Words don't matter
Gardening is my new Zen zone. By that I mean the full immersive experience of using my body to chop, lug, and pull. My mind goes on cruise control as I tackle each physical task. In the process, thoughts bubble up from my subconscious and cohere into ideas.
I was recently pondering how to create more inclusive workplaces. How can any leader help their teams thrive by fostering an environment where everyone feels they belong? I have thoughts on this topic (and data too), but my mind kept wandering, so that’s for another post.
I wondered: what if other people's opinions of you didn't matter? What if you could thrive anywhere, regardless of environment? That’s hard to do. We are social beings who put a lot of stock in what others say. Asking someone to ignore their surroundings is like telling them to breathe normally next to a smoky campfire without a mask.
But what if the smoke didn't reach your lungs? What if you were immune to the words floating around you?
Systemic issues need time to resolve. They may outlive us all. Pursuing a cause often means planting seeds for a garden we won’t see. It’s still the right thing to do. But at a human level, we need nourishment and safety today, not just ideals and hope tomorrow.
So amidst building that better future, what can one person do? Care less about what most people say. Anne Lamott keeps a 1 inch list of opinions she values. For everyone else, she gives no mental real estate.
I once cared too much about universal approval. I thought it made me empathetic. Really it fed an needy ego. I wore myself out trying to please all. Felt I shouldn’t be places if I didn’t fit in. Took criticisms personally. Everyone’s words seemed to matter.
Over time, I became harder to bruise by asking myself one question when hurt: Do I care what they think? With emphasis on they – some people’s opinions mattered more. My list grew short and curated.
I also drew inspiration from Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor who found slivers of joy and hope amidst being treated as subhuman. “The last freedom we have is how we perceive the world around us,” he said. He chose not to let anything sway his inner peace.
Nor did his fellow prisoners who endured best. They protected their mindset against circumstance. When one despaired that his wife had been killed, Viktor consoled him with the idea that his purpose was to be the one who survived for her. Reframing pain as purpose.
Words do matter. Systemic flaws exist. That said, we can reclaim power by deciding which words matter, and how much sway we let our environment have over us. The last freedom is perception itself.