Throughout my childhood, I was given many pieces of life advice. Being the rebellious teenager I was, though, I didn’t want to follow any of it. I wanted to find my own way, learn my own lessons, live my own life. But one piece of advice has followed me to adulthood, constantly reminding me of where I came from and who I am.
Don’t care so much about what people think about you.
The advice was simple yet so complicated. After all, when I started high school and began cultivating my college application, my future career, my passions and social status, how could I just not care about what people thought of me? Everything I put on social media, everything I did in front of my peers, everything I said in interviews — those were aspects of my life that people would see and use to create their own image of me. How could I not care about what my future employer would think of me? Or, on a social level, about what the people I saw every day thought of me?
The truth is, I didn’t understand this advice, and frankly, I didn’t want to follow it. So, for the first part of high school, I went about my days censoring what parts of my life and myself people saw. I gave them only the good, because for the longest time, I believed this was the only way to keep the bad parts of me out of their mouths.
Overtime, though, I began to learn something vital and slowly started understanding the true meaning of that piece of advice: people will say and think whatever they want of you, good or bad, regardless of what is true and what you give them. If they want to dislike you, they will find a reason to validate that sentiment. And it goes the other way, too: if they want to praise you, they’ll praise you for anything, even if it’s not something that deserves praise.
The harsh truth is that you can’t control what people think of you.
As I transitioned into adulthood, I began to learn this lesson the hard way. Better yet, I started to stop caring. By doing this, though, I learned yet another vital life lesson: social criticism can be the best resource for self-reflection.
In some ways, it can be useful to pay attention to what people are saying. Sometimes, this criticism is valid and should be taken note of. Nobody’s perfect, and in so many ways, life is about getting better. Life is about being better. If what people are saying is true, then it is best to pay attention to it — to care. But it’s one thing to care and another thing to correct what they are saying. After all, if you don’t want people saying certain things about you, the power lies within you to stop giving them reason to say these things.
On the other hand, what this advice told me was to stop worrying about the unjustifiable things people say. I needed to stop watching my every move out of fear of what people would think. I needed to stop living my life according to other people’s perspectives of me.
And I needed to start doing what I did for me — for the sake of happiness.
Like I said, people are always going to find a reason to dislike or like you. But if you’re happy, then who cares? Write that novel even if some people might find it to be a joke. Go out and dance even if others think your dancing is horrible. Sing even if you have a horrendous voice. Do what makes you happy. Laugh and cherish the people who laugh with you.
As for the rest of the world? Stop giving a damn. This is your life, so live it.
Contact Damian Marlow at ddrue ‘at’ stanford.edu.