There were a couple situations in my own life recently where, to any outside observer, it looked like everything was going perfectly fine for a certain person, but once you got inside and learned the whole story, you found out just how bad things really were for them. But then I realized that we don’t usually treat people based on what’s really going on . . . we treat them based on what we think is going on. And the difference between those two can be huge.
I just watched Crash for the first time this weekend. It’s a very good movie, dealing with the issues of perception and reality in terms of race relations in the city of L.A. over a two-day period. Watching that made me think about just how much we judge others based on a fleeting glimpse of their lives. Is that fair? Unfair? I’m not sure I know the answer. But it’s a question worth discussing, I think.
In order to discuss this concept, I’ll have to use some examples from my own life. These are things that not many people know about me, but I’ll reveal them now because they illustrate my point. Here we go:
I sometimes play poker online while I’m writing articles for ItStartsWith.Us. I can picture the shocked faces on some people right now. “He says he’s changing the world, but he’s really just a gambler!” Would it make it better if I told you that I only invested a tiny amount of my own money, I earned it right back, and now I’m just playing with house money? And that I play not because I want to gamble, but because I enjoy the challenge of the game, and running all the numbers and probabilities in my head as I play helps keep my mind limber? I don’t know – maybe that makes it seem “better,” and maybe it doesn’t.
But then again, what about the fact that I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs? None of them, not a single time, not once in my entire life. Does that make me any “better?” Or, like playing poker, is it simply a lifestyle choice?
Speaking of lifestyle choices, how easy is for us to make snap decisions about a person based on their dress, the way they talk, or where they live? Super easy, but is it always accurate? I’m not sure about the answer to that one either. I would venture to guess that most of the time those generalizations serve us pretty well, but I’d be very hesitant to stake anything of real value on my initial evaluation of a person. And that extends even further when we’re dealing with online personas instead of interacting with someone in real life. It’s pretty easy to craft an online identity that only shows people the “you” that you want them to see.
Take me, for instance. What can you infer about me based on my writing on this site and my interaction with people on the various social media platforms? I’m not talking about my core values (making a positive impact in the lives of others), which you can see in action every day. I’m talking about any assumptions you may make about my lifestyle based on the very limited cues you see or hear about.Based on the content of my writing, the scope of this project, and the caliber of the company I keep, it may surprise you to know that I am a product of the inner city. I grew up amid gangs, guns, drugs, prostitutes . . . the whole works. I came close to death more than once as a kid in the hood. I’ve been caught in crossfire on the street. I was one second away from having my throat slit on the basketball court up at the park where I learned to play basketball. Of course I couldn’t tell my parents that at the time, because they would have never let me go back.
Does any of that show up in my writing? If you can pick it out, I’d be pretty impressed. But it’s not because I’m trying to hide any of that stuff – it’s just that it’s usually not pertinent to the conversation. I’m telling you here and now, though, because it is pertinent. Because the other day I was reamed out via email over my choice to post a link on Twitter to the hip-hop song I was listening to. I was told that with the amount of influence I have (chuckle), I need to set a good example for everyone. Which I agree with, but no more or less than I would agree with it even if I didn’t have a public platform where my choices were out in the open for all to see. I try my hardest to live my life the best way I can every single day, and yes, I listen to rap and hip-hop. It was part of my environment growing up, and it’s still part of me today. Does listening to that kind of music set a poor example for people? I don’t think so, but others disagree.
And what happens if I try to cater to everyone who tells me the kind of example I should be setting? Next thing you know, I’ll have to hide the fact that I’m a college dropout, because that doesn’t set a good example for young people. And if I have to hide that stuff, does that mean I should go out of my way to promote the “good” lifestyle choices I make, like the no drinking/smoking/drugs situation?
Do you see how quickly this can escalate into utter stupidity? To give another real-life example of how extreme this can get, I was unfollowed by someone on Twitter because I mentioned that my three-year-old was pecked a few times by an angry rooster . . . and I laughed about it. God forbid, right? (Note to self: never again make light of animals getting irritated with my children.)
In terms of money, there are people who tell me I should be making a ton of money with this project, and there are those who tell me that I shouldn’t be making any at all. The truth (rather unfortunately for me) is that I haven’t yet made a dime from this project, nor have I yet tried. But this year I will, because I love it too much and put far too much time into it to justify not making it self-sustainable.
Here’s another thing: I buy my tee shirts from Walgreens. For $1.99. Sometimes they have holes in them. These are the clothes I wear, and these are the clothes I will be wearing to one of the Top 10 most renowned and expensive restaurants in the world come June. And yes, I’ll be paying for it. And no, I don’t really even like to eat. I don’t care much for fancy restaurants, either. So if I’m so poor, why am I springing for a $200/plate dinner? There could be a lot of reasons, but for now, they are my own. And if you tried to guess what they were, you’d probably be wrong.
So why have I rambled on about all this for so long? To illustrate two points:
1) I’m not the only one who’s this complicated. We all are. Assuming you understand people’s internal motivations and beliefs . . . thinking you know who they are based on some small observations and large stereotypes can be a dangerous thing. I think we’d all do well to give people the benefit of the doubt and withhold any harsh judgment until we’ve gotten the chance to know them a little bit better.
2) If you’re okay with who you are and what you’re about, you shouldn’t be afraid to share that with people. (If you’re not okay with who you are, you have some bigger fish to fry.) There are always going to be people who think you should live your life a certain way . . . usually the way they do. Trouble is, you’re not them, and you never will be. So stop trying to make everything you do okay with everyone else. You’re never going to measure up in their eyes, and if you keep compromising who you are, you’re never going to measure up in your own, either. Better to always live the best you can, and stay true to yourself in the process.
In this, the first post of the year on ItStartsWith.Us, I’d like to humbly offer this advice: What we see is not always reality – it is our perception of reality. The actual truth may be much, much different than we think it is. So let’s give the people we meet this year a large measure of grace and the benefit of the doubt, because we never really know what’s going on inside them, do we?
I’ve let you in on a little more of who I am today, and now I’d like to hear a bit more about you. What are some of the seeming contradictions in your life that people may rush to a snap judgment about? This is typical, but is it fair? What do you think?