Honest to goodness, it was one of the most refreshing realizations I ever had: What people say to you is often more about THEM, their life, and what THEY’VE gone through than anything really to do with you.
Like a lot of the big profound truths, I didn’t believe this the first time I ever heard this idea. Or the hundredth, really. I was skeptical. No, back then I really did take critics to heart. And I let their criticism not only paralyze me but to teach me how to talk to myself.
I learned to tell myself no more easily. To tell myself that what I wanted to do — whatever it was — was too impractical, dangerous, risky, selfish — FILL IN THE BLANK WITH NEGATIVE ADJECTIVE.
I’d tell myself whatever it took to get to no. And I did it over and over again.
Looking back, I had no awareness of this. Instead, it felt like the truth. And I walked around watching other friends meet with success, feeling a bitter twinge, but then reminding myself that it was too late for me. I had peaked. The window of opportunity had closed.
I Started Telling Myself I Was Too Old for Stuff When I Was Still in High School
I started telling myself I was too old for stuff when I was still in high school basically.
It’s hilarious now, in hindsight. I’ve had tons of adventures since then, stuff that really threw me off guard. That I never expected. I haven’t retired in the shire, an ever-hobbit (as I expected I would back when I was 19 and freshly traumatized).
Nah. I’ve met all kinds of cool people, traveled, took risks that seemed crazy to other people but somehow turned out pretty well for me.
And today I write a lot in public with a sizable readership, something I never thought would be in the cards for me. Once I stopped using all my energy reminding myself that the answer was always no and just started trying stuff, everything changed. Not overnight, mind you. But the overall trendline has been up. Which is wild.
But I must say that one thing really surprised me once I became someone past me would have considered successful (I still don’t feel successful, mind you… I feel more like an interesting failure, but that’s probably my own baggage). I was surprised at how soon you start running into critics. Really, it happens a long time before you can comfortably support yourself. And they never really go away.
No One Told Me That Some Friends Might Be Upset by Your Success
Weirdly, critics are not just limited to strangers. You may even find that your own friends become upset when you start breaking through. I know, I know. That sounds like crazy talk. Your friends love you, they’ll always be there for you. They wouldn’t be salty about your success. That’s what I thought, too! And then I went on to have a couple of bad experiences.
I suppose in hindsight that maybe I should have realized it would happen. After all, I can vividly remember feeling bitter when a writer friend of mine (who has been successful forever at this point) first broke out. I definitely felt that sting of “aw man, I wish that were me.” I did. Truly.
But I didn’t say that to them. I got the private sulking out of my system, and then I congratulated them. Because I was also happy for them. (I had both emotions at once — envy and vicarious joy.) It wasn’t for another 6 years or so that I got my act together and actually started trying to build my writing career — after I was told by people I trust that I should and that it wasn’t too late and I was being silly to think so.
Anyway, I knew from my own private experiences that it was possible to feel salty when a friend is successful at something that you wish would go right for you. I mean, c’mon. I’m sure most of you have experienced that. I guess what I wasn’t expecting was for any of my friends to come up and say the mean stuff to my face, with none of the nice stuff.
But I was wrong. Ah, dear readers, I was wrong.
The Worst Naysayers Have Told Themselves No & That’s Why They Say It to You
It’s fine. That wound has healed now (for a while, it was fresh, painful, and confusing).
And anyway, I got something very important from the experience: It helped me to understand other critical folks better, ones that I don’t know as well. Look, the truth is that some criticism is super helpful — I’ve learned a lot from folks who don’t have all nice things to say.
But especially online in a semi-anonymous environment, there are lots of bad faith actors. People who are lashing out without cause, trying to feel better about their lives by doing so.
And it’s occurred to me that a lot of that latter group is made up of people who have told themselves no and that’s why they say it to you (except only meaner).
I don’t think this is a lesson that just applies for people with big platforms either. I’ve noticed it happening all around me — not just in my own lives but to my friends. They’re often surrounded by people who have told themselves no, that something won’t work, that it’s too late for them — and so when someone they know wants to try something new, that’s what comes out of their mouths, too.
And in the case that you ignore their advice and do manage to be successful at the thing they told you that you shouldn’t do… whoo boy, watch out.