“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” — Lao Tzu
Recently, I put on an event that made me very unpopular on my campus. The event defended the moral benefits of using hydrocarbons (fossil fuels), and was based on the book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and featured a lecture by Professor Pierre DesRochers from the University of Toronto. People were quite upset by our advertising -- when passing out flyers, students would give me dirty looks, make snide remarks, and even rip up the flyers I handed to them. There were an onslaught of nasty comments on the event on facebook, on the article I wrote about it, and on anything posted about it, really. I was called stupid and a “PR woman for big oil,” to which I say, I wish I was paid to do this, sir, but alas, I did it for free because I actually love the benefits oil brings my life. As a side note, the internet is full of charming human beings.
Why go through all of that? This event was one of my intellectual babies in my last year of college. Opposition to fossil fuels and the total demonization of the oil industry is pervasive on both sides of the (political) aisle and definitely not an issue anyone is willing to take on for fear of political suicide. Minus me, because I don’t care about politics. In fact, I hate politics, so I will happily commit political suicide. Fossil fuels play an essential role in making all of us wealthier, especially poor people in America, and people need to hear the reasons why we rely so much on fossil fuels to begin with. In my experience, not many people understand just how impoverished people in America were before they were able to diversify their food supply and avoid death and disease as much as they are today by using fossil fuels.
The closer I got to the actual event, the more worst-case-scenario thoughts I had. What if protestors show up and I can’t get them to calm down? What if someone berates or threatens the professor during his presentation? What if someone murders me while I’m on stage? Just like, whips out a gun and kills me, right there? What would I do? I knew this was unlikely, but I would be lying if I said the thoughts didn’t cross my mind, especially after seeing some people’s reactions to my advertising. When the time came for the event, something shocking happened: nothing. People were mostly intelligent and respectful throughout, and, in even more shocking news, I was not murdered on sight by crazed green energy advocates. In the end, I realized, people don’t really care that much about what you do. They only care when it’s convenient to care, when the cost is low. Sure, people will make nasty online comments because what is the cost to them? 10 seconds of time. What is the cost to actually do anything beyond that? Significantly more, and most people are too lazy for that, or hopefully, have better things to do. The reality of doing things other people don’t approve of is that no one is actually going to go out of their way to stop you. So the worst-case-scenario is actually just a mean comment here and there. That’s it.
So, the downside to standing up for your unpopular beliefs is some mean comments and some dirty looks. But the upside is infinite: it will set you free. I’m not exaggerating. Psychologically, there’s something about going through with a risky decision to show you just how little you actually have to lose to achieve something awesome. Or maybe not even something awesome, just something you want to do but are afraid to do. Once you realize that you’ll still have friends, you won’t be stabbed, and your life will ultimately only improve from doing what you want to do, suddenly you won’t be afraid anymore. I’ve written about risk-taking as a habit before, and this is why: the more you do it, the less afraid you’ll be, because it’s really not as scary as your anxiety may have you believe.
You gain real life skills by doing this, too. Doing unpopular things gives you thick skin and confidence. It’s easy to say that things don’t get to you, but when you receive criticism, it can definitely hurt, no matter how used to it you are. This teaches you how to let things roll off your shoulders. Sometimes you will be more vulnerable to the comments than other times, but those times will be the most valuable. That’s when you’ll learn the most about how to deal with negative responses to your work, something anyone who does meaningful work will have to deal with.
“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” ― Aristotle
Living life in an inoffensive way is almost entirely impossible, but more than impossible, it is boring. Anything substantive is going to garner criticism, especially in the age of comment warriors and Facebook arguments, when criticizing is easier than ever. You just need to realize that criticizing is easier than ever, meaning that while you are the one working your butt off, some lazy idiot eating cheetos on their couch has nothing stopping them from calling you all kinds of words on the internet. But who wins in that situation, you, or them? Who is doing the work and accomplishing things?
Being entirely innocuous also has downsides you would never know unless you took risks -- I mentioned that I was called names and given dirty looks, but what I did not mention was how many nice messages I got saying that I’m brave, intelligent, admirable, and other things. People stopped to talk to me on campus and told me I showed them a different side of the issue they had never seen before, and came up to me after the event and complimented me on it, even students who were from the divest from fossil fuels movement. It was really amazing to see people who care more about knowledge than they care about politics and it brought me more warmth than thousands of mean facebook comments could ever hurt me. I would have never gotten any of that if I hadn’t taken a risk -- you don’t get fan mail for doing nothing. Living an inoffensive life means no criticism, and it means no compliments, and no meaningful connections with intellectual people, and no warm feeling from working hard and following through on something.