In an earlier post, I announced my discovery of "vitamin P[eople]" -- the essential nature of seeing other people in person. Of course, the exact nature of vitamin P is not yet known -- it could be a chemical, like pheromones, that is smelled. But an interesting article in New York Times opens another suggestion. Claire Cain Miller, in an article on the utility of casual conversations at work, reports that casual, cross-fertilizing conversations have their most important utility in getting projects started. Once started, individuals workers can bring projects to fruition. One example she offers of this is a water-cooler conversation between Professor Katalin Kariko and Dr. Drew Weissman, which laid the groundwork for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against SARS Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
In our shelter-in-place life, our networks contracted. Not only didn't we see the people we would have seen at the water cooler, but also we didn't see all the people we used to see at big meetings, like faculty meetings or church services. For many people, Zoom was not a substitute, on the one hand, and, on the other, a great it was a great excuse for skipping a meeting. "It doesn't work me" became the "dog ate my paper" equivalent to a getting-out-of-meetings free card. As someone who has been absent from many meetings that "didn't work me," I have lived this experience.
But in my shrunken network, new ideas and experiences are hard to come by. I had a face-to-face encounter with exactly one entirely new person over the past year or so. The well from which I drew inspiration has dried up, and I was languishing, as many people were. My daughter moved in for a bit, in-person classes resumed, I got sent to physical therapy (punishment for being too sedentary during Covid), my storage unit got flooded by Hurricane Ida and suddenly my life and networks have opened up again. And along with all that, new encounters have sparked new ideas. It is like an expansion of the old adage, "Move a muscle, change a thought," which we might rewrite as, "Encounter a person outside your close circle, and spark a new idea."
Can it be that "having a new idea" is what defeats languishing? That the encounter outside the small circle of our intimate lives is Vitamin P? As they say in science, "More research is needed."