Do you remember the fairy tales they told you as a kid? It goes something like this: boy meets girl, girl gets abducted by a dragon, boy kills dragon and saves the day, then boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. With only minor variations, this plot is the backbone of virtually every movie, epic, and novel ever written.
When I was young, I hadn’t killed any dragons1 so I didn’t feel particularly deserving of attention or praise. I felt like I had to accomplish something grandiose in order for other people to like me.
One thing I did do at the time was read a lot of books. Nobody else around me appeared to read much, so I pretentiously took this as a sign of my uniqueness by ranting about what I learned from books. I was naïve and believed that I would be popular if people thought that I looked smart.
Unfortunately, it was a long time before I learned that this strategy doesn’t work. Popular people are popular not because they possess a unique accomplishment, but because they care about the unique relationship they have with you. By caring too much about sharing interesting bits of trivia, I forgot that there was a more interesting person in front of me.
It was a painful moment of clarity. I thought about all the people I dismissed because I was more interested in my ideas than in their companionship. I wrote each of them a sincere apology for all the times that I failed to listen because I was trying to appear smart. I came to realize that no matter how valuable the information told by books, the person in front of me is always more important.
Since that day, I consciously strived to listen to the inner world of my conversation partner. By no means am I now perfect at this, as I recognize that the skill of listening always needs sharpening.
I thank all my friends who are courageous enough to explicitly point out my personality flaws. I’m eternally grateful for your help, as you prove that true friendship doesn’t require impressiveness.
The fairy tales are wrong. The only dragons you have to slay are the ones that live inside you.
I only publish half of my writing publicly. The rest are posted exclusively on my private email list: billmei.net/email (Subscribing is free, no spam ever, and you can safely unsubscribe anytime)
I regret that in Western mythology, dragons are seen as malevolent beasts, whereas in Chinese mythology dragons are seen as harbingers of benevolence and fortune. While this essay uses the metaphor of the dragon as a beast, I personally think that dragons are positive—they are beautiful creatures that command respect instead of terror. Alas, I have to stick to the Western conception of a dragon because my audience speaks English. ↩