You’ve probably been in a situation where you want to do something, say something, or even post something online, yet the question of “What will people think?” stops you. We are afraid people would judge us. They would laugh at us.
This is the question that worried me for the longest time. I think it still does to some extent. But today I want to tell you how the recent visit to my hometown has changed my perspective on the question of “What will people think?”
Recent Trip to My Hometown
I left my hometown back in 2009, almost 12 years ago. Because it is so far away from Canada, I don’t get to visit it often. I go there every 2-3 years. Whenever I visit, I meet with the same group of people: my relatives, my old friends, my parents’ friends and their families. I don’t make new friends while I’m there. I just see the same group of people every time.
Since I only visit my hometown every 2 or 3 years, every visit I tell a different story about myself, about my life and what I am going through at the moment.
- My first visit was all about my experience studying at a Canadian university. All the ups and downs of the freshman year as an international student.
- During my next visit, I talked about the internship I was doing and my early career ambitions, dreams, and plans.
- 2-3 years after that I shared my experience with the first few jobs out of university.
- During my next visit, I was doing my master’s and just got married.
And this time around there was a brand new set of stories I was telling to these people.
And something became very clear to me.
Every time I visit my hometown I see the same group of people. I tell different stories and different facts about me and my life. But the reactions I get from people are pretty much the same despite the facts of my life being so different.
People who are used to doubting everyone’s achievements and successes doubt my achievements. No matter what I share. People who are sceptical, find something to be sceptical about in every story I tell. People who are anxious find something to be anxious about even if I share positive news. And of course I’m lucky enough to have people in my hometown who are very supportive and proud of my achievements. And they are always proud no matter how small my ‘success’ is.
This was such a revelation for me.
People are not objective in their reactions.
Subconsciously I thought that people look at every situation objectively. If they encounter something new or different, they analyze the situation and their reaction is a result of this deep analysis. I thought if people were skeptical about what I was doing it was because they thought deeply about my situation. And this deep analysis showed them what I was doing was not right. And the same was true for every other reaction I would get from people. Positive or negative. I had this unconscious belief that people’s reaction to whatever I was doing was based on some rational and objective thought work. Now that I share it out loud I realize how silly it is. No one is doing this type of deep analysis when reacting to everyday situations. We often fail to do this analysis in our professional life, where we are paid to do this. We are subjected to all sorts of biases. If we are not even doing perfectly in our professional, we are definitely not doing it in our personal day-to-day life.
I saw that people react the same way to my stories in 2021 as they reacted in 2019, and in 2016 and in 2013. The stories I shared are different. But the reaction is the same. It’s different between people but every person seems to have a default reaction to the new information.
What will people think?
I realized that people would think what they’ve always thought. And it has very little to do with me and the details of my story, my actions, my ideas. In many cases, the substance of what I share is irrelevant to how people react to it. People are used to reacting to new stimuli in a specific way. You might have the best idea or you can do the most incredible thing but anxious people will find what to be anxious about. Skeptical people will find some potential faults in your plan. And people who see opportunities in every situation will support you and see a bunch of uncovered opportunities in your plan. And these reactions have very little to do with you and your work.
I remember someone saying “If they don’t like your work, it doesn’t matter. If they praise your work, it doesn’t matter.” The first part of this saying felt good. And it was easy to agree with it. But I didn’t understand the second part. I always thought that if people are praising your work, it means you are doing something right. What I’ve learned to realize is that if people are praising your work it has more to say about them than about you.
Don’t drop your standards.
It doesn’t mean you have to stop showing up or lower the standards for your work. Not at all. I just know for a fact that many of us don’t do incredible things solely because we ask ourselves “What will people think?”. This question stops us. It paralyzes us. And I want to offer you the answer to this question I’ve recently discovered. My personal answer to this question is “They will think what they’ve always thought”.
People learn a very narrow range of reactions to the outside world. It might be affected by how they were raised or some traumatic experiences in the past. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we have a default set of reactions to the new information. It’s different for everyone. But I think we all have it.
Example of an artist
And now imagine there is someone who’s made an incredible piece of art. Something that moves you emotionally. Maybe it’s a movie, maybe it’s a painting. And this person is very sensitive and she experiences the world in so many colours. She is very emotional. She can cry one minute, and laugh another.
And let’s say she created a piece of work. She put it out there. And now she is watching at how people react to it. And she expects people to show the same depth of emotions that she might be experiencing when she goes to an art gallery. She is the type of person who can tear up when looking at a good piece of art. And she expects other people to show the same emotion when they look at hers. If this doesn’t happen, she takes it as a personal failure. She thinks her work is not good enough.
But the fact that people didn’t tear up when looking at her art doesn’t say anything about her. It says everything about them.
Some people grew up in countries where it’s culturable unacceptable to be displaying these emotions in public. But it doesn’t mean they didn’t like her art.
Some people are just very conservative in life. And it doesn’t matter how good her art is, they will dismiss everything that is less than 100 years old. And it’s virtually impossible to convince these people otherwise.
Some people are just kind of indifferent about all these art things. They don’t care for it in general.
The reaction she got from people didn’t match her expectations. Does it mean her painting was bad? Does it mean she shouldn’t have created it? I don’t think so. The reactions I described have a lot to do with the people and very little to do with her work.
It’s good news.
I personally found it very liberating to realize that people react in a certain way in most cases. Not all the time but in most cases. It’s not in my power to change someone’s default reaction from being skeptical all the time about pretty much everything to being ecstatic and super enthused about my idea. And it’s not because my ideas are bad. It’s because the reaction of enthusiasm is very far from the default reaction of skepticism.
We should do what we want to do. We should create, produce, write, film, paint whatever the heck we want to the best of our abilities. And we’ll get a range of emotions as a reaction to our work. Some people will hate it. Some people will be skeptical about it. Some will dismiss it altogether. Some people will be intrigued. Some people will love it. Some people will want to share it.
And their reactions will tell us more about them than about us. It will most likely reveal their default reaction to the outside world in general. We just happen to be a part of the outside world they need to react to that day.
So let’s stop taking things so personally. Let’s do our work as well as we possibly can that day. Let’s learn from our practice. Let’s get better at whatever we are doing and enjoy the process. People will think what they’ve always thought. It shouldn’t impact what we do or don’t do.
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