As social animals rejection by peers is one of the most violent acts that most of us ever experience. Think about it this way: humans evolved to survive through being part of a group. Rejection by the group you depend on is a death sentence. But like many evolved responses, modernity has found us with something that’s often as harmful as it is helpful.
This is one of the biggest problems that I face as a coach and as a businessman. Not to mention that, specifically when dealing with creativity, the need for broad acceptance and to not upset anyone is a major stumbling block. Today I’d like to share a personal anecdote on this topic, some musings about how I like to approach it and some advice on how you can learn to ignore almost everyone.
Years back, during my university days, I worked as an on street fundraiser for a large charity. Londoners called us Chuggers, a contraction of Charity Muggers, and it was, I will be honest, I tough job.
I believed in what I was doing. The charity I represented did good work and they needed supporters. Finding people willing to hand over a small amount every month was the most efficient and effective way of ensuring a steady, secure income to fund long term projects. But I completely understood that a lot of people didn’t like us. And, boy, did they show it!
When you’re busy, when you’re tired, when you just want to be left alone to get on with your day, being accosted by a neon-tabard wearing, relentlessly earnest and upbeat person who will remind you that for what you spent on coffee last week you could have saved three children from malaria, isn’t necessarily what you want.
On days when I found the work especially hard going my supervisor would say to me:
“We’re not here for the ones who say no. We’re here for the ones who say yes.”
This was a concept that I don’t think I fully understood at the time. But since coming becoming a coach I have grown to see the wisdom in it more deeply. I now find ways to apply it even when I’m not being ignored by headphone wearing commuters on a rainy day in Holborn.
Just this morning I had a conversation with my wife about my desire to share a blog post about a new project we’ve just begun work on. This project, which I will write about later this week, is hot off the mental press. We are in the pre-pilot phase, just getting going on rounding out the concept. I went into this discussion with the desire to share what we had now, excited to tell people about it. And I was surprised when Ladina objected.
After a brief back and forth to uncover the nature of her objections, get passed the emotion and to the nub of the issue, we discovered that part of her objecting was based on a fear was that people would see our half formed thoughts and judge us. She imagined an audience who would feel we were unprofessional, showing the workings of our minds and not offering a complete, polished product. It was at this point that I remembered my old supervisor’s advice.
“We are here for the ones who say yes…”
There’s a very old aphorism, written by a Benedictine Monk, no less; “You can please some of the people all of the time or all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. This aphorism predates modern communication technology by some 600 years or so. In the modern day it needs to be updated.
Today audiences are so huge that you can’t even please some of the people all of the time and you can certainly never please all of the people even a fraction of the time. What remains is the pithier modern truth: haters gonna hate.
In business, as in life, we are often encouraged to consider all views before making an informed decision. Balance, it seems, is the ideal. I don’t hold with this approach. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, the vast majority of opinions are worse than useless.
If, when chugging, I considered the opinions of those who told me, often indelicately, to leave them alone, I would have concluded that what I was doing was a bad idea. For every yes we had to deal with a hundred solid rejections and even the not so rare act of verbal aggression. If I let the haters bother me I’d have packed up and gone home.
But then I wouldn’t have been there for the ones who said yes. Maybe, when you want to reach an audience, you need to be willing to ignore those who don’t want to hear you?
What Ladina and I discovered in our conversation was that it was entirely possible that some people would see us sharing some early thoughts and consider us premature and silly. But equally, some would see the same thing and consider us fast moving, exciting and smart. We had to decide if we were more concerned about the former or the latter.
In the end we realised that we are here for those who say yes. We are here for those who get us and like us. And it is far better to be loved by a few than mildly appreciated by the masses. So, in simple terms, screw the haters.
As a coach this is a challenge I see all the time. Many people worry not just about what people think but about what the wrong people think. We desire the approval of people who undermine us or ignore us while ignoring the support we receive from those who love and care for us. This is a big problem and I’d like to share some tips for dealing with it.
### Know Yourself, Choose Your Audience
The world is full of different people. Some of them will love you. Some of them may hate you. Many of them won’t give two shakes about you or anything you do. But perhaps the largest part will be quiet supporters, mildly in agreement with whatever it is you have to say.
The ones who matter most, are those who love you. And the best part is that you get to choose who they are! By being clear about what you stand for and who you want to serve, you can begin to shape what you say and do to properly represent you and really connect with the hearts and minds you want to find.
– Beware the Shoulds
When defining your values and being clear about who you wish to connect with, try beginning with some simple reflection. Allow yourself time for this and try breaking it up over several days to give space for deeper incubation. You will likely find that you begin not with real, personal values but with clichés. When writing down my company’s goals, for instance, I recall confidently stating that we wanted to “be recognised as an authority in our field” before realising that this wasn’t something I cared about at all. I care about helping my clients. Being recognised as an authority was something I thought I _should_ care about.
How will you know the difference?
I recommend daily meditation to everyone. I believe that allowing time for the mind to settle, learning to recognise thoughts, feelings, the existence of longing or distraction, fear or resistance, as they happen in the mind and the body, is the most powerful personal development that we can engage in. And it is only by becoming connected with embodied emotions that I find I can reliably figure out my real feelings about a given topic.
We are conceptual creatures by training, but we are sensual creatures by nature. Watch a small child interact with the world and he or she will constantly touch everything. It isn’t enough to know what something is, to label a chair a chair. No. The toddler wants to feel it. Know the texture and weight.
As we get older we are trained to think but never trained to feel. In fact we are often trained out of it by parents who demand that we “grow up” and a school system that only cares about what you know. But this is a mistake. It’s like listening to only one channel of a song played in stereo. Without the second half we can’t properly understand what is being shown to us.
Emotions are an ancient guidance system that we have mostly forgotten how to read. When I removed “seen as an authority” from my company goals I did so on the basis of a niggling emotion. By investigating that feeling I was able to spot what was wrong. Had I not trained myself to do so perhaps I would have misunderstood the signal my mind was giving me, pushed on with something that was wrong because I was more able to interpret the conceptual data that shapes what we believe we _should_ want. Similarly, when faced with anxiety about a big event I was planning, it was only through investigating those emotions I was able to see that I wasn’t pulling back because I didn’t want to do what was planned. My anxiety was driven by a fear about resources, being able to pay for everything that was needed.
Learning to “search your feelings” as the Jedi would say, is powerful stuff. And it doesn’t require any complicated knowledge. Begin by sitting quietly and counting your breaths in and out. Watch what happens as the mind settles.
### Remove Yourself
Have you ever had a relationship end with the words “it’s not you, it’s me”? According to TV and film almost everyone has. And as trite as it sounds, it’s sort of true.
A better expression of the sentiment might be “it’s not you, it’s this” where “this” is whatever is brought about by the current state of both parties and their situation. You see, humans are complex and when two or more complex things interact, the result is even more complexity.
In a complex system you can’t point at one thing and say that this thing, this element, is to blame or to praise for anything that has happened. The definition, if you want to get technical, of a complex system is one in which the end results cannot be predicted by the initial state. In other words, cause and effect exist, we just can’t really be sure what they are.
For our purposes, this means you can and should remove yourself from the equation when you consider what people say to and about you. Remember, criticism of you may well not be really about you, you’re just the closest thing they have to a clear cause.
This also goes for praise. Someone who understands that he or she is just one tiny moving part, a complex and ever changing moving part, in a hugely more complex system, knows that all you can do is your best and know that all praise comes with some luck and all criticism comes with misfortune.
– Know Who to Ignore
Finally, in this quick lesson on how to ignore almost everyone, it helps to have some neat heuristics or rules of thumb to follow when considering who you should ignore and who you should listen to.
1. Love trumps hate: as stated above, you should care a great deal about those who love you. We have a tendency to over remember negative comments. Some find that simply journaling anything positive anyone has said and reviewing those comments daily or weekly helps to redress the balance and prime us to hear and see more positive feedback.
2. Skin in the game: perhaps my favourite heuristic comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb who notes that you can safely ignore the input of anyone who isn’t actually doing what you’re doing or in some direct way involved in it. That is to say, sideline commentators, busybodies and armchair experts who know just enough to sound impressive but, in reality, know nothing. If someone criticises you, ask how they are involved. If they aren’t, ignore them.
3. Know your troupe: there are some people who don’t have skin in the game and may not be huge fans of what you’re doing or saying but will support you because they are part of your troupe. That’s the terminology used by Prof Steve Peters in The Chimp Paradox to describe how primitive elements of our brain think about what some might call their best friends, family or, if you’re down with the kids, squad. So remember to always ask, of anyone, are they in your troupe? If they’re not, then they may not have your best interests at heart. If they are, then you’ll probably want to listen to them even if you don’t like what they say. But remember, if they don’t have skin in the game their input may be emotionally driven and based on bad data. So listen to them, but don’t let them make decisions for you.
### Remember You’re Not Perfect and Be OK With That
I’m not perfect. The desire to be universally approved of and praised is, with that in mind, unrealistic and crushing. So it helps to be OK with being imperfect. This is powerful stuff if done right. This is a mantra you may wish to use.
– Yesterday I made mistakes
– I accept myself
– Today I will make mistakes
– I accept myself
– Tomorrow I will make mistakes
– I accept myself
It may seem silly, even trite, but the fact is that the above is true and, if we don’t accept ourselves for our flaws we will be unable to move past them.
That doesn’t mean you take leave of all responsibility. It simply means you realise that you have always been and will always be fallible and that is OK.
Sometimes I look at my past and I shudder at the things I’ve said and the person I have been. But then I remember that I was just an imperfect guy trying to be the best person I could be. Remembering that I have empathy for my past self. I find that I can forgive Aran of the past and, in doing so, I can forgive Aran of the present and put less pressure on Aran of the future.
This is your life. You only get one (as far as I know) and whatever you do you will make mistakes and end up upsetting some people. So be bold and make sure that your mistakes are your own, that if you upset people it’s for something you really believe in and for which you are willing to accept the consequences. When you come to your final days, you can honestly say that your imperfect self was at least perfectly yours. Or, as Frank said:
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way