A couple weeks ago, I gave a talk at a large event. I missed one of the earlier speakers because I was nervously pacing around backstage, trying to get in the right headspace to not embarrass myself. Later, I went up to her and watched as the words just poured out of my mouth, “You killed it up there!”
After my speech, the woman came up to me and made more or less the same remark. Did she actually see it? I haven’t clue. But you know what, I have to be honest about it, this still meant something to me. I know the place this feedback can come from and it still matters to me. In fact, I eagerly sought out similar feedback from everyone else. I always ask, “How did I do?” “What did you think?” “Was it good?”
It’s funny how we personally felt about our own performance can seem secondary until that third party validation comes in. We have to wait a second to decide how we feel. So we parse the words and reactions of others to discern which way we should go. Like all people, it hurts when it’s not good. And it’s so reassuring when it is.
Yet, think about how often you look people in the eye and lie: “Oh yeah, that sounds great.” “Keep it up, we’re big fans.” “Yes, the service was excellent.” Or for reasons you don’t disclose, you feel like being hurtful and say something you don’t believe. Maybe it’s anonymously online, maybe it’s to a friend.
That’s the problem with caring about other people’s approval. Deep down you know how often it is marked by insincerity or emptiness and yet you still crave it. It’s like how we can understand that diamonds are intrinsically worthless, but still want an expensive ring. Intellectually knowing what something means doesn’t mean it won’t affect us. And so we ride high when people puff us up and tell us nice things.
And of course, this is to say nothing of haters, the snarky or the bitter who exist on the other end of the spectrum. These are the people who can’t be honest with themselves—who see what you do as a threat to their identity or illusions—and try to hurt you in response. Even those of us with the thickest skins can be pierced by their projections.
It might be someone else’s opinion, but you’re the one that feels it.
Same goes for many external things outside our control.
With my latest book, I made the conscious decision not focus on hitting the major bestseller lists. That probably sounds weird to someone not familiar with publishing but many authors spend a great deal of time attempting to funnel orders and preorders in the first week instead of developing a plan for long term sales (and generally take their eye off the ball). This is because lists like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are actually heavily edited and rely on relatively arbitrary criteria to decide who gets ranked where. I’d hit bestseller status with my first book, but this time I decided I would focus entirely on sustainable and long-term marketing tactics.
Well, turns out that in my first week–despite not aiming for it–I sold more than enough copies to debut on the New York Times Advice & How To list. When Wednesday came, guess what? My name wasn’t on there. I had told myself I didn’t care, that I wasn’t trying (and I really wasn’t) and even though I sold many more copies that I was expecting but it was still a crushing blow.
As they often do, the Stoics have the right explanation:
Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do.
Self-indulgence means tying it to things that happen to you.
Sanity means tying it to your own actions. – Marcus Aurelius
The book itself? That was my writing, my effort. The sales? You could say those were at least influenced by my hard work. Everything else? No matter how much I might want it to be different, is ambition or self-indulgence. By week two and three, I’d learned my lesson.
I’m not saying these things aren’t important. They are. They have an effect on our livelihood, they can make our jobs easier and harder.
But because we can only influence them up to a point, we must avoid putting too much meaning and significance on them. We can’t want them too badly. And we certainly can’t make our happiness contingent on having them. Allowing that for things outside your control is a recipe for discomfort and suffering. It’s what turned something I should have been proud of and pleased with into a mild disappointment. And I wasn’t even trying to care about it! I had done my best to stare the other direction–a peek was all it took.
The same thing goes for other people’s opinions (which are outside your control). For feedback. For gossip. Good or bad, you have to put it in perspective. Think about the people whose mouths those words are coming out of. Think about what they do in private, think about the mess that is their own lives, think about their demons.
Now tell me again why their opinions should matter to you? And then take it a step further, why should anything outside your control really matter?
It’s like this for everything. There was a recent WSJ piece about employees who can’t handle cryptic emails from their boss. What does it mean? Am I doing a bad job? Does this mean I’m going to get a raise? It’s the same feeling–we can’t handle the ambiguity because what we want is praise and acknowledgement. I can only imagine (if only from extrapolating my own weakness) the amount of time employees waste and trouble they cause reading into two word emails from their boss about a project.
Stop looking for signs that aren’t there—focus on what you need to do and focus on what actions.
For artists and creatives, this is all especially relevant. Because work is judged by other people. And it can feel like this is the whole purpose of what you do—to get their approval and recognition. But you set yourself up for a terrible existence if you put your personal happiness in the hands of other people. If you allow reviews, blog comments, tweets or bestseller status or an opening weekend determine whether a project is a success you’ve done the worst thing possible. You’ve submitted to an external—something outside your control.
Guess what? It’s going to behave in unexpected ways and possibly disappoint you. Good work is going to be misunderstood. Bad work is going to get undeserved recognition. It’s all fruit from the poisoned tree. So don’t eat it. If you already have, wean yourself off the taste of it.
Just work. And work and work and work.
The work has to be enough. Your self-assessment has to matter more than anything else. You cannot allow externals to determine whether you should feel good or bad. You cannot allow their feedback to matter more than your own.
You have to be enough.
Happiness and confidence is too important to be placed on somebody else’s whim. Life is too short to submit to other people’s opinions. It’s too short for externals.