- Others care about us in a global way, but not really in a detailed way that focuses on what we do with our lives.
- Once we accept that we are on our own, we are free to take our “maverick path," says Ed Haddon in his new book, The Modern Maverick.
- Trying to live up to the expectations of others — and comparing ourselves to idealized versions of other people — does not help us live a free life.
Know this: no one else is watching the movie of your life. Maybe you knew this already, or perhaps this feels radical to you — but just think about it. How many movies do you watch of other people’s lives? How many people are you truly scrutinizing in the way that you sometimes fear others are scrutinizing you? I’m willing to bet that although you are interested in other people, that you care for them and you try to help, you’re not watching in all that much detail.
Take someone close to you: maybe a child, a partner or a parent. Their movie runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week for roughly 80 years. That is 700,000 hours. How many of those hours do you feature in the film? Even if you are married for 50 years and sleep in the same bed, you might make it up to 200,000 hours. If you do not live with them, then maybe 2,000 hours over 80 years. How many hours, when you are not with that person, are you thinking about them, imagining what they are doing and thinking? Maybe double the 2,000 hours to 4,000 hours?
Yes, others care about us, but in a global way, not the detail of what we do with our lives. The truth is, in the nicest possible sense, no one else gives a s***. We become too caught up thinking about what others would think. We worry about what we should do. We hold on tight to a version of ourselves that we think is expected. What others really want is to know that we are happy if they are fond of us or that we are sad if we are their enemy.
Even parents or lovers have more than enough in front of them, trying to figure their own way through life without worrying endlessly about you. And this is when we are talking about people who know you and love you. What about people who have spent zero hours in your film? Or those tangential characters — the followers on Instagram, for example, who have spent mere seconds in a hyper-edited semi- fictional account of your life movie. Do they count?
This truth, if you let it, can be deeply liberating. Think how much time we all spend worrying about our audience, or trying to please a parent, or bending ourselves to the wills of society. Once we accept that we are on our own, far from creating loneliness, it can free us up to take our “maverick path,” to really figure out what makes us tick. In doing so, we end up making a far more interesting and ‘successful’ movie anyway, even if there were people watching — which there aren’t.
So who are you making your movie for? An abstract sense of society at large — what should I do, what is expected of me, how do I fit in?
Then there are people in our lives who exert a strong influence over what we choose to do. I work with clients who are often second-guessing what key people in their lives would wish them to do. Rarely do they check in with these people; if they did, the answers might be surprising. The most obvious example I see is around living up to perceived paternal expectations. Our parents, and particularly our fathers, seem to have an almost gravitational influence on key decisions and the direction we take. We worry about their judgements, but these say more about the weaknesses they have than the problems they think we may be facing.
James came to me in the middle of his career, successful in the “non-maverick” sense, but totally stuck and trapped. In the second session he began to talk about a career he wished he had in architecture. Then he lit up as he told me about some clay he had recently bought to start ceramics again after a 30-year gap. I asked him what had led him into his current career and he started to talk about his father, grandfather and other ancestors. He felt an enormous pressure to conform and to succeed on their metrics, which were very financial and profile-based. The irony of course is that in borrowing someone else’s definition of success James hadn’t really smashed it and fulfilled his own potential. He wasn’t passionate about what he was doing; he wasn’t uniquely talented in it. We talked about how he was working with one hand tied behind his back. He had worked very hard to do well and to please his ancestors, but such efforts came at a great cost to himself.
We rehearsed a difficult and overdue conversation with his father, where James let his dad know that he was OK, grateful for his input and that over the next few months and years he was going to transition into work that was more creative and architecture-led. In the end he gave his dad a big hug, thanked him and with that, he was free.
Of course, it’s not just worrying about what others might see. The idea of scrutiny is compounded by the dangers of comparison — even if you’re not concerned about what people might think of you, perhaps you are silently worrying about how you look or perform or achieve up against someone you admire. But it’s the same trap, in a different guise — comparison does not help you live a free life. As the mother of a client used to say to her, ‘Stop comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.’
Social media has turbocharged this insidious game of comparison and instead of liberating us, it ties us to these misperceptions of what ‘good’ looks like. Money, medals and mentions become the driver of our thoughts and behaviours, but for many these are the wrong measures and are likely to be at best inflated and at worst made up.
We compound this by creating hybrid super people, where we take the best aspect of several others and combine them into some hyper-being that we then compare ourselves to. If only I could have A’s brains with B’s body, C’s hair and, oh yes please, D’s job and E’s comic timing. Maybe throw in F’s memory and G’s house by the sea. How about H’s well-behaved dog and I’s bank account? And so on.
But no one is this super being and no one is as calm or successful on the inside as they might project on the outside. Much like a swan, they may appear to be gliding across the surface but underneath their legs are paddling like crazy. Outwardly successful, inwardly miserable.
We can also do the opposite. Comparing ourselves to those that we perceive to be below us, doing less well. This creates a false sense of smugness and again is rarely based on the truth.