“Care about what other people think–and you will always be their prisoner.”
~Lao Tzu, philosopher and writer
I collect quotes that strike a chord with me, and file them away for future reference. Sometimes, when I need inspiration for a blog post, I dip into this quote file and randomly select one to write about.
At first, when I opened the saved email with Lao Tzu’s admonition above, I was tempted to just close it and make another random selection. I didn’t feel ready–or particularly qualified– to write about this quote.
Maybe that’s because, at any given moment, and far too often, I am still someone’s prisoner. Which I guess makes me about as qualified to write about Lao’s quote as the next guy.
One thing I do know for certain is that those of us who care what other people think–and, like it or not, that’s the majority of us–were not born with this trait. Or should I say liability. It’s probably why I’ve always enjoyed being in the company of toddlers. They see potential in everything and everyone. A stick turns into a magic wand or a toy gun. Other children in the park whom they have never met before are potential friends. Adults become horsies they can straddle, or amusement park rides that propel them high into the air.
Toddlers don’t worry that they might appear foolish. They don’t give a whole lot of thought to what other people think at all.
That is, until they cross some unforeseen boundary and behave in a way that garners disapproval from an important adult in their lives. At first, they might instinctively believe their behavior was justified–but no, the adult is clearly unhappy with them, and is expecting some sort of apology or acknowledgement that what they did was unacceptable. This is where it starts for most of us, this caring what other people think. And then the lesson gets solidified once we go to school, where what other people think can impact our report cards.
U’s were unsatisfactory. U’s terrified me.
Now don’t get me wrong; I firmly believe that children need parameters set for them, as differentiating between right and wrong does not always come naturally. Take the situation that occurred at a recent family get together, where my four year-old great nephew bit my three year-old great nephew on the arm. Clearly such behavior needs to be addressed, and it was. We wouldn’t want the little bugger growing up thinking that biting arms (or other body parts, for that matter!) was OK, would we?
But what many of us fail to do as we age is to learn how to distinguish between the disapproval we might receive for doing something harmful or illegal, from the disapproval we might receive from others who simply don’t agree with something we’ve said, done or want to do. And the more important those others are to us, the more we crave their approval or worry about what they think of us. Worse yet, we extend that need for approval to include people who don’t really matter that much, and sometimes even to people we don’t particularly like.
And the fact is, unless we are doing something illegal, immoral or that would cause harm to ourselves or others, we really shouldn’t worry about what others think of us at all. Or at least try not to. Chances are they aren’t thinking of us anyway. And if they are, well, there’s no way we can control other people’s thoughts–especially since we have such a freakin’ hard time controlling our own.
Once again, I am writing about a concept that I continue to personally struggle with, but that I really feel is true. I think of all the amazing inventions, all the wonderful books, music and movies, all of the great companies and all of the tremendous acts of charity and kindness that would have never happened if the people who created or performed them worried too much about what other people thought.
And I think of all the things I didn’t do over the years because I did.
I think that’s why, when someone shares their idea or a dream with me, I’m all over it like paparazzi on a celebrity. My thoughts zoom right past “That’ll never work,” and I go into “What can we do to make that happen?” mode. I envision entire marketing plans for businesses, projects and programs that are just a twinkle in their daddy’s or mommy’s eye, then rein myself in to suggest first steps.
Ask me what I’m so passionate about that I could do it day after day for free, and I’d say, “Helping people go for something they really want.” And, under my breath I’d add, “And not care what other people think.”
See, I think a lot of us don’t go for our personal gusto, not because we fear failure–we’ve all failed at something in our lives and survived just fine. It’s that we fear what other people might think of us if our crazy idea failed.
So we keep that crazy dream locked up inside. And the world never gets a chance to benefit from or enjoy it.
That’s a damn shame.
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware shares what she learned from her patients during their final weeks of life. The number one regret?
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I don’t want to bring that particular regret to my deathbed. Yet, now that I’m 60 years old, I am more aware than ever how finite life is. Better get my ass moving on that bucket list.
Referring back to the Lao Tzu quote, I hereby commit to setting myself free from this day forward–as best I can, at least. This can be the most amazing time of my life if I want it to be.
How about you? Is there an adventure you’re postponing? A dream you’ve been suppressing? I think it’s time to give yourself permission to pursue it.
Time to stage your own personal prison break.