Getting inside somebody’s head

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There’s something so intricate and mysterious about the whys of another person, wanting to understand what makes them tick, what made them what they are. It’s an instinct that’s so human. Biographies, documentaries, magazine profiles, obituaries are all part of this drive we have to get inside somebody else’s head.

One of my first jobs, as a researcher for the Royal Shakespeare Company, was to build dossiers on interesting and notable people that might make good patrons or ambassadors. It was somewhat uncomfortable (I once did a dossier on one of my college lecturers) but it was also endlessly interesting, trying to pin down the connections and actions and motivations that we could learn from.

That’s one reason I was fascinated by the launch last year of The Profile, a newsletter/media product focused entirely on the format of profiles about interesting people. Former Fortune journalist Polina Marinova wrote about what it’s like to launch a company during the pandemic, but I think this idea of disaggregating formats is incredibly intriguing. More than a year in, I’m interested to see where it is going to go.

The question behind all profiles and biographies, I suppose, is why do you want to know about this other person? Why do you need to know about them? What can you learn?

(Side note: The paranoid journalist in me is also fully terrified of profiles and biographies. What if you do all that work, if you talk to the people, and review the documents, and you still manage to miss the Thing? What if you write the Harvey Weinstein profile and miss the abuse? A few times in my career this moment feels like it has come close, but I think the answer is that you do everything you can to avoid a mistakes—but sometimes, yes, you will miss the thing, because if people hide themselves from those who are closest to them, you might not be able to see through it either.)

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