A few years back, I read a story that’s stuck with with me ever since.
It was in one of the many “how to write better” resources (possibly The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, although that one’s still worth recommending regardless). In it, the author reminisced about something one of her university professors asked the class, which was:
“Are you waiting until your grandparents die before you write what you really want to say?”
It’s the kernel of truth in that statement that’s stayed with me — mainly because I can identify with it.
If you’re like me, your grandparents (and other family) have always taken a keen but passing interest in what you do for a living. And as much as you enjoy their support, you’d also be mortified if they knew what you really thought about anything.
So you auto-censor yourself.
Not just in terms of language or sentiment, but even your choices of topics and your stated beliefs.
You’d rather be interesting than honest.
The thought of your dear sweet grandmother suddenly discovering that you’re really a left-wing atheist who digs bondage (or whatever your personality may actually happen to be) is so debilitating, you’d prefer to table your truest beliefs and most darkly-held secrets until everyone who could possibly be embarrassed about your choices is safely dead.
Social media is a lot like that. Except here, everybody’s your grandmother, and you only feel comfortable offending them when you’re popular.
“If I were Seth Godin, I could say that…”
“If I were Chris Brogan, I could get away with that…”
“If I were iJustine, I could act like that…”
But you’ll never be any of them, because you’re you.
And so you type out your life of quiet desperation, waiting for all of your grandmothers to die — or to suddenly become exceedingly popular and, therefore, insulated from the arrows of ridicule and disagreement.
But here’s the funny part: Seth, Chris, Justine, etc., are still who they’ve always been.
What they know may have changed over time. Who they have access to has obviously expanded. And what they believe about the world may have evolved in conjunction with their own experiences.
But Seth didn’t become a marketing genius after he was popular; he’s always known what he’s talking about (unless you disagree with him, in which case, he’s always been a liar).
Chris didn’t become a nice guy who enjoys connecting people after he met a bunch of people; he met a bunch of people because he likes connecting them.
And Justine was a quirky exhibitionist long before the whole Internet was watching.*
The problem is not that you don’t yet have the clout to say what you really mean, or that you’re afraid of offending those who think better of you.
It’s that you have no idea what you really believe, or what you have to say.
Because if you did, you’d be speaking, acting and living the same way the idealized version of you would be doing.
So what’s stopping you?
At the risk of sounding self help-ish, here’s a fact: popularity — and grandmothers — come and go, but there’s only one you. Matter to someone, and you’ll end up mattering to everyone.
* Disclosure: I’ve known Chris and Justine since before they became who you think they are now, so I can vouch for their public evolution. I have yet to meet Seth in person, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. However, if I’m wrong and he really did get smart after he became more popular, I owe somebody a Coke.
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