Like many other soft millennial males raised by the Internet, I subscribe to a post-modern masculinity that has taught me to embrace emotions and to be conscientious of others. Growing up, my natural disposition was definitely to care about what other people thought of me.
I do know which of my goals are authentically mine, but I still can’t help myself get distracted by ego or vanity when I talk to others. It’s very hard to totally resist the desire to fit in / please people.
For example, when I talk to my parents, I still often feel like there’s some unresolved need to make them proud. When I talk to my successful friends, I often wonder if I should be working harder to make more money. And when I talk to random acquaintances, I still generally want to represent myself as “cool” even if doing so is likely to have no impact on my long-term happiness.
Now that I work entirely alone and fully remotely, I have much more control over the social situations I’m in. I don’t have to think about workplace politics and I don’t have any professional peers to compare myself to.
I have the luxury of choosing who I interact with and what viewpoints I’m exposed to, which presents its own challenges.
Caring About What Others Think
Caring about what other people think is not inherently good or bad. Caring about what other people think can manifest itself positively (e.g., ambition, social tact, engaging in culture) or negatively (e.g., insecurity, jealousy, feeling like a failure).
Someone who is self-conscious about what others think is motivated to have their peers think highly of them.
This kind of sounds pathetic when written out so plainly, but I would argue it’s sort of the default way of living. Everyone wants to think that they’re important, admired and capable of traditional success.
Caring about what other people think is commonly displayed in the following ways:
- Working hard to get a good job, so people think you are smart
- Posting high quality social media content, so people think you are cool
- Aspiring to be liked by many people or to be a “people pleaser”
I would argue that trying to “fit in” is generally the best strategy in uncertain situations until you learn the specific rules and conditions of an environment. It’s safer to pursue socially approved goals until you have enough resources or self-awareness to do what you really want.
We pursue great jobs and degrees for the optionality that prestige can afford us. We try to fit in with the crowd until we find a niche that we really resonate with. We maximize our earnings until we find a source of joy that is more valuable than marginal money.
Until we really know ourselves, it’s probably better to conform to what other people think is cool or good. It’s the cynical, but safe approach.
Not Caring About What Others Think
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the philosophy of not caring about what other people think. Someone with this mindset might be unresponsive to outside opinions or generally closeminded.
Not caring about what others think might be manifested in the following ways:
- Selfishly pursuing a goal without any regard to how it impacts others
- Being unaware of societal norms and modern culture, which may make it harder to connect with others
- Being close-minded and stubborn in your viewpoints, which may make it harder to empathize and understand others
I do fear that solo entrepreneurship is pushing me towards these tendencies. I genuinely love my work situation right now, but it does deprive me of a lot of normal social interaction. I mostly just talk to my girlfriend and people that probably live in the same echo chamber as me.
Random Opinions are not Feedback
I believe that when it comes to defining your own ambition, you should primarily rely on yourself to find what the right answer is. That realization seems very obvious to me now.
But to discern virtually everything else (e.g., social norms, identifying your personality flaws, dressing well, being prestigious), you need to rely on others to give you feedback. Considering the feedback and opinions of people you trust can keep you accountable and grounded.
A distinction here I try to remember is that random opinions are not feedback.
The question I try to ask myself when I hear “feedback” is whether the person “giving feedback” is considering my best interests or not. Is someone criticizing me to be cruel or funny? Or is someone criticizing me because of a legitimate deficiency of mine? And if it is a deficiency, is it something I actually want to work on to improve?
I borrow this logic from Netflix’s book on organizational culture, No Rules Rules. I thought this was a very well written book and it talks extensively about giving and receiving feedback. Netflix has a handful of guidelines regarding how to give and receive feedback, one of which is the “Aim to Assist”.
AIM TO ASSIST: Feedback must be given with positive intent. Giving feedback in order to get frustration off your chest, intentionally hurting the other person, or furthering your political agenda is not tolerated.No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention by Erin Meyer and Reed Hasting
If I’m acting boorishly and my friend is trying to prevent me from embarrassing myself, that’s valid. If I’m making some closeminded comments and someone is trying to teach me about another viewpoint, well that’s also valid. But if a random acquaintance is gossiping about me, then there’s a decent chance it’s not a valuable thing for me to work on.
People tend to gossip because it’s fun and because it helps them sort out their social status, not because they care about someone’s character development.
Therefore, I think most people’s thoughts about us can’t be qualified as actual feedback. Most of it is just surface-level perceptions not rooted in a deep or personal understanding.
It used to bother me a lot more when I fell short of some societal benchmark or learned that someone didn’t like me. It still bothers me to an extent, but adulthood has taught me that you can’t please everyone and that it’s not a good use of time to even try.
My general principle now is to rely on myself when it comes to my goals and to reference my close friends for everything else.