One of the most pervasive pieces of advice in our culture today says: “Be yourself; don’t worry what other people think.”
Often, this is excellent advice: Pretending to be something you’re not never works, and worrying about others’ opinions can be stifling. At the same time, caring what other people think is a basic human trait, and not one to be dismissed lightly.
In fact, the capacity to imagine how someone else feels–and to care about it–lies at the heart of morality, aesthetics, art, and our everyday ability to get along with each other. So the real question isn’t whether you should worry about what others think; it’s which others’ thinking you should worry about.
Whose opinions really matter?
Almost everyone has an opinion about almost everything. But most of those opinions are informed by almost nothing. Most. Not all. One of the keys to success is understanding which opinions you should actually take seriously. Experience teaches that these opinions typically come from particular types of people:
1. People who love you and who have your best interests at heart.
These people are central to your own happiness, and their feedback is typically designed to help you improve. You should therefore listen to it, even if at first you don’t like it. Of course, people can love you without actually having your best interests at heart, so you may have to sort that out. And people can love you, and have your best interests at heart, and still not have a clue what they’re talking about. Which brings me to a second group …
2. People who have expert knowledge and no reason to mislead you.
People who know more than you do really are worth listening to, unless you have some specific reason to distrust them. Experts rarely have all of the answers (they’re still human), but they often have valuable insights and guidance to offer. That’s what makes them experts. They know something you don’t (yet) know–and if you listen, you can learn.
3. People who have power over important parts of your life.
Today, you have parents and teachers, and their opinions–right or wrong–matter to your existence. Someday, you will have a boss, and her opinions will (likewise) help determine your success. You shouldn’t let your boss’s, your teacher’s, or even your parents’ opinions define you, but you should certainly take them seriously. In fact, you should think hard about which of their opinions matter most, since not all opinions are created equal.
Which opinions matter most?
What someone thinks of some small thing you do will typically vanish more quickly from their mind than it will from yours, whether they like what you do or not. What matters more is what you do repeatedly, and the opinions others form accordingly.
If you show up on time to class every day and work hard and do your homework, then no decent teacher will judge you harshly if you make a mistake on a test. Something similar applies with bosses (and coaches and others). The opinions that really matter are the ones that they form over time, based on your repeated behaviors. They aren’t snap judgments about something you said or did; they’re established beliefs they form about your character.
Does that mean people will never judge you harshly, in the blink of an eye, for some mistake you make? Sadly, no. People are often foolish creatures. But that’s exactly the point. Those people–the ones making ill-informed snap judgments–are the ones whose opinions really don’t matter.
Don’t worry about what they think. Worry instead about the character you’re showing over time to the people who matter most. Be your own best self for them and you’ll be fine. More than that: they will know that you’re downright outstanding, as I already do.