Don’t Listen to the Haters

March 27, 2012

Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” -Albert Einstein

The hardest thing I’ve encountered in becoming happy and successful is that it can make other people upset. Even if most people are happy for you, that one voice of resentment can destroy you.

That provides a great excuse to hold yourself back: we’d rather be liked than happy (the absurdity of that statement should be apparent).

In high school, I was at the top of my class, but I was miserable because of it. Academics came easily to me, and I knew many of my classmates did not feel the same way. I felt horribly guilty about this. I felt that I didn’t deserve to do well, and I guessed they felt it wasn’t fair. Luckily, I had the sense to continue getting good grades, but I tried to ‘atone’ for my academic success by cultivating a self-hatred that was in agreement with how I thought my peers must see me.

I see this a lot with the kids I teach in Korea. Many of the academically successful kids are ostracized by their less-capable peers. It’s not that they don’t like the smart kid, but rather that they resent their success because they themselves want it but can’t (or won’t) do the work to achieve it.

It took me a long time to learn to be happy about my successes. It took me even longer to be unapologetic. When I started seeing success in fitness, I discovered that I was a source of inspiration for my friends at CrossFit, rather than a source of resentment and jealousy.

The Root of Resentment

Still, there were those who resented my success, especially where it came easily as in running or gymnastics. And I resented them their success in weightlifting, undervaluing my own achievements.

All I saw was the end result, and I would feel jealous that they’d been blessed with a gift while I had to work my butt off. It didn’t seem fair.

People only see the finished product, and they think the gods are petty in distributing their blessings, and so they think, “it’s not fair.”

When I read a great book, for example, I only see the finished product and think, “I’ll never be this good. It’s not fair that this author has so much talent I’ll never have.” I have to remind myself that they probably spent years on the book, and that their first draft was probably comical in its inanity.

A good example is the new life planner I’ve created from scratch. People who see it now in its leatherbound, embossed tabbed glory have commented that they’ve always wanted to make something like that, but that they don’t have the time to put all the pieces together and think out the organizational system and routines they’d need.

These same people had seen the book in its first iteration–just a bunch of paper stapled along a fold to form a rough booklet–and scoffed at my excitement. When they comment on the elegance of the finished product, I try to explain how miserably inelegant the original was, and how many tiny steps it took to get here, and how easy it would be for them to take that first tiny step. But they can’t see that. (check here for a photographic chronicle of my LifeBook, to be explained in a later post).

We always want the last step, the denouement , the final draft, and it blinds us to the ugly, unformed idea behind every work of art, chiseled body, or literary masterpiece.

Anyone can take that first step, but we tend to forget that it is the first step that leads to that amazing end result, so we never even start.

I think that the real problem is not that we resent others’ particular successes, but rather that we think it reveals some kind of superhuman ability we think we don’t have. We know how much work we put into our efforts, even though we hide it from others. But when we see someone else with something amazing (only amazing to us, because we can’t imagine ourselves doing it), we assume it was effortless for them. So we bluff about how naturally talented we are, and they match our bluff by being dismissive about their achievements.

The result is that we end up resenting each other out of insecurity. It’s a mess.

You might try downplaying your hard work to avoid this resentment, until you start to hate your own gifts and accomplishments because you think it makes others dislike you.

You’re the Inspiration

So what should we do?

My solution has been to stop apologizing, externally or internally, for my success or good fortune. I don’t rub it in peoples’ faces, but I don’t try to downplay it’s importance either.

Because there are people, lots of them, who need you to be a big deal. They need to see someone succeeding at what they are working so hard to accomplish. They need to know you are proud of your accomplishments because they want to know that it is worth all the hard work and frustration they are dealing with right now.

To them, you are a beacon of hope and encouragement. If you apologize for being good, you send the message that the goal is a waste of time. At worst, it suggests those who do value it are misguided.

An example is learning to do pullups. I’ve helped so many people learn to do pullups, which take a long time. They see me ripping out a few, and they wonder if they’ll ever get there.

There are two ways to respond to this. I could say, “oh, it’s nothing,” thinking that if I devalue pullups, they won’t feel so bad for not being able to do a single one. This doesn’t work, because you can’t change what people want or what they value.

The other option, which I find actually gets people fired up, is to immediately tell them how long it took me: two years doing pullups almost every single day. I sucked at pullups more than anything else, and now, they are my strongest movement. This makes people realize that they can be really bad at something now and get better at it. It’s just a matter of doing the work. Since most people will work hard at anything they really want, this makes them realize it is something they can achieve.

These same people are my biggest supporters. They were the ones who stuck around to cheer me on at CrossFit competitions. They wanted me to be even better. They believed in me. They didn’t want to undermine me or make me feel less so they could feel better.

***

The trick is to decide which voice you listen to: the haters, or those who love what you do?

I knew there were people who admired me, but I was so eager to please that all I heard were those who hated me for being good. One negative voice would drown out hundreds of supportive ones in my head. I gave too much weight to criticism and not nearly enough to encouragement.

So in the end, the solution (still in progress) was simply to recalibrate my sensitivity. Learn to notice the overwhelming vastness of the bright blue sky, instead of fixating on that single wispy cloud near the edge.