“You don’t seem to give a crap what anybody thinks about you.”
These were the parting words of a client as she fired me. This person wanted me to comment on some rumors that others had been spreading. I refused, explaining that as a rule I don’t talk about other people behind their backs – even when they are saying bad stuff about me.
Over the years, I’ve lost friends, clients, money, and more because of that rule. But guess what? I don’t give a crap.
Here’s the thing. I’m not a sociopath. It’s not that I don’t care what anybody thinks about me. It’s just that I don’t care what you think about me. On the face of the planet, there are only two people whose opinions of me matter – my five-year old son and two-year old daughter. I have to try to set a good example for them. That means no backbiting.
But my motivations go deeper. I don’t want my kids to grow up to be pack animals and sycophants. I don’t want them to be slaves to popular opinion. I want them to have the freedom to live life as they see fit without trying to please everybody.
But it’s so hard, and getting harder all the time. When I was young, it was much easier to develop a strong sense of self. But in one generation things got twisted, and now our entire culture seems designed to de-self the unwary.
When my kids can handle it I would like to help them understand the world they live in. Here’s what I’ll say.
A Million Likes Do Not Add Up to One Love
I know a young person who becomes totally dejected if her Facebook status doesn’t get enough “likes.” Somehow her sense of self-worth is measured by something that has no value.
It sounds crazy, but this is exactly how Facebook perpetuates itself. By trivializing human interaction it instills a deep cultural insecurity and a gnawing need for approval, doled out in saccharine doses by people whose opinions would never ordinarily matter to you.
Chasing “likes” is a hamster wheel for your soul. Don’t do it.
Find Your Third Place
Sociologists talk about the concept of a “third place,” which is a hub of community separate from home (the “first place”) and work (the “second place”). In other words, the people you meet in your third place are people whose opinions are likely to matter.
In America, the church was traditionally the third place. Opinions matter within a church precisely because the congregants have a shared moral and belief system. On that level, church functions as an effective opinion filter.
As American culture has become more secular, people are leaving the church and finding their third place elsewhere. Starbucks has famously capitalized on this innate human yearning by modeling their cafes after your living room. But if Starbucks is your third place, then you effectively have no opinion filter. I’m sorry, but the shared love of coffee is not the basis for true community.
You don’t have to go to church, but pick your third place carefully, because your community’s opinions will influence who you become.
Make Something Real
True story. One day I came home to find a giant pile of twine heaped on the floor of the living room. My dad was up all that night weaving and by morning he had transformed the twine into a marvelous net, as good as anything you could buy in a store. We piled the net into the car and returned later that day with two lawn bags bursting with fish. That catch provided my family’s protein for over a year.
My dad is from a generation where people still knew how to make things with their hands. As a craftsman, he can take satisfaction in work done well, irrespective of others’ approval.
Unfortunately, we now live in a knowledge economy and making stuff is not as important as knowing stuff. We toil more than ever, but our work product is ephemeral and intangible, which means we depend on external approval. This is familiar territory for anybody who has had an annual review.
Perhaps you’re stuck with the job you have, but that doesn’t prevent you from making real stuff. Try cooking. Cooking is the last craft accessible to most Americans because nearly everybody has a kitchen. Get into the kitchen again. Get your hands dirty. Make something beautiful and useful for its own sake.
In your kitchen, the only opinion that matters is your own.
The Subject Is You
Marcus Aurelius said that the opinion of 10,000 men is of no value if none of them know anything about the subject. What if the subject is you?
Examine your life. How many people truly know anything about the subject of you? Who gives you love without condition? Who makes you want to be a better person? Most people may have one or at most two people who fit this bill. These are the people whose opinions matter. Don’t let them down.
Forget everyone else.