What Do You Care What Other People Think?
by Elliot Temple

Originally posted on the Beginning of Infinity List, September 10, 2011

What do you care what other people think?

This is the title of a book by Richard Feynman. Feynman went against the grain and did things people thought badly of. He acted according to his own judgment, not the judgment of others. He didn't try to fit his life to impress and please people.

For example, Feynman was a genius physicist and he used to do physics work at a strip club. And he would try to downplay his own authority and genius and discourage anyone from believing anything just because he said it.

The title of the book can be read as advice to the reader. It can be read as challenging you to be more like Feynman.

That is a good meaning, but it's not the actual meaning. The book is named after a phrase that Feynmna's first wife often said to him.

Feynman used to care what people think. He had that flaw. His wife reminded him about it many times. With her help, and with his own mind, he eventually improved. It was hard for him and took a long time.

Even geniuses make mistakes. The reason Feynman is so impressive is not that he never makes mistakes. He has problems like the rest of us. The difference is he works at them. He tries to improve. Even if it takes a long time, he'll keep trying to get better.

You can get better, too. Anyone can. That's the more important lesson which Feynman wanted to communicate. That's why he didn't want to be treated as an authority. He's just a person like the rest of us. He's not out of reach, he's not special, he's a fallible human.

This has dual meanings. Flawed people can be great! And flawed people can improve!

When Feynman was a young physicist, nobody special, he sometimes met important physicists. A lot of people, when meeting someone impressive, will worry about what he thinks. They'll try to impress him, flatter him, agree with him, please him.

Feynman did something different. He criticized. He met a brilliant physicist and he thought some of the guy's ideas were wrong and he said so.

As a result, the physicist liked Feynman. He appreciated the honesty and found the criticism useful. He felt that most people wouldn't tell him when he had a bad idea. And he wanted to find out which of his ideas were bad so he could change them.

Feynman focussed on his judgement of the truth, not on the other person, and this was better for everyone. Feynman used his mind instead of turning it off and deferring to the other guy.

It's not important what people think. What's important is the truth. We can't know the truth directly, but we can use our minds to think about it. We should be concerned with our best judgment.

If someone disagrees with us, he can say why. If he has no reasons to give, we should not care. If he has reasons, we can judge them ourselves. We can change our minds if we think the idea he tells us is right, and not if not. This is the rational approach.

Trying to please other people, against one's judgment, is going against one's own mind. Our minds are the most important and best things we have. We should respect and use them.

The rational approach is all about persuasion. I should only change my mind if someone gives me a reason I judge is a good one. By doing it this way, at all times I follow my own best judgment. If I'm wrong, first I change my mind and second I act on my new ideas.

Another author who addressed this issue well is Ayn Rand. Her novel, _The Fountainhead_, examines people who live their lives second hand, through others. It's about the consequences of focussing one's life on other people, or not.

In one scene, the villain asks the hero, "What do you think of me?" The hero replies, "I don't think of you." They part ways, hardly speaking. The hero doesn't really concern himself with other people. The villain does.

The villain isn't self-sufficient. He gets bored and lonely because he wants people to appreciate his evil plans. Doing what he does for himself, and for its own sake, doesn't satisfy him. He cares what other people think.

The villain is a bad philosopher. He seeks to rule the world. He tries to get power over other men. Power is a tool for second handers. It's all about other people.

The villain's approach to gaining power is to collect men's souls. He makes tries to make them dependent rather than independent. He advocates altruism and sacrifice. He attacks reason and the mind.

Altruism is the philosophy of sacrificing the self for the sake of other people. The right attitude in life is to improve one's own life. People should not sacrifice themselves but try to be great, or at least do what they like (not what other people like, though it sometimes overlaps).

(For more of Elliot Temple's writing, visit www.fallibleideas.com )