To be free, stop caring what others think

Two hands with "Care Less" written on the palms

To be free, stop caring what others think

The last week of August is a snoozer, right? Not for the NFL. Last Sunday, the league (and its all-consuming doppelgänger, Fantasy Football) took a hit – courtesy of the Blind Slide. Former number one draft pick and potential Hall of Famer Andrew Luck hastily announced his retirement at youthful age of 29.

With $97 mm of earnings to date, Luck is sure-fire FIRE candidate; but as a quarterback who could play for another decade, he walked away from an estimated $500 mm in future earnings. Thanks to a porous offensive line, Luck’s body had been relentlessly punished; football just wasn’t worth it anymore. In Luck’s own words “It’s taken my joy of this game away.”

As the quit-your-job-guy, it’s tempting to look at this pivot through the juicy lens of identity, opportunity costs, and the proverbial journey versus the destination. But instead, let’s look at what happened when the fans found out: they boo’d Luck off the field.

In the ensuing press conference and fighting back tears, Luck acknowledged “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I heard the reaction. It hurt.”

Why do we care so much?

“Tranquility comes when you stop caring what they say think, or do. Only what you do” wrote Marcus Aurelius in Meditations. But whether you’re a NFL star, a kid at the playground or an executive in the boardroom, you’ve experienced the sweaty palms and heart palpitations worrying about the quiet (or not-so-quiet) judgement of others.

Why on earth do we care so much about what others think? And more importantly, what steps can we take to care less? The aptly named book The Courage to Be Disliked (by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga) proposes that one’s willingness to be disliked is the ultimate hallmark their individual freedom.

An unlikely source: education

Charlie Munger famously said, “Show me an incentive and I will show you an outcome.” But could incentives be the reason why we care so much about what others think? Since we were tots running around the playground, we’ve been educated using carrots and sticks (aka rewards and punishment). At its essence, The Courage to Be Disliked is an overview of Adlerian Psychology told through a conversation between an elder Philosopher and angsty Youth. Adler was very critical of reward-and-punishment education, which leads to people thinking:

If no one is going to praise me, I won’t take appropriate action; and if no one is going to punish me, I’ll engage in inappropriate actions, too.

Adler argues that when you center your behavior around praise and do not receive praise, you’re likely to become “indignant or decide you’ll never do such a thing again.”

The reward-and-punishment education is strong in our culture. When my daughter sits through the dentist, she’s rewarded with a lollipop. When I read a book as a child, my reward was a dollar. And when we hit our annual quotas, we’re rewarded with a bonus.

Like Munger said, these outcomes are consistent with the incentive of the reward. So what’s the big deal?

The world’s best lover

Not to be out-quoted by his homie, Warren Buffet’s also has a take on our need for praise. Holding his customary Diet Coke, Buffet asks:

Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover? Now, that’s an interesting question.

I’ve modified this question in my coaching practice, to make it, well… relatable. Clients often come to me stuck and together we try to suss out what a new and ideal career path. Now once we agree on the specs on that role, I ask them if they would take it under one precondition: if someone asked them “What do you do” they’d have to respond with the job they had as a 22 year old.

I then watch the contort, squirm and delay with wonky responses like “But then I wouldn’t be able to get a mortgage?” Nonetheless, it’s clear that many of us are heat-seeking praise machines. To be human, we need to be recognized.

Your agenda doesn’t matter to Andrew Luck

Now if we seek praise, it must follow that we avoid punishment. Which brings us back to Andrew Luck. He was the consummate professional (going so far as congratulating defenders who sacked him) and who sacrificed his body (injuries including “torn cartilage in two ribs, a partially torn abdomen, a lacerated kidney, at least one concussion, a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder”) in pursuit of the Lombardi trophy. I guess it was fitting, that his last walk to the tunnel was also a form of punishment.

Adlerian philosophy states that to truly be free you must discard other people’s tasks. It’s a fancy way of saying stay in your lane – to both Andrew Luck and the fans. The fans have their own “tasks” (or agendas): it could be pride from being fans of good team, joy from watching high quality football, or an identity from finding a community of like-minded people.

On the other hand, Luck has his own tasks: perfecting the craft that is football, tending to his ailing body, showing up to his family and friends.

And so the boos start flying, the Philosopher would tell Luck, giving Colts fans a sense of identity — that’s not your task. So discard it.

Whose task is this?

Now let’s look at the separation of tasks with two relatable examples: parenting and having a bad boss.

You’d think that parenting would be a no-brainer when it comes to separation of tasks. Getting good grades on your homework and giving max effort during soccer practice all seem like harmless tasks. Taking it a step further, the authority bestowed upon us parents (given our supposed wisdom and experience) give us the right — heck, require us to set the agendas for their kids. But here’s where the simple question “Whose task is this?” can shed some light on some powerful unspoken agendas.

If you want your kid to go to an Ivy league school, whose task is this?

The pride you see in them excelling in sports, whose task is this?

When their extra-curricular activities map global trends (ahem, Mandarin and Coding), whose task is this?

Just like Luck’s predicament, Adlerian philosophy makes it very clear: “All interpersonal relationship troubles are caused by intruding on other people’s tasks, or having one’s own tasks intruded on.”

So parenting doesn’t matter?

Now parents, before you get all worked up, this doesn’t mean that your wisdom is worthless. But when you separate a child’s task from your own, you build “enough of a trusting relationship” such that the child will “consult frankly with his parents when he is experiencing a dilemma.” The Philosopher says that a parent’s message should be:

I am ready to assist him whenever he is in need. In that way, the child, having sensed a change in his parent, will have no choice but to make it his own task to think about what he should do. He’ll probably come and ask for assistance, and he’ll probably try to work some things out on his own.

So what about the bad boss?

Here, the Youth keeps it real with a scenario we’ve all experienced:

A completely irrational boss who yells at him at every opportunity (…) and doesn’t acknowledge his efforts and never even really listens to what he says.

Taking it a step further, if your boss doesn’t like you, won’t it have a negative impact on your career prospects? Once again, the employee should consider: Whose task is this?

The Philosopher makes it clear that,

It isn’t your job to be liked by people at the place you work. And his reasons for not liking you are clearly unreasonable. But in that case, there’s no need for you to get cozy with him.

And when the employee reflects further, they may find that they prefer the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty. So we start telling ourselves “life-lies” such as:

  • I can’t do my work because I’ve been shunned by my boss (deflecting agency)
  • It’s my boss’ fault that my work isn’t going well (deflecting blame)
  • If I had a different boss, I would get more work done (the conditional “if only…”)

And here, like a trained assassin, the Philosopher stares into your soul:

You think, I’ve got that boss, so I can’t work.

But it’s really, I don’t want to work, so I’ll create an awful boss, or

I don’t want to acknowledge my incapable self, so I’ll create an awful boss.

Why you should give less f**ks

We’ve answered the how (“separate tasks”) but what about the why? Why should we care less about what others think? Two reasons: others’ expectations are insatiable and seeking praise becomes a compounding addiction. Let’s examine each one.

First, it follows that if you are seeking praise, that there are many people’s expectations you must satisfy. The Philosopher would call this “swearing loyalty” to people such colleagues, neighbors, parents, friends, spouses, classmates (and Instagram followers). If “there are ten people, one must swear loyalty to all ten” and live by their expectations. But alas, there is “a great contradiction” looming:

This is like a politician who has fallen into populism and begun to make impossible promises and accept responsibilities that are beyond him. Naturally, his lies will come to light before long. He will lose the people’s trust and turn his own life into one of greater suffering.

Notwithstanding the current backlash against liberal democracy, the metaphor holds when we care what others think of us. We start living in service of others’ expectations, which:

is entrusting one’s own life to others, lying to oneself and continuing that lying to include the people around one.

The center cannot hold.

Negative compounding?

But there’s more. Einstein called compound interest “the eight wonder of the world.” And society heaps praise on compounding behaviors, be it investing, learning, and fitness. But we rarely talk about things compounding in the wrong direction.

Let’s go back to Andrew Luck. It’s an entirely natural desire to avoid wanting to be boo’d by fans who once revered you. But the separation of tasks (and common sense) doesn’t mean he should’ve continued playing football to avoid the vitriol. (Furthermore, think about situations in your own life when you’re metaphorically boo’d, yet choose to stay in the game.)

The Philosopher acknowledges this natural desire, which Kant called an “inclination.” And if we follow these instinctive desires to follow praise (and avoid criticism) we are “like a stone tumbling downhill.” A life guided by “desires and impulses” is not free.

And here’s where compounding comes in:

A stone is powerless. Once it has begun to roll downhill, it will continue to roll until released from the natural laws of gravity and inertia. (…) Are you going to wear yourself down like a rolling stone, until everything is smoothed away? When all that is left is a little round ball, that would be ‘the real I. It cannot be.

The “freedom playbook”

There’s the playground saying “when you assume, you make an ass out of me.” In an inter-connected society, Adlerian philosophy is one of staying in one’s lane with the simple question: Whose task is this?

And it isn’t until you separate your tasks from everyone else around you – boo’ing fans, your parents, and co-workers – that you’re able to live in freedom.

Enjoyed this book review? Check out our Atomic Habits summary.

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Khe Hy
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Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.