“Sometimes you’ve got to be able to listen to yourself and be okay with no one else understanding.”
Christopher Barzak (Author, One for Sorrow)
“Listen, smile, agree, and then do whatever the f*ck you were going to do anyway.”
Robert Downey, Jr. (Actor, Iron Man)
“Do not follow the ideas of others, but learn to listen to the voice within yourself.”
Dōgen Zenji (Founder, Sōtō School of Zen)
I could feel their eyes burning against my face.
I looked over.
They hated me.
I’d spent the first two years of high school carefully trying to get the cool kids to like me.
I’m not sure what made them cool.
That’s not true.
I knew what made them cool. They dressed better than me and all the hot girls hung out with them.
They knew how to act cool.
They knew how to act like they didn’t care.
I always cared too much.
I wanted people to like me. I wanted to be successful. And it showed.
We had just finished a week of baseball tryouts. I loved baseball. It was a fun game. I grew up playing it and was pretty good.
The coaches called us in at the end of the last day. It was time for them to tell us who made varsity, who made junior varsity, and who didn’t make the team at all.
It was also picture day.
I was called to the varsity team. So was one other kid my age. We were the only sophomores that made varsity. All of the cool sophomores made junior varsity.
I could feel the cool kids hating me as I lined up to take pictures with the varsity team.
One of the cool kids was a good friend of mine.
He came up to me in the locker room after pictures and told me how angry the cool kids were at me.
They think you’re a kiss up.
They don’t think you have enough talent to be on varsity.
They don’t think it’s fair.
Did you ever have a friend like that? Someone who was cooler than you that would tell you what the cool kids thought of you?
He was like some kind of cool kid spy.
I started to ask questions and explain myself.
They’re really mad? Why? I didn’t do anything. Do you think I should just play on the junior varsity team instead? Tell them that I didn’t do anything wrong.
I actually said these things.
I get more pathetic.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I was strung out on nervous energy.
I really wanted to be on varsity but I also really wanted to be popular. My friend’s voice and the voices of the other cool kids kept playing in my head.
Their voices drowned out my voice.
Over the next few weeks I downplayed my abilities in practice until the coaches moved me onto the junior varsity team.
I knew what I was doing but I didn’t.
What I mean is…
I didn’t actively play worse. I just passively didn’t try as hard.
My heart wasn’t in it.
The cool kids told me I didn’t belong and I believed them. And then…
I started acting like I didn’t belong.
I finally snapped out of this peer pressure-induced funk during the last few weeks of the season.
The coaches put me back on varsity.
But the damage was done.
Most of the season was over.
Negative People Overload Your Nervous System
You can’t listen to and understand two people talking at the same time.
Sure, you can listen to them talk simultaneously.
But you’ll never completely understand everything both people are saying.
You might be thinking that you could totally do this.
But thinking you can do it is normal. You think you can listen to and understand two people talking at the same time because you almost can.
Listening to someone speak requires your nervous system to process about 60 bits of information per second.
Here’s the problem…
60 bits is more than half of the total number of bits your brain can process at any one time.
In the book, Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience, Dr. Csikszentmihalyi explains how the human nervous system is incapable of processing more than 110 bits of information per second.
60 + 60 = 120
Imagine you have a very difficult decision to make. You have two options and you have to choose one.
One person whose opinion you really respect tells you to choose option A.
A second person whose opinion you also really respects tells you to choose option B.
Now you’re in trouble.
These two people’s opinions are going to play over and over in your mind.
You’re going to be in the middle of two simultaneous, equally weighted conversations.
Your nervous system cannot easily entertain numerous opinions at once.
Sure, you can easily entertain numerous opinions separately, discarding those that don’t matter until you’ve zeroed in on the one opinion that matters most.
But you can’t easily entertain more than one heavily-weighted opinion at a time.
The burden is too great.
It takes extreme mental effort.
Yet, most people spend their entire lives entertaining the opinions of others.
They let other people’s voices play in their heads all day long.
It’s like these people are hosting screaming matches in their brains.
Then these same people wonder why they’re always stressed out and exhausted.
They wonder why they can never make up their minds about anything.
The truth is…
These people would be better off ignoring everyone and just listening to the one opinion that matters most—their own.
5 Ways To Increase Your Focus
Your opinion always matters most.
You’ll never be able to listen to and understand your voice if you’re already listening to the voices of others.
Listening to yourself is the key to focusing your life.
It’s the key to getting the things you really want, not the things that others want for you.
The only way to start hearing your voice again is to start eliminating the negative, distracting voices that are clogging your brain.
1. Avoid people who complain.
Too many people think that talking obsessively about their problems is healthy.
They think that whining is a sign of emotional intelligence.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease…
The squeaky wheel breaks.
The squeaky wheel gets replaced.
Complainers (and people who indulge complainers) fail.
Complaining is not emotional intelligence, it’s emotional stupidity.
The more complaining you allow in your life, the more distracted you will become. The more overloaded your nervous system will become.
Stop stuffing your nervous system with garbage.
Cut the complainers out of your life.
2. Never listen to unsolicited opinions.
People are going to attack you with their opinions.
They’re going to throw them in your face, toss them in your lap, and stuff them in your ears.
They’ll give you puppy dog eyes and beg you to listen. They’ll act hurt or angry or disappointed if you don’t listen.
Unsolicited opinions are worthless.
It doesn’t matter if the opinion comes from a billionaire or a bum. Either way, it’s value is zero.
The only thing that makes an opinion valuable is if you want it, understand it, and apply it to the right part of your life.
I know I know…
What if someone really needs my advice and they don’t know they need it?
Or, what if I really need advice and don’t know that I need it?
Get better at asking for other people’s advice. Get better at asking the right people the right things at the right time.
But don’t give people free reign to smother you in their opinions.
Don’t wade through a pile of crap day in and day out hoping that someone is going to randomly give you a life changing pearl.
3. Actively eliminate problem-focused people from your life.
The line between negativity and critical thinking is not thin.
Externalizing your thoughts is healthy. Difficult discussions are healthy.
But there’s a clear difference between discussing a situation and making a situation worse.
Negative people go into a discussions looking to find problems and stay focused on them.
Positive people go into discussions looking to find problems and solve them.
Give your nervous system a break.
Eliminate negative, problem-focused people from your life.
Make room for positive, solution-focused people instead.
4. Prioritize people based on their actions.
Your life isn’t a charity or a circus.
You weren’t put on this Earth to freely give away your attention to people and things who give you nothing in return but pain.
You weren’t put here to engage in meaningless drama for no reason.
If you want to achieve anything great in life, you need to be very deliberate with who you give your attention to.
This is especially true when you’re seeking advice.
Don’t value someone’s opinion just because they’re a friend or family member.
Don’t value someone’s opinion just because you’re comfortable with them.
Instead, ask yourself…
Is this person successful in this specific area? What results have they achieved? What do their actions, not their words, say?
If you don’t know the answer to something, by all means—seek counsel.
But seek it discriminately.
Get money advice from people who are good with money.
Get relationship advice from people who are good at relationships.
Don’t, on the other hand, get advice from some loser friend just because he won’t judge you harshly.
That’s a recipe for disaster.
5. Only give people two chances.
That’s all you should give people.
The first time they treat you poorly, let it slide. Maybe you misunderstood them. Maybe they were just in a bad mood.
The second time they do it, sit down and have an authentic, one-on-one conversation.
Offer up your shortcomings in the situation first. Show the other person you really want to improve the relationship.
If you’ve made a real effort (only you will know if you have) and the door gets slammed in your face over and over again, then it’s time to step away.
Some people will never like you. Some people are just negative.
When you come across these people, drop them cold.
Stop wasting your valuable attention on negative people who never do anything for you expect distract you and drag you down.
Instead, get surgical.
Cut them out with no strings attached.
Forget their pleas and excuses. Refuse to get sucked back in. Be done.
Take back your focus.
Check out my book of personal and professional advice, Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Create A Powerful Purpose For Their Lives.