I recently led a class about ‘How to Reevaluate Your Life’. Some readers will remember that I’ve talked about this topic a couple of times before and so I felt pretty confident. I printed handouts, talked for over an hour, and thought I’d covered my bases pretty well. Then — during the Q & A portion of the class — I got a question that threw me for a loop.
Jill Hartmann — wonderful person, talented writer, and fellow Athens Writers Association founder, asked how I drowned out the ‘noise’ of other people and the world to live the life I wanted to live. In essence, her question pinpointed a weak spot in my talk: I’d focused on how to realize if you wanted a different life, how to find goals that mattered to you, and how to pursue your goals. But I hadn’t addressed:
- How to deal with friends, family, and coworkers who continually ask for your help
- What to say to people who belittle or challenge your goals
- How to balance your idea of an ideal life with society’s definitions of success
- How to say ‘no’ to extra work when you’re a nice person
- Creating what you want even when others don’t like it
Of course Jill’s a super-nice person and didn’t ask her question in any way to challenge me. But I was struck by what a good question it was. I thought about it and answered as best I could (in the on-your-toes manner that talks necessitate). But I thought that the answer also deserved a more complete response, because it’s really hard to live the life of your dreams and the life society has ordained for you at the same time.
This question is challenging for me because I kind of don’t give a fig about people’s expectations anymore. But why and when did this happen? I’m a sensitive soul (to quote The Lion King) and an unhappy customer at my retail job can almost reduce me to tears, so why don’t I feel the pull to follow people’s expectations in my own life?
To answer that question, let’s look at the sources of this ‘noise’ and how you can negate its impact on your life —
— Not So Fun Noise-Makers —
Whether parents, siblings, or friends, these people have life all figured out and want to point out the folly of your path. Maybe they think you can only be happy when married with kids, or by becoming an accountant, or by moving up the ladder at work. At their best, they have found something that has brought them much joy and want you to experience it too (certainly many a yoga/health food/exercise fan has sought to convert others [I’m as guilty as anyone]). At their worst, what they suggest has made them miserable but they still think you should follow their common wisdom.
Not exactly who we want to think is influencing us, but almost invariably ‘they’ are. Who’s this ‘they’? People who are paid to make us desire the latest car, the newest tech, and promise us the best night of our lives if we buy a certain beer or soft drink. And even my beloved entertainment industry is little better, though I’d argue the sins committed there are more often from ignorance than cruelty (to paraphrase Anna Sewell). There’s a great post about How The Karate Kid Ruined the Modern World. Hollywood (and other pop culture) is about wish fulfillment, and fantasy. I think back to how people wanted to watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance and banter during the second World War — beauty and joy and escapism in a troubled time. Fantasy has its place — but don’t let it ruin your real life.
These people think they are better than you, or know someone better than you, and maybe just like to compare their favorite, most famous authors (artists, actors, etc.) in history to you. Even a ‘Ha ha, well it’s not Shakespeare!’ can hurt an author. A lot of us may think ‘Hamlet’ is the greatest thing ever written in the English language and yet to be cut short, clamped down on — it stifles us and our potential. And somebody will be the next Shakespeare. And I will be the one and only Katherine Cerulean and being compared to people who are doing different things, with different aims, with more experiences, isn’t going to help me get there.
Oh, not the truly needy — the poor, uneducated, etc — by all means, take some time to give your energies or money to them. Who I’m talking about is the ‘needers’ in your life. If you have a job, and take care of your house/family, and are pursuing your dreams and goals — you are probably a hard-working and reliable individual. And those are worth their weight in gold. So you may find everyone — your church, your child’s school, neighbors, work friends, charities, interest groups you belong to — everyone may ask you for help. What each person asks maybe be small, but it all adds up. And if you say no, you may be called selfish.
The Biz Experts
Whatever your dream is, there’s probably a business for it, and there are probably stars, CEOS, critics, trend-watchers, and more who will gladly expound on the ‘rules’ for succeeding. And some of this can be very good advice. But a lot of it is just what worked for them, combined with fear — business can often breed conservatism: do what worked before, and don’t try anything new.
This may be more internal noise than external. You may find yourself wondering if your doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right field. You might feel you should be doing more. It can become stifling. We have met the enemy and he is us.
How Do We Tune Out the Noise?
It’s not always easy. The people interrupting our flow are our friends, our family, even ourselves. But if you want to do truly great things, we need to be able to concentrate and trust ourselves. So here’s how to deal with —
- Well-Meaning ‘Correctors’ This is probably the hardest category because ‘correctors’ are often family members, and they have an out-sized influence over us. The best defense I know is to remember is ‘they don’t know you as well as you do’. You know if you can get in shape for that marathon, move to that new city, or ask that guy out. At best they are guessing about your abilities and interest. ONLY YOU KNOW. It helps if you can (privately) find humor in their suggestions. Keep in mind that they are probably trying to help you avoid pain, and that they may still see you as that little kid you once were. In the end, they will be happy for you if you succeed on our own terms — otherwise they are people who you should have limited contact with in your life. Period.
- Consumertainment Remember that the whole industry exists to sell you things (even if it’s only a movie ticket). And the sellers have had decades to perfect their pitches. Though you want to be inspired by people who are living their dream lives, look for reality first. What are the best moments in your own life on a weekly or monthly basis? Who have you met that seems happy and to be living the life of their dreams? Reading articles and interviews can help you understand the day-to-day lives of famous people (though beware that a biography is also a product and may be filled with stories meant to sell it). Recently, I started listening to the podcast Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin (it’s really good), and Alec said something that stuck with me. He, while talking about Hollywood said something like, “There are things I like about it and things I hate about it. I love my job, but it is a job.” Some might say Alec is ungrateful; I think he was just honest. No marriage, friendship, or career is perfect. I love, love, LOVE writing — and yet it’s so much harder as a job than a lot of things I could have done. It’s hard because I care. It’s not just sipping lattes and daydreaming (for instance, right now I’m sipping a Starbucks dark roast not a latte). So stop comparing your life to make believe — dragons and giant robots and the Entourage life are all products of Hollywood writers’ imaginations.
- Braggarts Honestly, I have found that shutting them down or shutting them out is the only way to deal with this type. If the comments are under the ‘help you out’ category, then the first time I’d thank the person for their advice. “Stephen King uses a lot less commas than you do.” “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” But that may only encourage the braggart to keep comparing your work to everyone (including themselves) who they think is better. Then I would say something like, “Thanks, but I have my own style and am doing my own thing right now and I’m not really interested in comparing myself to anyone else.” If the person still keeps putting you/your work down, you have to understand that YOU are not necessary for their monologue; they are looking to inflate themselves or their ego by putting others down. They probably can’t help it, but they are never going to change. Cut them out of your life or, if they work with you and you can’t, make it absolutely clear you don’t want their opinion. “Hey, sorry to interrupt you, but I really don’t enjoy talking about my work with you or hearing about yours. Can we talk about something else? Like how much we both hate the (local sports rivals)? I think we’ll find we have a LOT to agree about on that topic.”
- The ‘Need’y Jack Canfield (in his book, The Success Principles) says to ‘Say no so your yeses have more impact.’ Tell others that you have made a commitment to your family/job/dreams/health and you are going to have to say no to their offer/request. You can soften the blow by posing a counter-offer — “Sorry, I’ve made a commitment to improve my health by running in a marathon in November so I’m going to have to say no to chairing the school fall festival this year. But I would be happy give my notes from last year to the person you choose and they can email me if they have a few questions.” Also, realize that you will do a better job on the things you do say yes to if you have less on your plate. Lastly, think about the fact that as a useful person you will be needed to ‘help out’ from now until the end of your life, but that the best way you can help out — I’d argue — is to become a totally realized, extraordinary human being. Being amazing at your life will bring money, connections, and even time into your existence which you can use to improve the world. But, as Scott Adams says, ‘You have to be selfish first.’
- The Biz Experts There a quote from Steve Jobs — “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” I think that sums up a lot of my beliefs about experts — they don’t know what the great new thing is until they see it. And I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t get a consensus about what works, or which paths often lead to success. But if anyone says no one of your background, age, etc. has made it, remember to add silently — ‘…yet.’ You could be the first, but there may already be tons of successes that other people don’t know about. As you develop your talents and if you’re passionate, you will start to see these gaps — things you wish existed but haven’t seen yet. And believe me, the world is hungering for you to fill those gaps, for something amazing and different and exciting. I think the world needs some Katherine Cerulean and needs it right now so I spend my time trying to hone my vision, to improve myself, all while remembering that what makes me special is exactly the thing ‘expects’ would probably want me to change.
- Second Guessers The best thing I’ve found for this problem is to think deeply about a issue/goal/etc. — whether over a few weeks or a concentrated couple of days — and then make a detailed plan with a timeline. I decided to go Paleo for 6 month to get to my ‘perfect shape’. After I decided that, I didn’t have to think about it anymore. I was paleo. I’m not saying it was easy, but I didn’t wonder after three weeks if I should quit it and try a different diet — I had already thought this through and made a plan. Short of any health problems, I simply wouldn’t even consider another course of action till I had given this one a chance. A timed goal can work for anything — it says you don’t have to worry about something every day and yet you are monitoring it. “If I still hate my job this much in one month I’ll send out 20 resumes.” “We’ll do six months of ‘date nights’ and then see a counselor if our relationship hasn’t improved.” One screenwriter suggested that every six months you ask ‘Is this making me happy?’ He was talking about writing but that could work for anything — just remember to quiet the second guessers (even yourself) while a timed goal is going on — you got this in hand.
In the end, noise is all around us, and always will be. What changed for me was when I realized a few years ago that everyone deals with these issues and feelings and challenges. I could either continue as I had been and be shy, lonely, and questioning for the next 10, 20, 30 years or I could become the kind of person who inspires others by doing the thing and having the power. I could feel the fear and do it anyway. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been so worth it. And somewhere along the way I lost a lot of my fear of what people think. I have no magic answer, but I do know one thing for sure: you are SO IMPORTANT and so special and you deserve to fight through the noise and never stop fighting and claim the unique throne that is held only for you.
The world may be full of noise but, in the end, only you can silence your roar.
And only you can give yourself the time, space, and confidence to show the world how special you are. Go get’em.