By Theo Winter
In my time wading through the treacherous, murky waters of self-development literature trying desperately to make sense of what’s signal and what’s noise, what’s just a Band-Aid fix and what’s hitting upon deep truth, there’s one idea I think would make an excellent candidate for the Self-Help Hall of Fame, if such a thing existed — and it’s a rather peculiar concept that often goes under the 3-word headline No One Cares.
At first, it’s almost guaranteed to sound off-putting, perhaps a little depressing, possibly even twisted or cynical, but you heard right: People just don’t care about you anywhere near what you probably think. Bear with me, or rather, bear with the wisdom of the ages for a moment, because there’s more to this idea than meets the eye. Hordes of wisdom seekers will attest to the surprising power of this superficially sad-sounding fact, and so today I wanted to see if I could effectively summarise the essence of this life-changing idea.
A common, connecting thread you’ll find in modern self-help writing as well as ancient wisdom concerns the seemingly paradoxical liberation to be found in understanding the basic self-centredness of human beings. David Foster Wallace famously said that we rarely acknowledge our “natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.” Yet, we seem to be, in a certain undeniable sense, the centre of the universe: the fixed-axis around which the stuff of everything rotates. All of our knowledge, all that we understand about, well, everything, is funnelled into the container of our being. As we grow, we come to understand that other entities exist, creatures that look very much like us and presumably have rich interiors of their own, but those interiors can’t be accessed, just as others can’t access ours. Thus, the reference point for the thoughts and feelings of others, like everything else on the outside, is our impenetrable, insulated, self-contained singular consciousness, the thing we call “I” or “me.” And don’t we feel so… important?
We may deny it because it sounds ugly or unkind, a solipsistic view encouraging a dog-eat-dog world, but the natural self-centrism of humans neither necessitates selfish behaviour, nor should it justify a mean-spirited and corrosive organisational philosophy such as Social Darwinism (essentially, a “survival of the fittest” view applied to social groups). What we are talking about is a sound fact of life, one best recognised if we seek to deal with reality as it as — and especially, if we seek to deal effectively with others.
Consider the 1936 classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People” which is still considered by many to be the best treatise on “people skills” ever written, named by a Library of Congress survey as the 7th most influential book in American history. The author and father of the self-help movement, Dale Carnegie, hits bone with what I believe to be one of the most piercing observations about human nature:
“Remember that the people you are talking to are a hundred times more interested in themselves and their wants and problems than they are in you and your problems. A person's toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a million people. A boil on one's neck interests one more than forty earthquakes in Africa. Think of that the next time you start a conversation.”
While there are, at any given time, millions (if not billions) on this planet living in what might be described charitably as appalling conditions, this suffering is likely to barely register as anything more than faint background static when a delay in restaurant service triggers our emotional state viscerally, powerfully — because it’s happening right now, to me. How dare my steak not have arrived at this time?
It doesn’t mean we’re all evil narcissists, incapable of genuine empathy or compassion. It’s not to suggest that your mother is just pretending to like you. The idea isn’t No One — Literally, No One — Cares You Foul-Smelling Putrid Worthless Scrawny Dingus Brain. It just means that the things which are nearest to us affect us most deeply, and nothing is nearer to us than ourselves.
The downside to not being able to get out of ourselves is the inflated sense of significance that can develop — thinking that others care about the things going on in our lives as much as we do. It’s only natural to believe that we — you know, the most central thing in the entirety of existence — play a dominant role in the thought-scapes of other people’s minds. Because, if there’s one thing humans care about to a ridiculous degree, it’s what others care about.
“… it’s a defining paranoia of the human species. We share a collective insanity that pervades human cultures throughout the world: An irrational and unproductive obsession with what other people think of us.”
— Tim Urban
Like most profound insights, there is usually some philosophy, mental model, or cognitive bias that has already been identified, catalogued, and written about by someone, somewhere in the academic world, and this discussion is no different. The tendency to believe that others pay more attention to you than is really the case — including your mistakes, slip ups, and deep inner insecurities — is known in social psychology as the Spotlight Effect.
Shane Parrish over at the decision-makers paradise known as the Farnam Street Blog touches on this bias in a related discussion on The Illusion of Transparency (the tendency to overestimate how much others know about what you're thinking/feeling) and notes:
“The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think... No one really cares. Or almost no one. If you’ve got food stuck between your teeth or you stutter during a speech or you’re exhausted at work, you might as well assume no one has noticed. Most of the time, they haven’t.”
For more about the "No One Cares" concept, I would also recommend the following video by Alain de Botton. You may or may not be familiar with Alain (if not, what are you even doing with your life, you silly dingus brain?), who runs the School of Life, an organisation similarly committed to promoting emotional intelligence, and he’s probably the best-known philosopher in the public eye. I am epically grateful for the hours of content I’ve profited from over the years via The School of Life — to the point where I can hear Alain’s voice in my head whenever I read something he’s written. And incidentally, my New Year’s resolution was prompted by revisiting one of my favourite School of Life videos, which is to be "less concerned with lesser things." (By which I mean petty things like being upset over having to wait in line, dealing with slow internet speed, being interrupted at work, or wondering what colour shirt will best highlight my already absolutely gorgeous complexion. My mum thinks I’m funny. Sometimes.)
I’ve extracted a few choice bits from the 7-minute video below.
We’re certain that the sales attendant noticed how out of shape our stomach is. The people in the restaurant where we’re eating alone are undoubtedly spending considerable time wondering why we have no friends. The concierge is obsessing that we aren’t posh enough for his establishment and probably won’t be able to pay the bill. At work, they’re still dwelling on that slightly stupid thing we said last month about the US sales strategy. A person we went to bed with four years ago is to this day thinking ill of us in some powerful but undefined way...
In other words, when we take our own minds as a guide, we get a far more accurate – and far less oppressive – vision of what’s likely to be going on the heads of others when they encounter us, which is, in the nicest way, not very much...
It’s not that we – or they – are horrible. Our lacking of caring isn’t absolute. If we really saw a stranger in trouble in the water, we would dive in. When a friend is in tears, we are sympathetic. It’s just that for the most part, we need to filter. Our everyday lack of care occurs for a perfectly sane and forgivable reason: we need to spend most our waking energies on navigating, and doing justice to, our own intimate concerns...
We may fail, but we can believe with new certainty that almost no one will give a damn if we do.