The Ridiculousness of the “I’m Not Impressed” Facebook Comment

Facebook can be a…uh…special place.  People behave in ways I cannot imagine them behaving in the flesh.  I don’t think this is good or bad, it just is.  Still, it makes for some rather odd and entertaining moments.

The other day I shared a quote from a young college opt-out with whom I was emailing:

“I dropped out of university when I was 19. I had lots of friends there. My grades were great. My future was bright. But I was unhappy and restless. Most of all, I was feeling unfulfilled. So instead of taking out student loans and finishing my degree, I quit.

We talk a lot about “living intentionally.” But during my unfulfilling time at uni, I really came to understand what that means. Going to university right out of high school just because “that’s what you’re supposed to do” isn’t living intentionally. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted out of life, and it occurred to me that perhaps I would be just as clueless and lost upon graduation day.

I didn’t have a business idea or plan for what to do when I quit. I didn’t have a job lined up. I quit uni “the wrong way” according to most people. It was “the risky way,” “the stupid way.” But I survived. I made it work. And I’ve loved every second of the adventure so far.

We’re hardwired for thinking that taking risks and making changes will only end in disaster. We like certainty. We like predictability. We like routines. But there’s a certain danger in routine. Those things that we can “do in our sleep” run the risk of luring us into a slumber we may never wake up from. So I’ll take the discomfort of uncertainty over the slumber of routine each chance I get.”

Cool, right?  It seemed pretty self-evident that I shared this because I thought it was inspiring and some of the many other young people I know who are slowly decaying in college but are afraid to buck social and parental pressure might take heart in her story.

It got some likes and shares, and then this comment popped up:

“This sort of thing brings out the grumpy old man in me. She quit college at 19 and now she all of 20 and not dead yet. What an inspiration! Insert sardonic face here. How much of a risk is she taking? I bet she has parents backstopping her. And I’m supposed to be inspired by her and follow her on Twitter and soak up all her wisdom? Give me a break. I’ll change my tune when she actually, you know, does something.”

I couldn’t help but laugh.  So many hilarious thoughts went through my head.  I don’t normally respond to comments, but considering this girl was insulted by a stranger after I shared her story, I thought I’d post something to stick up for her just a bit.  I had a lot of ideas for responses, but opted to keep it simple with this:

“I think you underestimate just how much pressure young people face to unthinkingly go to college whether they gain anything from it or not. I share this not because this young lady has “arrived”, whatever that means, but because it takes a ton of courage to stop and think about your own life and live it on your terms instead of the conveyor belt you’re pressured into.

Anyone who’s not just bobbing in the current deserves respect.”

There was so much more to say about the comment though.  Here are some of the other responses I considered…

Thanks for your comment!  Maybe, just maybe, you aren’t the intended audience. Maybe you don’t need to follow her on Twitter for inspiration. Maybe middle-aged dudes who are not facing challenges similar to a 19-year-old aren’t supposed to be inspired by her.  Maybe somewhere, some other 19-year-old hates school and is scared to death to face the social pressure of doing something more tailored to her.  Or maybe she should be chastised for not doing something impressive to you yet…

Thanks for your comment!  I wonder what “done something” means?  Could you define what activities and achievements this young lady must complete before she is allowed to have a website or talk about her story in her about section?  What challenges are big enough that she should be allowed to talk about them?  To what authorities should she appeal before sharing her journey or posting a Tweet?

Thanks for your comment!  You’re right, no one is really inspiring who hasn’t succeeded.  Then again, what’s the definition of success if not living a fulfilling life with pride in your choices and accomplishments?  If she earned a million dollars and hated her life and felt shame for her choices, would she be inspiring?  She clearly said this was a big challenge for her to overcome, she did it, and now she’s happy.  Is that not success because you think that challenge would have been easy for someone else?

Thanks for your comment!  FWIW, this young lady is working at a business in Poland right now and started her own accent reduction service for non-native English speakers on the side.  But that’s not relevant.  What’s relevant is that you were offended by the fact that her story was not directly inspiring to you.  Sorry about that!  In the future I’ll make sure to ask if what I post is personally inspiring to you, even if you’re not the intended audience.  I’ll also advise this young woman to seek your permission before feeling proud or sharing her story in the future.

Thanks for your comment!  Let me see if I can boil down the heart of it in summary:  You’re upset because something someone posted to Facebook doesn’t inspire you.  Your post could be shortened a bit to, “I’m not impressed.”  Got it.

Thanks for your comment!  Though it does bring out the grumpy young man in me.  So you’re all of middle-aged-something, you shot down a young stranger’s story on Facebook, and you’re not dead yet.  What, you want me to follow you on Twitter now to soak up more of your dismissive derision?  Please.  Call me when you’ve, you know, done something that piques my interest.

I decided not to post any of those.  It seemed like it would have been mean.  Plus, the Facebook inspiration police might have swarmed and pointed out with deep insight and profound erudition that they’re not impressed anyway.  That would have been crushing.

Check out this podcast episode about call-out culture and the dangers of playing the critic:

Episode 2: TK Coleman on Comments, Critics, and Call-Out Culture


What If My Kids End Up As Failures?

I write and podcast a lot about unschooling, entrepreneurship, liberty, living a free and self-directed life, etc.  Because of this it’s easy to feel pressure regarding my own kids.  What if they don’t turn out all right?  What if they become unhappy status-driven school-loving commies?  Wouldn’t that invalidate everything I talk about?

From a logical standpoint, no.  A person who secretly eats meat can have sound and compelling arguments for vegetarianism.  A person who could never play quarterback might be a great coach.  A bad mother might be a good thinker.

True, most people might ignore all ideas from someone whose life they don’t admire.  Post a good quote from a controversial famous person and you’re likely to have more people condemn the person than the quote.  Whether or not it’s fair, it will happen.

I’ve always been bothered by this way of evaluating ideas.  My arguments are either interesting and useful or they’re not, regardless of my unseemly personal tendencies like the occasional wearing of jorts.  I don’t feel much personal pressure to behave in any particular way in hopes that it makes my writing more appealing.  I can’t imagine doing so.  What a yoke to live under!  Yuck.

With kids it’s different.  Not in kind, but in degree.  The idea that what my kids do with their lives should be a determinant of whether what I write is good or bad strikes me as vastly more offensive.

If I’m a theist and my kids grow up atheists does that make me a failure?  Does it invalidate theism?  I may be a failure and theism may be invalid, but not because of what beliefs and behaviors my kids adopt.

If we were to say that me or my ideas could be considered bogus if my kids did not adopt them and mirror my life, what would we really be saying about children?  The implication is that a child is not an autonomous being capable of making choices and forming beliefs – good or bad.  The implication is that children are sponges who ought to and do, if properly trained, become whatever their parents wish them to be.  This is an idea I find disgusting.

Whatever environment we create for our kids they still have the freedom to choose the kind of life they want to live.  They have to go through their own process of discovery.  My hope is that, if we can maximize opportunities, minimize impediments, and avoid emotional damage, it will be easier for them to choose to live free and wonderful lives.  But here’s the kicker: free and wonderful must be defined by them, not me.

True, non-envious, non-manipulative love is when you desire other people to experience happiness on their own terms.  It’s pretty hard, but when you feel it it is delightful.  It’s like you get to live additional lives when you can truly take joy in other people taking joy.

Yes, I feel waves of panic from time to time when I consider how my own kids might choose to live their lives, both now and in the future.  But I fight it.  I take that pressure off myself as best I can.

I don’t feel obligated to have my kids be or think or do anything in particular in order to validate things I think and live.  They can choose whatever they want.  They’re on a journey to find truth just like I am.  Their journey can’t invalidate mine, nor mine theirs.

Consider the Costs (and Benefits) of Entrepreneurial Failure

From the Praxis blog, reposted here since I’m on the theme of failure lately.

photo-624x370Most new ventures fail.  In fact, depending on how you define failure and what data you look at, entrepreneurial failure rates can be as high as 95%.  That sounds terrifying.  The costs of failure should not be overlooked when considering an entrepreneurial path.  But neither should the benefits.

Data about startups end with the word failure.  But what actually happens to the people who launch them?  Is their life over?  Do they come out worse than they went in?

When I was 19 my brother and I started our first business.  We installed telephone and computer cables back before wi-fi made it mostly unnecessary.  The business lasted less than a year.  We had a few good jobs installing and terminating fiber optic cables (a service we sold, even though we’d never done it before.  We learned.  It’s not as exciting as it sounds), but many of our “jobs” consisted of me doing landscaping for relatives.  I like to think I made their yards beautiful, but it was mostly charity on their part.

Novius failed.  But I didn’t fail, and neither did my brother.  I made a decent living for those nine months, I learned more than I’d ever learned, especially about people and businesses and how they operate (try cold-call selling people on data cable installation).  Our few customers got a good service at a good price and were happy.  A few relatives got some flower boxes.  I learned how to have confidence in myself and my ability, even if the business I ran wasn’t going well – that was the hardest and probably most valuable lesson.  We came out ahead.  Not really financially, but in terms of being closer to where we wanted to be in life.

There are ventures that could wipe you out.  There are ventures that could destroy your reputation, or your credit, or your relationships.  But those are rare.  Especially today when technology has made startup costs so low (Novius emails were @sbcglobal, because even ten years ago it was not so cheap to have your own email domain).  Various crowdfunding and investment tools let you wait until you know you’ll reach a certain level of capital, or customers, before any real resources are at stake.  The costs of entrepreneurial failure are falling.

The psychological costs remain high.  You have to be able to see your venture as an exploration, not as an indication of your worth as a person.  You have to simultaneously be so passionate about your idea that you can’t stop working on it, but so open about what might happen that failure won’t kill you.

If you make a go of it and fail, it is possible to reap amazing rewards in the process.  The analogies are endless.  95% of first attempts to ride a bike probably fail.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever ride a bike, or that you should wait until first-try success rates get higher.

If you are only interested in launching something that has a very high chance of success, it’s probably not a good idea to pursue it.  Failure will ruin you.  If, on the other hand, you are so excited about an idea, product, service, or vision that you feel you must give it a go even if it fails, just to discover for yourself whether it’s doable, then it’s probably not a bad idea to try it.  Ask yourself, “If I knew this idea was going to fail, but I didn’t know how or why, would I feel better having tried it to learn those things than never having tried at all?”  If the answer is yes, try it.

There’s a point at which repeated failures can begin to accumulate costs.  If you’re the person who always has a great new idea you can’t stop talking about, then two months later you never speak a word of it but focus on the latest idea, it will diminish your credibility fast.  The costs don’t come so much from failing, but from how you go about trying to succeed, how many other people’s assets you risk, who you blame and how you respond to failure.

Be real with yourself about the costs of entrepreneurial failure.  But be real about the benefits too.  How many people who make up the failure statistics are doing great stuff and living wonderful lives right now, in part because of the failure they created?  Sometimes the best way to the next level is to fail up.

There’s no rush.  Take time to immerse yourself in a lot of experiences, gain a lot of knowledge and self-knowledge, and poke your toe in the waters of the world a bit.  If you get bit by the entrepreneurial bug at some point, be realistic but don’t fear the failure.  It might be the best route to your goals.

Failure Does Not Make You a Failure

“I can’t afford to fail.”  A young person recently told me this.  He was deciding whether to try something he was really excited about, but that was new and different (not even particularly risky).  He meant it.  It was clear that he saw this as a make or break moment in his life, and it broke my heart.  You can afford to fail.  In fact, you can’t afford to avoid failure.

I’m not sure all the causes, though I believe schooling is a very deep part of the root system, but young people are terrified of failure.  It’s completely backwards.  Never in human history has there been such a soft landing.  Never has it been easier to recover.  When a business or an event or a project fails it doesn’t mean you fail.  In fact, a failed business can be the surest path to personal success.  If you don’t let it ruin you.

Failure is not catastrophic.  It’s just a part of the process of success.  You try to ride a bike and you fall down.  You try to play video games and you lose.  Kids seem able to recover from failure at these pretty easily.  Maybe because their parents don’t care and don’t show anxiety and anger and send them into remedial video game classes and summer camps.  Whatever the reason, there’s something to be taken from these failures.  Apply that same nonchalance to life.  Life is nothing but a series of games.

The desire to succeed and frustration at failure is normal and can be productive and motivating, but only when you’re doing something you know you want to be doing.  The real killer is crippling fear of failing at some arbitrary standard set by someone else, or fear of what other people will think even when you don’t really care about the end goal itself.  When exploring and learning something new, failure is to be expected.  Don’t internalize it.  Learn from it, laugh at it, and move on.

One you’ve gained some level of mastery, then competitive pressure and desire to be perfect can be helpful.  I read about a study where pool players were observed.  When they were told they were being observed and judged the amateur pool players started playing a lot worse.  The really good players started playing better.  We need a lot of judgement free space to explore and learn and decide what we like and get better at it.  Self-judgement needs to be the first to go.  After you’ve mastered something you can choose to take failure personally if it helps you and motivates you, but not before.

I think a lot of people are scared of entrepreneurship because they hear statistics about what percent of new businesses fail.  But notice what’s happening here.  You hear that a business failed, and in your mind you subtly converge the business with the founder and assume that the founder failed.  You assume if you start a business odds say it will fail, and therefore you will fail and you don’t want to fail.  But that’s not what happens.  When a business fails the people involved don’t fail.  They typically walk away with some great experience, knowledge, new connections, sometimes even money.

Stop being afraid of failure.  Stop worrying about being average or above average on some arbitrary scale created by someone besides yourself.  Freely explore and try things and learn things and get better at the stuff you love.  You’ve got to stop avoiding failure if you want to succeed.

When it’s Good to be a Failure

I’m a failure according to my own definition.

The current me doesn’t think I’m a failure – I’m pretty happy about where I’m at in life and feel I’m doing what I love at the moment. It’s one of the versions of me from the past that thinks I’m a failure.

There was a time (I shudder to recall) when I thought being an elected politician was the way to live and spread freedom. I went to work in the legislature to see how to become a lawmaker. During that time I met a lot of people who didn’t know me before and haven’t kept up since. They knew the Isaac who defined success as being an elected official. Friends and relatives saw me working in politics and could foresee what a successful end in that realm looked like in their minds. For these people, my life won’t be a success until I achieve what I was then pursuing.

Along the way I learned more about myself. My goals didn’t change, just the way I visualized achieving them. I was pursuing a certain ideal and a bundle of sensations. I was pursuing freedom. I was incapable of imagining anything but a crude vision of political freedom, and my worldview was so simple I thought politicians created it. Therefore I wanted to be one. Freedom is still what I want, but with more experience and knowledge I have come to believe being involved in politics would be the worst possible way to achieve it. My definition of success morphed.

This happens all the time with humans. A child may say he wants to be a firefighter only because in his world, firefighter is one of the four or five options he can imagine. It’s the one that makes him feel the most excited and good about helping people.

As they grow, children learn about a huge range of activities in the world and realize that, to achieve the feeling they desire, firefighting is an inferior method to being a paramedic, a teacher, an entrepreneur, or an X-Games athlete. It’s not that we sell out on our dreams, it’s just that our dreams were crude representations of what we thought we wanted.  When we learn more, we make different decisions. C.S. Lewis talks about the, “[I]gnorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Once we learn what’s possible, we laugh at what we previously thought of as the ultimate achievement. This growth is all well and good until we confront people from our past who have us locked in to our previous dreams.

Sometimes people ask me when I’m going to be president, and no matter what answer I give, it seems to them like a cop-out or excuse for my own failure. They refuse to believe me when I say I wouldn’t wish political office on my worst enemy, let alone myself. They think I’m being modest.

I have a friend who went to Hollywood wanting to be an actor and now realizes his creative energies are far broader. People back home always want to know when they’ll see him on the big screen. We sometimes joke that someday, when he has millions and is producing, directing, writing and doing whatever he wants in life, his friends back home will say, “Haven’t seen you on TV…you just haven’t caught that break yet, huh?”

It can be a little weird to describe how and why your dreams and definitions of success change over time. A lot of people don’t actually want to know. They just want to know if you’re Governor yet, or an Oscar winning actor. That’s alright. Don’t fret over it and don’t spend too much energy trying to convince them you’re really not a failure. If they insist on defining success they way you did before you knew better, just let them think you’re a failure and laugh at the absurdity.

If I’m a failure for not being the silly thing I once wanted to be, it’s good to be a failure.