The first time I was told not to care what other people think was in kindergarten. I remember the occasion distinctly because I’d won a “Cheerios” backpack in a draw at the grocery store and the whole way home from school, some cool sixth graders lagged behind me, mocking my bag choice.
Flooded with tears by the time I got home, I ran directly in to the arms of my sympathetic mother who gave me my first well-intentioned lecture about not caring what other people thought. It was sweet and inspirational, full of cliché values like “Be yourself!” And “Choose to lead, not follow.” Her words were not entirely lost on me but the over-arching theme of my reaction was the 4 year-old expression of: Can we not do this? How others perceived me did matter. It was disgustingly obvious even then. Heading to bed that night, I scorned my mother’s advice and vowed to never to wear my Cheerios backpack again.
Any child will be able to tell you that what your peers think of you matters. Their reasoning ranges from “People who hate you take your snacks” to “I want to be one of the popular kids.” It’s a plague that encompasses us from our first day of day-care or grade school, and it never quite leaves us as adults.
Grown-ups love to insist that the opinions of others don’t matter. They put on the clothes they want to wear every morning. Pursue the dreams they would like to achieve. They even write outraged articles about their rights and they publish them for everyone to see. Grown-ups appear to be the ultimate free spirits.
Grown-ups are also big fat liars.
It’s as impossible now to break away from the influence of others as it was as a child on the playground. We wake up early to make our partner breakfast because we want them to think of us as loving. We stay on task at work because we want our boss to know we’re exceptional. We limit what we say on a first date so we do not sound clinically insane and we even sympathize with friends who face problems that we’ve never encountered. How others think of us monopolizes our lives whether we’d like to admit it or not. Our awareness of and reaction to others has a never-ending, all-consuming effect.
It’s not as though we wouldn’t like to break loose. An entire rejection of societal norms, for most of us, would look like this: We would walk around naked. Burp in the faces of strangers. Yell at our professors for handing us assignments, and wear sweatpants and pizza-stained t-shirts to our job interviews. “Look at me!” We’d exclaim, swinging our Cheerios backpacks over one shoulder, “I don’t care what other people think!”
It would be fun… until it wasn’t. It wouldn’t take long for us to get fired from our jobs. Rejected by our peers. Arrested for misconduct and all in all left feeling as miserable as a kindergartener swamped in adult clothes. The loneliness that accompanied our actions would weigh out the benefits immeasurably. So we would alter our actions accordingly. It’s a game we’ve been playing for a very long time now. It is the grown-up equivalent of protecting our snacks on the playground.
The thing they don’t tell you in kindergarten is that it’s not always sinister to care about what others think. We crave the connection of human companionship the way we crave water and food and air. It is a need that stretches further and holds stronger than any desire to ‘do our own thing.’ Our differences align us just as much as they drive us apart. The only distinction is what we choose to focus on.
You will never impress every friend you have on Facebook. You’re not going to be coveted by every person you find attractive. You could create the greatest, most harmonious symphony on earth and still be shrugged off by those who prefer heavy metal. We have to care what our critics think in order to stay in the business, but we also get to choose whose critical advice we take.
Rather than telling our children “Don’t care what other people think,” we may need to start telling them “Care what the right people think.”
Considering the viewpoints of others is engrained in us. It even serves positive purposes. Anyone who’s been mentored by someone outstanding, been offered a job offer that challenges their best skills or been handed some tough love from a person who genuinely care about them will tell you the same. The opinions of those around us matter. And they have the power to benefit us greatly.
Rather than striving to impress everybody at once, strive to impress the people who inspire you. Rise up to the level of those you admire. Use the thoughts, opinions, considerations and judgments of others to define the kind of person you’d like to become. Caring what other people think doesn’t mean we have to spend the rest of our lives measuring ourselves up against the petty girl who never mentally graduated from high school. It means we have the opportunity to gage our futures on what we’d like to become and who motivates us to become it.
Regardless of age, experience or motivation, we never quite master the art of not caring what other people think. And thank God. Our capacity to learn from each other carries on long after kindergarten ends. But as adults, we get to pick who evaluates our proverbial backpacks of accomplishment. So forget about those kids in the sixth grade. Let’s start picking the people who make us proud.