I can't do that.
What will they think of me?
I can't write a book. I can't quit my job. I can't start a business. I can't vote for that candidate. I can't be friends with that person. I can't reinvent my career. I can't move to that city. I can't play that sport. I can't learn how to do that.
I can't. I can't. I can't.
Because they don't expect me to do that. Because it would be out of character. Because I'm too old. Because I'm too young. Because they might laugh at me. Because of money. Because I might not fit in. Because I might not be very good at it. Because I'll probably fail.
Because. Because. Because.
We are so good at making up reasons why we can't.
And we care so much about what they think. Our friends. Our families. Our work colleagues. Really anyone with even a remote possibility of judging us.
We fear embarrassment. We fear being ostracized. We fear uncertainty. We fear being singled out. We fear discomfort.
It's instinctual, really. Ten thousand years ago, if you upset the herd, you were out. And if you were out, you were as good as dead.
In fact (and I learned this just this week), our brains—which haven’t evolved a tremendous amount over the last ten thousand years—have six times the capacity to recognize and react to threats than they do to pleasure.
This makes sense. In our early days, we needed to worry about the lion hiding in the bush if we wanted to survive. Personal fulfillment took a back seat.
Unfortunately (also learned this week), our brains do not distinguish between physical pain and emotional pain. The same parts of the brain light up under the threat of either one.
This means that we’re walking around in 2020 with a brain that is designed to be hypersensitive to threats AND does not distinguish between a lion waiting to pounce or a career failure waiting to happen.
We’re not cavemen anymore, yet this Stone Age relic still stands stubbornly between us and the pursuit of something truly rewarding. Something worth doing.
I've struggled with this threat of emotional pain again and again.
When I failed the CFA exams, I worried what they would think.
I'm not smart enough to do this. How embarrassing.
When I wrote a book about it, I worried what they would think.
I'm not an author. Why would anyone buy a book from me?
When I quit my job, I worried what they would think.
They must think I'm crazy, walking away from this.
When I moved to a state where I didn't know a single person, I worried what they would think.
Do they even like Northerners down here?
When I started a podcast (for my employer) with me as the host, I worried what they would think.
Podcast host? Who do I think I am? They're not going to like this.
When I wrote another book, I worried what they would think.
Who am I to write a career guide?
When I started sending out a weekly newsletter, I worried what they would think.
Who am I to dole out life advice?
Guess what they thought?
Well, mostly nothing to be honest. Because most of them were too busy worrying about how everyone else viewed them.
Some have liked what I've done. Some haven't. But none of it has killed me so far. Not even that (ahem… most popular) Amazon review of my first book, which began by noting that I was "not a gifted writer." I mean... that stung a bit.** But not lethal.
What was I so afraid of then?
Who cares about them?
In the grand scheme of history, they are not even footnotes. None of us are.
Speaking of history, indulge me for just a minute and think about how many people you can name who were alive in the year 1800. I tried this. My list was embarrassingly short.
How about 1900? How many people can you think of who were alive then? If you're like me, some world leaders come to mind, maybe some inventors, maybe some authors. But if I'm honest, I can't come up with more than a dozen at most.
The world population in 1900 was 1.6 billion. 120 years later, I struggle to name twelve of them.
How about this:
Tell me about your great-grandparents.
Tell me about their personalities.
Tell me about what they did for a living?
Okay, tell me... their names?
I mention this to prove a point. We're all going to be gone soon and no one is going to remember us.
Well, okay, maybe our kids will. And their kids, hopefully, too. But after that? Mmmm, sorry. Not looking too good.
Is this depressing? Kind of!
But it's also freeing. If 100 years from now, not a single person on Earth will remember you—much less anything you did that was embarrassing or a failure—what do we really have to fear?
We might as well just go for it. We might as well just pursue what we think will make us happy. What we think we'll find most rewarding.*
It's all going to be over before we know it. And when that time nears, and we look back, do you think we're going to say "I wish I cared more about what they thought of me?"
I hope not.
I think we're much more likely to say "What was I afraid of? Why did I care about their opinions? Why didn't I pursue that career/project/person/way of life?"
Well, it's not too late. If you're 17 or 71, you've still got time.
Don't tell me about the "I cant's."
Forget about them. They don't matter.
Stop being afraid—and do it.
Thanks for reading this week, as always. This community of readers continues to grow, which is so cool to see! If you’ve just joined, welcome! Please share this article by forwarding it on email or by sharing it on social media if you think anyone in your network might benefit from reading Intentional Wisdom. And let me know if you have any more thoughts on the question I posed last week: What value do you think I can potentially add to your life or to someone you know? I’m trying to answer that question as I shape the content that I will produce in the future. Sometimes it’s easier for others to see this than it is for us to see ourselves.
Thanks and I’ll be back next week. - Greg
*Note: I often purposefully write in incomplete sentences. I’m including this note to explain it because I’m clearly worried about what you think.
**Obviously that review was not a bad one, but of course, that opening line is the only part that stuck with me. Maybe it’s that caveman brain getting to me.
Photo credit: Benjamin Davies @ Unsplash.com