The Forgotten Virtue of Not Caring
Our journey from courageous children to meek adults.
The Legend of Steven Faulkner
Picture a kindergarten playground. Plastic structures in red, yellow and blue. Children scurry beneath triangular roofs.
One child is not moving. He rests on his back across the top of three monkey bars, staring at the sky. He sings a French song. Passing kids chuckle, then move along.
I have no idea how Faulkner got up there. And I don’t know how he knew a French song. But that was pure Faulkner.
Faulkner experimented with hairstyles. Slick backs, flat tops, mohawks … whatever he had enough hair for. Naturally, our classmates taunted him. Then he’d show up the next morning in a mullet and greet his former taunters with a smile. Like their opinions had passed right through him and never left a trace.
In high school, I worked as a lifeguard during summer break. Through a series of experiments, Faulkner worked as an unpaid waste collector, dockside fish gutter, and florist’s assistant. Kids made fun of Faulkner, and Faulkner continued not to care.
We eventually realized that Faulkner not minding our opinions wasn’t some cover for insecurity. He truly didn’t care, and this was almost scary. No one made fun of him again.
When we were older, I saw Faulkner leap up onto a barstool in a crowded college bar. Just before the bouncer grabbed his leg he yelled out “I will never find another lover, sweeter than you, sweeter than you-hoooooooo.” Faulkner looked certain that we would join him, and this is why we did. I never saw a bar sing like that again in my whole life.
Steven Faulkner was a pure extension of his values, unfiltered by what other people might think. And for this reason, he could never have existed. I made him up.
So the question is this: Why aren’t there many people like Faulkner out there?
I recently had a staring contest with a stranger on the bus. He was about 2 years old. This kid was looking into my freaking soul, and he clearly did not give one crap what I thought about him. There was an unexpected gravitas in this. It broke me. I looked away.
When toddlers want to stare at you, the staring contest is on. When they want to make noise, they blab like no one’s listening. When I was a toddler, I wanted to be naked. I’m not sure I’ve ever been cooler than the Christmas morning when, as legend has it, I streaked naked up the church’s center aisle, past the priest, to the ornate chair front and center. I flailed against the tall chair, hoisting myself up with elbows and knees, and on ascent executed a 180 degree butt-based rotation to face the audience. And then I just sat there, taking it in.
Young children don’t mind what people think of them. They’re baby Faulkners. Needless to say, adults are different.
The man was told he’d be attending a leadership presentation. He arrived at the hotel conference room and noticed three things: the room was empty, the ceiling was absurdly high, and the carpet smelled like cigarettes. As he honed in on the smell he noticed something that gave him a rush of fear: The room was filling with smoke. How long do you think he waited before leaving?
In one study, 100% of subjects left within seconds.
So the experimenters tried again with a twist: The room was filled with people whom the subject did not know, and they were all instructed to ignore the smoke. 100% of the time, something like the following happened.
The smoke thickened while the subject frantically looked for how others were reacting. People started coughing. Why weren’t they leaving? The smoke became so dense that the subject could hardly see the other people. Yet the subject was afraid of being seen as “too panicky.” So the subject just sat there while, in theory, the building was burning down all around him.
In 1979 a Manchester department store caught fire from a damaged electric cable. Hundreds of shoppers evacuated safely, but not all. Investigators found ten bodies in the wreckage, all of them in the store’s restaurant. Why the restaurant? Officials believe they simply didn’t want to leave their dinner table and be viewed by strangers as “too panicky.”
By the time we reach adulthood, we care quite a bit what others think of us. But perhaps you are an exception? Consider the following.
The Tiny Butler on Your Shoulder
You’re driving on a spring afternoon, windows down. The sunlight slants diagonally onto the dash. Your playlist shuffles to an old favorite song. Hand taps wheel. Head bobs. Hum becomes verse. And with every beat you sing louder and louder.
An intersection approaches and as you slow to a stop you notice that pedestrians are everywhere. Do you keep singing with the windows down?
If you’re like most people, you feel a strong impulse urging you not to. Like a tiny butler who protects you from judgment, he tugs on your shoulder.
“Oh my. I’d highly advise against this.”
But you don’t want to feel like a coward, so the butler always whispers a rationalizing excuse in your ear.
“Mistress. You’re not the kind of woman who does these things for attention.”
And it’s all a load of crap.
The Butler is the Burden
My favorite workout is running sprints on my San Francisco neighborhood hills. When no one is around, I drop into a 100 yard dash sprint start. For a moment I pretend I am the fastest dude of all time.
When people are around? I do whatever one does to go from standing nonchalantly to running. And my butler tells me “Bravo Master John! There was really no need for a sprint start. You simply have nothing to prove.”
This is silly, but this over-caring silently weaves itself into every fabric of our lives.
We settle for relationships out of fear of what people will think if we’re old and single. “You’re not settling, Mistress. You’re accepting.” We go our whole lives wanting to be a writer and never write a damn thing. “You’d certainly write if you had enough time for it.” We take massive detours to our dreams:
I’ve wanted to run my own business for as long as I can remember (if we’re being honest, this probably started when I met Bruce Wayne in the Batman cartoon). A good butler will delay this kind of judgment-prone action for as long as possible, and I’ve got one of the best. I was scarily close to attending to a five year dual degree graduate program. “A good CEO has a large toolbox of skills, sir.” I worked half a decade in management consulting. “What a better way to prepare? Bravo!” I spent years pondering business ideas. “Quite right, Master John. Remember the turtle and the hare.” I could have tried and failed at 10 companies in that time and learned 1,000x as much.
By a certain age, I suspect the butler no longer needs a creative rationalization. Simply “You’re mature and don’t need to prove yourself to anyone, yourself included” will work for everything. But there’s a big difference between not caring what others think and developing a “grown up” routine where we no longer risk being judged.
Consider: If you woke up tomorrow knowing that everything you did would succeed, what would you do differently? Speak up more in meetings (knowing they’d do “the wave” around the big table in approval)? Write a chapter of your new novel and send it to a few friends (knowing they’d print it, shape the paper into a tiny god and worship it)? When I ask myself this question I see a lot more adventure and a lot fewer detours to what I want.
Chinese philosopher Lau-Tzu put it best:
“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”
And the butler has the key to all our cells. So how do we get rid of this guy?
The Birth of Meekness
The first step is knowing where he came from. When we were very young, this butler didn’t exist. Do you think I heard a tiny butler warning me that running through church naked might cause people to judge me?
Humans are born with an innate desire for pleasure and distaste for pain, but we have no idea what causes these things. So as children, we simply do what we want and every time we encounter pleasure or pain we create a neural connection telling us what led to it.
I’ll refer to these neural connections as “lessons,” because in its simplest form that’s exactly what they are.
For example, imagine a child named Molly. She believes that she is in fact a real princess. It’s her first day of school, and she has the following experiences and lessons:
- Molly wears a tiara, and girls make fun of her. Lesson: Wearing clothes that stand out leads to pain.
- Molly sings a song during recess and her friend teases her. Lesson: Singing in public leads to pain.
With these lessons, it’s no wonder that Molly will one day worry quite a bit about what people think of her actions. And while she’ll never remember when these lessons were created, they will always float below the surface, a subconscious current pulling her towards conformity. The butler has been born.
Digging Grooves in Our Brain
The beauty of neural connections is that we can reshape them. Remember when Molly had this lesson?
- Molly sings a song during recess and her friend teases her. Lesson: Singing in public leads to pain.
When adult Molly powers through singing in her car at a stop sign, she adds this new one:
- Molly sings at a crosswalk and feels pride. Lesson: Singing in public leads to pleasure.
Now of course we have a conflict here, and her original lesson will at first be vastly more influential.
But neural connections are like grooves in our brain. Every time we act on them we dig them a little deeper. Every time we ignore them we drop in a shovelful of dirt. So every time Molly publicly sings at a crosswalk she digs her “public singing leads to pleasure” groove a little deeper and throws some dirt in her “public singing leads to pain” groove.
The Eye of the Needle
So we can reshape our neural connections, but do we want to? People are still going to judge, right?
First, consider that studies have shown that we massively overestimate the degree to which people pay attention to us. We think the world revolves around us, but everyone else thinks the world revolves around them. So while you’re worrying about who saw you trip on the sidewalk, the guy walking towards you is imagining himself as president. As David Foster Wallace put it:
“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”
Second, consider that there are more suns in the universe than there are grains of sand on Earth. Consider that from the time you began this article to the time you finish, a thousand men and women just like you will have died and joined the 100 billion dead members of the human family.
We think we know everything about a world that feels increasingly small. This could not be further from the truth. The reality is that we’re looking at the world through the eye of a needle. We are an infinitely small piece of something that is infinitely large, unknowable and majestic. And relative to these realities, what other people think about you simply does not matter.
In Conclusion: The Ripple Effect of Not Caring
I’m not challenging you to forsake the social bonds that make us human. While it would be fun if we all ran around in our underwear making out with strangers on the street, I’m not sure this version of humanity puts a man on the moon. But there’s a difference between empathy and fear, and ironically when we ignore this fear it brings us together.
Every embarrassing dance move we own sends shockwaves of permission throughout the dance floor. Every harmful relationship we leave without shame sends a confident nod to others in those shoes. Every direct path we take to our dreams tells others that it’s OK to risk failure.
So do what you want. Every time you do, you’ll create a ripple. Do it enough and you’ll send out tidal after tidalwave of high fives to everyone else on the fence.
At the end of the game, the king and the pawn go back into the same box. We may as well play how we want to.
If you enjoyed this story, I have one request of you: Share one of the funniest things you do or don’t do because you’re afraid of what people might think. We can create a pretty hilarious list, and everyone who reads it will get this lesson:
- People on Medium are sharing and laughing about how silly it is to care sometimes. Lesson: Not caring leads to pleasure.
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The stunning title photo in this article is by my good friend and Dreamworks artist Danny Langston. Feel free to e-mail Danny praise and/or freelance jobs. Thank you!