Why you should (and need to care) what other people think of you

A trite, common but useless piece of advice is that to be successful you need to stop caring what other people think. This wrong for a few reasons:

1. People who are successful at life are able to get a lot of people to go along with them. Seldom is anyone successful and completely on their own without some following.

2. People who are successful in spite of caring about other people, are few and far between. It’s easy for someone who is already greatly successful to adopt a ‘no fucks given attitude.’ Due to survivorship bias, you only see stories of people or videos of successful people who are this way, but you don’t see all the failures. Likely, no one cares about your ‘authentic values’. We only hear about those who succeeded in spite of being authentic or strait-talking, not those who failed.

3. People who are unsuccessful have to appeal to those who hold power. Few are talented enough, smart enough, or lucky enough to succeed on their own. Richard Feynman titled one of his books “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” But he was also brilliant, which meant that people were more inclined to tolerate his eccentricities, and also that was only after having a successful career.

It’s ok to look stupid if you are already successful or have established yourself as being smart (like Linus Pauling and his foray into alternative medicine), but as the saying goes, stupid is as stupid does. Without the smarts to offset being stupid, stupid is just that.

4. Actions have consequences, some of which are bad and permanent. Power imbalances are real and must be understood and respected. Jordan Peterson argues that you need to assert your dominance. This easier said than done unless your adversary is a goldfish.

Life is not like dating, where you can keep trying over and over with new people, with the memory of the last encounter erased like an Etch-a-Sketch.

There is an oft-repeated quote, “you miss all of the shots you do not take.” The implication is that it costs nothing to try, so you should keep trying until you get better. But life is not at all like practicing a sport. At many things, like at work, if you keep missing eventually someone of authority is going to be like, “Enough, we are taking the ball away, go home.” Or you will exhaust all opportunities. People who parrot this quote (and similar ones) or think it’s applicable to life outside of sports, have no idea how the ‘real world’ actually works, or how power works. Maybe someone from privilege and status such as Hunter Biden or Eric Trump have unlimited opportunities to miss throws, but average people don’t.

Or in mathematical parlance, the lower absorbing barrier imposes a definite limitation to how many times in a row you can strike out, that once touched, the game terminates for good. A business that runs out of capital will generally cease operations immediately. How many Facebooks, Twitters, or YouTubes are there. Getting kicked off those sites means you’re often SOL in terms of recovering, so you have to get it right on your first try.

Failure is bad and repeated failures are worse. The worst type of failure is one in which there is a high expectation of success and a high cost of failing.

    1. A high cost of failure in which there is a high expectation for success: a pilot error that results in an accident, a civil engineering error that causes a structure to collapse.

    2. High/medium cost but with a low expectation of success: a drug trial that fails.

    3. Low cost and high expectation of failure: practicing a sport, practicing a musical instrument.

Some individuals like Cathie Wood or Chamath are hugely successful professionally despite their investments costing investors considerable money and having little demonstrable skill that justifies their great wealth, but this does not apply to most people.

5. Social status depends on having people who agree with you and respect you. Higher social status is correlated with many benefits, such as improved well-being, longer life expectancy, less risk of serious illness, etc.

6. Sometimes the herd is right. You may think you know more or are privy to some special insight or hidden knowledge, but maybe you aren’t. Echo chambers are usually thought of as bad things, but they are actually good because at least you know where everyone stands. Less ambiguity and more predictability are good from a personal, well-being perspective. What’s the opposite of an echo chamber: a place where there are no shared values, or understanding of what is right or wrong. Imagine waking up and not knowing what to believe in or who you can trust. How is that better. It’s much easier and much nicer to know or be told what to believe in than to have to figure it out through trial and or or not knowing at all.

1 comment

  1. Great read. I’ve always thought it’s more important to have good judgement than to live your life by quotes.

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