I’m a recovering people pleaser.
I grew up in a deeply conformist culture where pleasing the authority figures was the path to success. In the education system, we were each assigned a number, not unlike how livestock are branded for identification purposes. The boys all had the same buzz cut. Each school day began with the recitation of the national anthem, followed by the standard “student oath” where we vowed to respect our elders and dedicate our existence to the Turkish nation.
The people who got ahead weren’t the contrarians, the creatives, the trailblazers.
Due in large part to my cultural upbringing, the tendency to please is hardwired in my brain. As a professor, my inclination is to delight every student. As a speaker, my wish is to please everyone in the audience. As a writer, my instinct is to delight every critic.
This is a fool’s errand. A recipe for frustration. A way of pushing a boulder up the hill and watching it roll down every single time. As the writer Elbert Hubbard, in a quote often misattributed to Aristotle, said: “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
The inclination to please is antithetical to meaningful work, as I often remind myself. When I’m tempted to please everyone, I rush to the center. I cease exploring controversial questions. I stop taking a contrarian stance. My writing turns to garbage.
When you separate from the herd, the herd calls you out. There’s a well-known saying in Japan: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.” Social media has handed all of us a free virtual hammer. It’s become easy—too easy—to express opinions without having done the required work.
I’ve been turned into a public enemy in my home country for the arguments in my first book by journalists who didn’t even bother to read it. I’ve become a punching bag and called everything from a “moron” to a “scumbag” by anonymous combatants on Twitter who feed on getting others riled up.
Stephen King, one of my favorite writers, finds himself on the receiving end of nonsense on a regular basis: “Not a week goes by,” he writes, “that I don’t receive at least one pissed-off letter (most weeks there are more) accusing me of being foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, murderous, frivolous, or downright psychopathic.” Nike co-founder Phil Knight likewise warns the “best of them, the iconoclasts, the innovators, the rebels, that they will always have a bull’s-eye on their backs. The better they get, the bigger the bull’s-eye.”
The tennis player Andre Agassi was dragged through the mud by spectators, sportswriters, and even fellow players on a regular basis with an avalanche of adjectives ranging from clown, to fraud, to fluke. “If they’re not trashing me for losing on purpose,” he writes in his terrific autobiography, Open, “they’re ragging me for the way I win.”
The tendency to please others is part of the human condition. We evolved in close-knit tribes where the tribe’s approval was essential to our survival. The instinct to people please, according to Charles Darwin, was acquired through natural selection: “Primeval man, at a very remote period, would have been influenced by the praise and blame of his fellows.” If we lost our standing with our tribe, we’d also lose access to food, resources, and sex. We’d be ostracized, rejected, or worse, left for dead.
What’s more, we’re genetically programmed to focus on the negative feedback. The rattling in the dark, the smell of gas, the sight of smoke, the screeching of tires. Our pupils dilate, our heart starts pumping faster, and adrenaline is released. These essential survival mechanisms prevented us from being lunch for a saber-toothed tiger, but they also supersede other operations and cause us to singularly focus on what’s wrong, rather than what’s right.
The question, then, is this: In the modern world, is it useful to pay attention to this sort of negative feedback? Should I treat Twitter trolls the same way my ancestors would have treated their tribal chiefs? Will I become a better writer by reading reviews on Amazon? Will you become a better entrepreneur by trying to minimize the 1-star reviews for your company, as opposed to trying to maximize the 5-star ones? Will you become a better student by eavesdropping on conversations by classmates about what you said in class?
The answer, in most cases, is no.
This doesn’t mean we remain in our echo chamber and shut off all feedback. Criticism is useful when it’s constructive. I make a point to surround myself with people from different social and political stripes whose opinions I trust. My wife Kathy is the first reader of anything I write. My research assistants regularly put me in my place. The subscribers to my weekly newsletter are also part of my inner circle. If I’ve gone astray or if I missed a perspective, one of these amazing people tell me about it.
But this isn’t the type of generous feedback I find online. I beat myself up in a sufficient number of one-on-one creative fights that I don’t need Internet trolls to gang up on me. So, I’ve walked away. I don’t check Twitter notifications or Google alerts for my name. Nor do I allow comments on my blog. I’ve minimized the noise, so I can isolate and pay attention to the signal. From time to time, when I slip up and violate these rules, it’s almost always to my detriment.
One might argue that there’s “some benefit” to reading the negative feedback, the 1-star reviews. You might learn something from them. You might tweak your approach.
Perhaps. But the “some benefit” argument doesn’t take into account the costs. If the cost of eavesdropping on conversations by strangers about you is the quality of your work or the satisfaction of your true fans, whatever benefit you might get is vastly outweighed by the cost.
Here’s the thing: If you do meaningful work, someone, somewhere will try to make you feel lousy about it.
The solution is to drop the pursuit of universal respect and get back to doing work that matters.