The book the Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck has sold millions of copies for a reason. It covers a topic that is one of the most popular topics out there: not caring what people think about you.
It’s not that we should never care about anyone or anything. It’s useful to care sometimes. It’s just that we know that some times we care too much about things when we shouldn’t: classmates’ opinions of us, workplace gossip, negative anonymous comments on social media, neighbors’ approval of you even though you don’t like your neighbors, or acquaintances’ perception of your status when they’re not even your friends.
Likely, there’s some innate genetic drive for greater approval or survival within our tribe that pushes us to care what others think. While this has helped us in some ways and helped our ancestors immensely, we consciously know that it’s no longer ideal in some modern situations. An example would be how influencers can be bombarded with hundreds of thousands of hate comments, a magnitude that would’ve been impossible in ancestral times and very traumatizing.
So how do we stop? Well, the book and various viral articles attempt to provide a magic solution, but the reality I have experienced is that they may slightly help, but it takes a gradual, concerted effort to slowly crawl towards getting better at this skill. Because the truth is that it’s a skill that can take years to get better. Unless you’re one of those rare people genetically predisposed to not care about people, in which case you don’t need help and probably aren’t reading this. Steve Jobs was one of those few, and most of us aren’t Steve.
Rather than give you some magic pill, I simply want to share my struggles and stories with it and how I am trying to get better and have gotten better.
One time, I was trying to get better at my conversation skills. I got some advice online: use statements rather than questions. Avoid boring “Oh, cool. What do you do for work?” questions because everyone asks that, and it’s value-taking. Instead, use a statement and a guess about them, like “Oh, you look like you work as a school teacher.” Sounds good in theory, so I went to try it out. I went out a latin dance class and the results were disastrous.
First, I was too shy and the setting wan’t conducive to my introvert personality. There weren’t obvious openings, just small ones to talk to someone, since the teacher was talking a lot. I suppose there was a few seconds when you introduce yourself to a new partner but I wasn’t smart enough to try to make conversation in that time. As the class ended and the open social started, loud music blared from the speakers as people paired off and started dancing. I ended up getting a couple dances, had a couple quick chats about dance, and watched the experts dance. It’s hard to chat in that environment as well. It was getting late, so I figured I have to chat to one girl and practice what I learned!
So, I went up to the one girl standing alone, and I asked her how long she’d been dancing. She said a couple months with a somewhat disinterested face, and I was thinking, “Well, so far, not bad!” I transitioned to “Cool, I’ve been dancing for a couple years … You look like a school teacher.” To my horror, she got very offended, saying that was a sexist response, asking, “Are you a school teacher?”
I tried to yell over the loud music that I didn’t mean to offend in any way, and I was trying to do my best. The damage was already done! She wasn’t having it. I got upset and started explaining how I was trying to improve my communication skills, and I learned online that this would be less value-taking, and blah, blah, blah. She maintained her disgusted, offended look. She said, “I would rather have a boring line than a sexist statement. Can you give me some space?” Her disgusted tone and reply made it clear that she wanted me to walk away. In an exasperated way, I walked away and said, “I didn’t mean to offend! I’m just trying the best I can.”
Just like on the Internet, there’s always someone with a nasty, negative opinion, and it just so happened to happen on my first and only conversation of the night! These things happen, and unfortunately, I wasn’t given a chance to recalibrate and my attempt to do so was poor.
Anyhow, I was upset and unhappy for a while as I drove home. How could someone draw conclusions about me so quickly? I have always tried to treat women with respect and honesty. People who have known me for years would know that. It was upsetting. And I felt it wasn’t fair or the right way to conduct themselves in that way. If she had a civilized conversation with me about it, she could’ve pointed out my implicit bias, and I would’ve learned about it in a better way and apologized. I would’ve developed respect and appreciation if she had said, “Hey, that’s sexist. Let me explain why. I would respect it if you didn’t do that.” I would’ve been like “Oh, that makes sense!” It’s not the first time. But wow, that was a painful, vicious reaction. It’s just upsetting that people don’t take the time to get to know someone, and people are so easily offended about everything these days! I have to walk on egg shells about everything.
Should I have cared in this situation? Yes, but only to when it’s productive. The hours of pain afterwards were unhelpful and unenjoyable. It’s worthwhile to care enough to think about what you say and make sure you are thoughtful enough to come off with respect. But I knew for a fact that no matter what you say, there’s always someone who gives some offended outrageous reaction when you talk to enough people. You see it all the time on social media. There are people posting nasty, negative, offended comments about puppy videos; there’s always someone with an opinion. You can’t try to please everyone because you never will. I just ran into someone like that early on, and I should’ve acknowledged the mistake, understood not to say that again, and moved on. Instead, I added on hours of anger and unhappiness. I was too caught up with this stranger’s opinion of me. Too caught in how unfair it was. Too caught in my own selfish around how I wanted the experience to go and what I wanted to get out of it.
Social media comments are even worse. They’re anonymous, usually with fake names and pictures. And they’ll say whatever comes to their mind without thinking, often negative things. Having been a content creator for over ten years, I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes the best response is to just ignore or block them. I’ve experimented many times with the Gary Vaynerchuk approach of empathy and getting to know them and have a conversation because you may change their mind or turn them into a follow, but many of them are anonymous for a reason. They tend to leverage that to be close-minded, trolls, or in a bad place trying to spread negativity.
One time, I reshared a post about study tips and the study life of Chinese students. This one anonymous guy on Instagram railed against me, calling me a communist and all this terrible stuff. I tried to have a conversation with him about why, even pointing out that I shared it because I have a lot of student followers looking for student tips. He maintained a close-minded attitude, repeating a bunch of personal attacks, including that I’m communist. After a various back and forth trying to get a civil conversation going, I had to block him. It took an hour and a half of my time going back and forth with him, it made that time unenjoyable, unhappy, and so, what’s the point? My day wasn’t going that great anyways, and it just feels terrible when you let some terrible person make it worse. So why should I? I think if you do use the Gary Vaynerchuk approach, lead with empathy, but realize there’s more than one reason why they’re like that like he claims and that doesn’t mean you have to “answer every comment” like he claims or continue to have a conversation.
I’ve been creating content on social media for over ten years and have read more comments than most people. Yet, I still struggle with it. I’ve gotten better at it, developed a framework and a gut reaction on what to do. However, I disagree with anyone telling you that it’s easy as just not caring. Even though I’m experienced, I still struggle with it. I’ve gotten better over the years and having a system helps.
Then, there’s social media. I don’t like posting achievements or travel photos on social media because I know how it can make me jealous, so why continue the trend? A couple friends have told me that I’m overthinking it, and sometimes, it’s worth sharing especially if you can inspire as well, so I try to add an inspirational angle to my posts. There’s also rejection and negative feedback. I just hate it when I talk to someone and they are nasty and cold to me or mean; this happens when I’m approaching a women or in a dating context, but I also try to be empathetic to why it usually only happens in these settings but not in more friend or hobby-oriented gatherings. They must be hit on all the time, so they develop this cold shell as the only way to ward people off. It still rubs me the wrong way sometimes because I feel like they could’ve easily been more respectful. I remember approaching one woman once and she yelled back, “I am not interested. Leave me alone!” It wasn’t even like I looked dangerous; I was wearing a fancy J. Crew Peacoat. But I try not to let a stranger’s reaction or opinion of me get to me too much; they don’t know me at all, just a snap judgment of a sliver of me. Easier said than done though. I sometimes let it get to me. That said, I give it an hour or two max to stew over. Then, I use comedy TV shows, meditation, and doing real work get my mind off of it.