This article was originally published in The Startup.
In How To Think Less About Money, John Armstrong points out that ‘weirdly, it’s not only those with a lot of money who use it to humiliate.’
As in: we’re shamed by the disapproving gaze of a waiter as we select an inexpensive bottle of wine. We’re cowed by the sneer of a salesperson as we slink out of a designer boutique without spending anything. We avert our eyes to avoid the contempt of people we don’t quite know why we want to impress.
I remember experiencing something like this when I crept into a beautiful tea shop while at university to try the free samples, lured by the musky smell of brewing loose leaves. The salesperson asked if I were looking for something, I threw out the name of a tea I’d never sampled and a moment later she started brewing a pot. Talking of the nuances of boiling temperatures, she handed me a small glass cup and it tasted good because, of course it did.
It was also £25 for a box and at the time, like most students, I was surviving on a monthly grocery budget of around £100. But I bought it anyway and ate spoonfuls of coconut oil for dinner the rest of the month to pay for it. All because I didn’t want the salesperson to judge me. At the moment I handed over my card, I was attempting to buck her obvious assumptions about my financial state.
Why? Why do we do this?
Why do we care so much about the opinions of people who don’t really matter to us? Why do we try so hard to impress those who we know make a living from creating that pressure?
Marcus Aurelius wrote:
‘I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others…So much more respect have we to what our neighbours shall think of us than to what we shall think of ourselves.’
Socrates made a similar observation surrounding his trial when he remained unperturbed by the jury’s decision because he recognised that a majority vote wasn’t necessarily correct.
So what if a bunch of uneducated people decided he was guilty? He knew he wasn’t and he valued his own judgement, and that of his friends, above that of the jury.
In Plato’s dialogue, Socrates says to Crito:
‘…some opinions, and the opinions of some men only are to be valued, and other opinions, and the opinions of other men, are not to be valued…’
He goes on to say that we should pay attention to the opinions of the good and wise, and disregard the opinions of the unwise and bad. A man studying gymnastics should ‘attend to the praise and blame…of one man only: his physician or trainer.’ He should ignore both the praise and criticism of the rabble and ‘live and train, and eat and drink’ according to the advice of his trainer alone.
If the hypothetical gymnast were to follow the suggestions offered by every person he encounters in the gym or on the streets, he would end up not just making no progress, but also outright harming his health.
Most of us know this when it comes to our physical bodies, yet we struggle to apply the same to our minds. We float like leaves in the wind, endlessly swayed by every opinion we encounter, as if the words of all people were accurate and valuable assessments of our lives.
In the same way that taking the health advice of everyone who offers it would destroy our bodies, this openness to all opinions about who we are and what we do eats away at our minds. A person on the street with no understanding of our situation, a well-meaning but uninformed family member, or an anonymous internet troll tells us what they think and we let that hurt us.
‘We must not regard what the many say of us: but what he, the one man who has understanding of just and unjust, will say, and what the truth will say.’
In Be harder on yourself (or someone else will) I wrote about how absolutely crucial it is to have a clear-cut internal yardstick you use to measure yourself. To have your own personal standards and metrics for assessing whether you’ve done a good job or not.
That doesn’t mean, say, feeling you need to get X number of views or run Y miles or for your kids to get Z grades at school.
It means knowing: did you do this in a way that imbues the values you care most about? Did you create something that made you feel you moved yourself a little further towards excellence? Did you set your own standards for success that have nothing to do with the external world? Or are you relying on the world to tell you your value?
Because if you’re not hard on yourself, someone else will be. And then you’re at the mercy of whatever ill-formed opinion floats into view first.
Of course, feedback is incredibly important and we can’t improve without paying attention to the input of those who know what they’re saying, like the trainer Socrates talked about. And sometimes we do need to indulge in the warm glow of praise to give us that little boost we crave to keep pushing on.
But we still need something internal to measure ourselves against.
If you’re an artist, for example, you can’t just toss your work out into the world to ‘see what happens’ and base your assessment of its success on the first opinion you hear. You just can’t. You’ll go crazy. You’ll never find the stamina to keep pushing for the years and years it takes to actually get good at anything. Worse, you won’t even enjoy the process which is the whole point.
Why? Because the opinions other people have about you are not even about you. They’re 99.999% about them. Daniel Eagleman writes in The Brain: ‘You don't perceive objects as they are - you perceive them as you are.’
When someone critiques your appearance, they’re just laying out their insecurities about how they look. When someone picks apart how you’re raising your kids, or progressing your career, or choosing what to study, or any other facet of your life, it’s all through the lens of how they feel about their own life.
The only person who can really give an opinion about you that’s 100% about you, is you. Beyond that, those who we respect and trust to give a vaguely objective and useful assessment. But prioritising every passing opinion, as Socrates and Aurelius described? Forget it.