding, but methodical machinations of long-distance public transportation. Although I hadn’t been many places in my life, I had always studied human beings, primarily through my interactions with them. Ever since I read Death of a Salesman, the concept of “liked” and “well-liked” was and is always at the forefront of my attempts to understand people. I had a chance to study the dozens of people who were sitting next to me, in addition to the hundreds more that were either riding my bus or waiting in the bus station.

During the trip, I tried to concentrate on these 2 classifications. I spent most of my time thinking about those who were “well-liked.” What made them that way? What was it that they had that others didn’t? The “well-liked” person was someone who seemed comfortable in almost any situation, no matter how far out of his comfort zone. This made those around him feel less inhibited and opened the door for more intimate conversations. In fact, when the “well-liked” person WAS uncomfortable, he would usually tell you, which made him all the more endearing. The “well-liked” person was not easily offended. The “well-liked” person listened a lot, but not too much. He would focus on what was being said, but then shared his perspective in reaction to the speaker’s comments, which showed an authentic desire to know people and to be known by them. The “well-liked” person redeemed awkward moments, and eased the tension by redirecting the attention to himself through self-deprecating humor. The “well-liked” person was steeped in what I call “controlled charisma;” the ability to see that he was the center of attention, but trying to use it to either entertain or enlighten. You just want to be around these types of people.

Since the trip, I’ve continued to study this concept with the thousands and thousands of people I get to meet every year. Oftentimes, it just seems that being “well-liked” is something you either have or you don’t. “Well-liked” people aren’t generally trying to be well-liked. They just are. In fact, it seems some people who are “liked” try really hard to be “well-liked” which, of course, makes them much less “like-able.” The problem, of course, is that this is probably why they are only “liked;” they’re thinking about themselves all the time and how others perceive them. I would almost argue that this is precisely why a person is well-liked; they are much more others-focused than self-focused. Humility is a very attractive character trait.

There’s nothing wrong with just being “liked.” Most of us function in that world anyway. But I do think there are some things we can do that are primary characteristics of the “well-liked.” Put others first. Be more interested in someone else’s story than your own. Listen a lot, but also share your life. Know people and be known by them. When attention is directed your way, use it to educate and entertain; not as a way to make yourself the singular focus of any one event. In other words, be humble.

In the end, I disagree with part of Willie Loman’s assessment. He believes only the “well-liked” person thrives. I think lots of “liked” people thrive, too. In fact, there are a lot of “un-liked” people who are the most popular, wealthy, and famous people in the world. I think the problem is in defining success as a business prospect. If our objective was to advance not only our career, but our character, we would begin to see real change in our lives through humility. The “well-liked” person may have the additional charisma that makes success easier, but the character trait of humility can be pursued by anyone. If we were all focused on being humble and putting others ahead of ourselves, our own lives would be better in addition to the many others around us – liked or well-liked.

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