"Be true to yourself."
How many times have you heard this? Starting at a young age, our parents, mentors, and teachers tell us to not care about what others think. As we get older, we continue to hear this advice repackaged in cliches and cheesy movie plots. If you are like me, you're numb to the advice and quick to write it off as an obvious saying. But I've been hearing it more often lately (on some Tim Ferriss podcasts) and it's caused me to rethink the wisdom in the advice.
Let me explain a bit more. It's good to first think about how we think about image and how others perceive us throughout our lives. We start out with bambi-eyed innocence. We play with other kids and don't spend one ounce of our brain thinking about how we might come off to others. We simply enjoy the moment.
But as we get older, we begin to look outward and become conscious of the eyes judging our appearances. And in general, we react by trying to match our image with the social circles that we want to be a part of. We begin to wear skater clothes, frost our tips, and sag our pants to prove that we belong.
Once we start working, our views evolve (but not always for the better)
Perception matters a lot at work. Starting from the interview onward, we are immediately judged by our appearances. And as a consequence, we learn very quickly that the external image we portray has a strong impact on how we are perceived. In turn, that perception has significant real-world impacts on our lives.
For example, whether I'm wearing a suit or not could mean the difference between a job offer and a rejection. This also plays out in our personal lives in many different ways - think about how we might carefully curate our image in front of others, like being seen with the right crowd of party goers or wearing the coolest shoes. While these examples might sound a bit silly, I believe there is real wisdom in caring about our appearances (to an extent), and I consider this stage to be a more nuanced, self-aware, and realistic way of acting in the real world.
However, I think it's also possible to become overly focused and wrapped up in how others perceive us. I see this happen to a lot of people. And it gets to the point where 1) we start to focus on our image to the detriment of other, more important things (detailed in the next section), and 2) we start to rely on material/shallow things as a source of our happiness.
While this might seem somewhat obvious, I think we'd be surprised at how guilty we are of focusing too much on how others perceive us. Stop for a moment and honestly look at our own behaviors and thoughts as we go through our lives. Think about the times where we've spent an inordinate amount of time shopping or thinking about our next pair of shoes, where we've carefully curated the friends that we wanted to be seen with at a club, where we've set goals such as getting a masters degree at an ivy league or buying a house entirely due to social/parental pressure, or where we've taken a job at a prestigious employer despite knowing that it would not make us happy. It is a prevalent mindset that is very easy to take too far.
But not everyone thinks this way. And that brings me to ...
Bruce Lee, Kanye West, and your mom
These are the people who have evolved to the next stage. I can't quite speak to this point yet as I think I just have my fat toe in there. But I imagine this is the stage where I start to truly focus on the things that matter in life. Here's a few of the quotes I spoke about earlier from people who I believe are/were there. Apologies for the long list, but I think it's important to hammer this point home.
Steve Jobs: "Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. "
Bruce Lee: "Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being."
Jerrod Carmichael: "The people that matter realize that all that you should focus on is the work... Clothing can make someone feel good, but focus on something of substance that means something. Being a creature of habit works so good because... if you spend all your energy trying to figure out where you are... you're not focused on what you're supposed to focus on. So you go to the same place, you sit in the same spot, so then you can ignore everything and be directed inward."
Kara Swisher: "I think being gay has given me that gift [of not caring]... I don't think it's formed everything about me but I grew up in an era where there was a lot of push-back and rejection. And so you...had to say 'I like who I am and I'm going to keep doing that', and then just not care. It created a situation where if I cared what other people thought about me being gay, I would have been crushed."
Tim Ferriss: "One of the lessons that I try to implement in my life comes from Cato... he would regularly wear mismatched clothing in high-profile arenas where that was frowned upon so he could train himself to be ashamed only of the things worth being ashamed of. So he would practice doing things that would earn him superficial scorn of others, and the form that could take could be very simple... [this is] a ridiculous example but that's the point... I have my party pants, which are these ridiculous pants that look straight out of Austin Powers... I don't want to make enemies, that's not the goal... [but] I'll wear it in a place where I know I'll get these sideways glances to try to inoculate myself against that type of superficial attachment to what others think... And it was just an exercise... regularly practicing things that you feel embarrassed by but shouldn't that have no grander importance whatsoever, so that ... when it comes time to make big decisions, stand for something larger, you will have the training that you need."
Many people on their deathbed: "I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me."
This is the point where we understand and internalize the importance of focusing on things that truly matter. An important caveat to note: if you look at the people in the list above, they are all what we might consider fairly normal, at least in appearance. They're not walking around naked or not showering for multiple weeks. Instead, they acknowledge that how they are perceived can have a real impact on whether they are able to achieve their goals, and they maintain it to that end. In fact, Jerrod Carmichael even acknowledges this in his quote (which I've cut off for brevity).
However, what separates the people in this stage from the rest is their understanding of the magnitude of the benefits. For example, the benefit from controlling perceptions can help you get that job. And it can help you establish a reputation based on first impressions at work. But it won't create any longer-lasting value. Over time, people will eventually learn that while you might send emails at 3AM and give off the appearance of being a hard worker, in actuality, you get very little done. Or maybe your friends over time realize that you might look cool with the latest Yeezys, but you can't be relied upon when one is in need. And so ultimately, the benefits from controlling perceptions is marginal at best.
Compare this with the benefit that comes from focusing on the things that matter - your work, your hobbies, your closest friends and family. These things generate real happiness and lasting value. And ultimately, the benefits from these things far outweigh the benefit from Joe Schmoe thinking you have cool kicks.
Not caring about other's thoughts and opinions is also conducive for innovators and trendsetters. No longer tied to how others might perceive you, you're now free to test things outside of the boundaries of consensus thinking. For someone like Steve Jobs, you can roll out something like the iPad despite widespread negative press during the announcement. For Steph Curry, you can experiment with a faster release and high-arcing shot that shooting experts might have tried to steer you away from. For Kanye West, you can intertwine music with fashion and drive the two industries together, despite hip hop's pervasive homophobic attitudes just 15 years ago.
The benefits are not just confined to career aspirations. Standing for what you believe in and focusing on what is most important will make you more satisfied knowing that you've lived your life to the fullest. While this example is a bit hyperbolic, those who stood against the Nazis in Germany (relatively small numbers, I might add) are an example of a group of people who did not care about social pressures and stood completely for what they believed in. Parents are also another example; many new parents speak about how their life priorities change completely after having a child. You see this not only in what they focus on - spending time with family - but also with the dad jeans that they're wearing.
So what's the message here? We need to do our best to progress towards this last stage where we acknowledge the importance of what others think while preventing it from controlling our lives. This might seem like obvious advice, but I think most people's behaviors and opinions would suggest otherwise.
A good starting point to help push us forward is casting a critical eye on the group of friends that we keep around us. They say that we are the average of the 5 people we spend the most time with. So with that in mind, we should strongly consider our five closest friends and whether they are pushing us forward to the next stage or holding us back in the current state.
Another trick is to use a variety of mental exercises, many of which Tim Ferriss discusses on his podcast (and in his quote above). These exercises are meant to inoculate ourselves from outside pressures.
And if all that fails? Well, we could always start a blog where we talk about unpopular, non-consensus ideas that we have.