The art of caring what people think
People care what people think. People often strive to not care what people think. People sometimes appear to succeed.
My working model though is that it is nearly impossible for a normal person to not care what people think in a prolonged way, but that ‘people’ doesn’t mean all people, and that it is tractable and common to change who falls into this category or who in it is salient and taken to represent ‘people’. And thus it is possible to control the forces of outside perception even as they control you. Which can do a lot of the job of not caring what other people think.
To put it the other way around, most people don’t care what other people think, for almost all values of ‘other people’. They care what some subset of people think. So if there are particular views from other people that you wish to not care about, it can be realistic to stop caring about them, as long as you care what some different set of people think.
Ten (mostly fictional) examples:
- You feel like ‘people’ think you should be knowledgeable about politics and current events, because they are always talking about such things. You read some philosophers through the ages, and instead feel like ‘everyone’ thinks you should be basically contributing to the timeless philosophical problems of the ages. (Also, everyone else has some kind of famous treatise - where is yours?)
- You haven’t really thought through which causes are important, but ‘people’ all seem to think it’s nuclear disarmament, so looking into it feels a bit pointless. You go to a weekend conference on soil depletion and experience the sense that ‘people’ basically agree that soil degradation is THE problem, and that it would be embarrassing to ask if it isn’t nuclear disarmament, without having a much better case.
- You are kind of fat. You wish you didn’t care what ‘people’ thought, but you suspect they think you’re ugly, because you’ve seen ‘people’ say that or imply it. You read about all the people who appreciate curviness, and recalibrate your sense of what ‘people’ think when they see you.
- You can hardly think about the issue of gun regulation because you feel so guilty when you aren’t immediately convinced by the arguments on your side, or don’t have an eloquent retort for any arguments the other side comes up with. You wish you were brave enough to think clearly on any topic, but knowing everyone agrees that you would be contemptible if you came to the wrong conclusion, you are stressed and can’t think or trust your thoughts. You become an undergraduate and live in a dorm and hang out with people who have opposing views, and people who don’t care, and people who think it’s unclear, and people who think that thinking clearly is more important than either side. Your old sense of ‘people’ condemning the bad side is replaced by a sense that ‘people’ want you to have a novel position and an interesting argument.
- You tried out writing poetry, and to your surprise you really like it. You want to share it, but you think people will laugh at you, because it’s all poetic. You wish you didn’t care what people thought, because you want to express yourself and get feedback. But ‘people’ in your mind are in fact your usual crowd of Facebook friends, and they are not poetic types. But if you instead share your writing on allpoetry.com, you are surrounded by people who like poetry and compliment yours, and soon you are thinking ‘people liked my poem!’.
- You kind of think climate change is a big deal, but ‘people’ seem to think it isn’t worth attention and that you should focus on AI risk. It doesn’t seem like their arguments are great, but getting into it and being the one person with this crazy view isn’t appealing. So you tell the next five people you meet from your social circles about the situation, and they are all like, ‘what? climate change is the worst. Who are these cranks?’ and then you feel like socially there are two sides, and you can go back and have the debate.
- You want to write about topics of enduring importance, but you can’t bear to be left out of what people are talking about, and you feel somehow silly writing about the simulation argument when everyone is having a big discussion together about the incredibly important present crisis. So you make an RSS feed or a Twitter list of people who keep their eye on the bigger questions, and converse with them.
- You feel like people are super judgmental of everything, so that it’s hard to even know what flavor of hummus you like, as you anticipate the cascade of inferences about your personality. The only thing that keeps you expressing preferences at all is the distain you expect looms for indecisive people. So you notice who around you gives less of this impression, and hang out with them more.
- You imagine liking being a mathematician, but the other kids have decided that physics is cooler, and you don’t want to be left as the only one doing a less cool degree. So you do math anyway, and a year later you have new friends who think math is cooler than physics.
- You hang out with various groups. Some clusters are so ubiquitously accomplished that you think they must have let you in by mistake. In others, people turn to look when you walk in, and a crowd gathers to talk to you. You find yourself gravitating to the former groups, then developing an expectation that ‘people’ are never impressed by you, and being discouraged. So you hang out in broader circles and are buoyed up by ‘people’ being regularly interested in you and your achievements.