Are You Waiting Until You’re Popular Before You Start Being Relevant?

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.

Bummer.

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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  • whitneyhoffman

    Fantastic post.
    The “fraternity” of folks who've been around blogging and podcasting for a few years know that the best way to succeed in any of this social media stuff is to be yourself, be honest, and do what you do best. It may be dressed up in pixels and computers and tech, but in the end, it's always been about adding your unique voice and getting heard and acknowledged.
    Yet I know I've said it, I've heard CC Chapman, Chris Penn, Chris Brogan and others constantly say it- you'll do best online when you know yourself- when you can be the best You you can be, and stop trying to become someone else. That means knowing your strengths, and working with them. It means finding out what you can contribute. And that's not always easy if you constantly have a ruler out, measuring yourself by a perceived vision of someone else's life.
    I certainly have mentors, and I liberally adopt tips and tricks from others, but it's in using them and making them my own that lets my voice shine through. I don't want to be a carbon copy of anyone else.

    Shakespeare may have said, “All the World's a Stage” but he certainly did not write a script for all the characters in it – you are in charge of your own script and how your own story will evolve over time.

    Thanks for another great piece.

  • http://funkydung.com/ Eric Williams

    Sometimes self-censorship serves an important personal and societal purpose. Use of internal editors make interactions in society bearable and protect fragile bonds of friendship.

    How? It keeps us from venting our worst thoughts on everyone. It helps us be considerate of others feelings, opinions, and convictions.

    In daily personal encounters and traditional media, we can avoid pissing everyone off by tailoring our expressions to different audiences. Have a friend that doesn't like to talk about politics? Fine. Respect her wishes and talk about politics with other people. Would Grandma be scandalized by your fondness for bondage? Fine. Don't express that fondness around her or in media she is likely to consume.

    Social media make this compartmentalization rather difficult. For instance, I have a rather diverse group of friends on Twitter. Some are cool Burghers I've met. Some are random funny people. Some are really into politics. They don't always have overlapping interests or tolerances. Many are the times that a political discussion or debate I'm having with one tweep or group of tweeps endangers my connection with other tweeps. If I cross a line with them, or just overwhelm them with politics, they may stop following me. Now, I don't mean to say that my fragile ego would be crushed to lose them. Rather, I do not wish do drive away one group of friends/friendly acquaintances because of my interactions with another.

    I don't really know what the resolution to this problem is, or where I want to go with this comment. I guess I just wanted to point out how hard it is to just be ourselves in an increasingly decompartmentalized, fire hose media stream social networking world.

    I'm fine embracing my identity as “lovable asshole”, ala Bill Murray, but I have to maintain the lovable part somehow. ;)

    Know what I mean?

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    All true, but asking each other to live lives of self-censorship
    places the value on insulating other people's sensibilities, rather
    than on our own individualism.

    If we all said what we meant, we'd all know where we stood.

    If we all disagreed, we could start to figure out why.

    I know you and I, for example, have similar beliefs about some things
    (elements of politics) and divergent beliefs about others (theology).
    But I'd rather know who you are, in all facets, rather than THINK I
    know who you are based on the sides you believe I'll accept, only to
    realize you're someone completely different down the line.

    And, on the upside, if grandma can love you despite your
    eccentricities, who ELSE might she be able to accept as a multifaceted
    human who's worthy of her respect? The more honest we all are with
    each other about who we are, what we believe and why, the better our
    chances of breaking down that unhelpful wall of The Other.

  • http://chelpixie.com/ Chel Wolverton

    Fear is stopping a lot of people. Those of us in the US (I'm not experienced about how it might be in other countries) experienced the culture of high school where being popular was the goal for a lot of people. It's just carrying over to real life now because we lived those years for too long.

    The fear from years past reminds some of us that we got ridiculed for trying to be ourselves for a long time. For some people, wanting to emulate what they see is more comforting than making a choice to be who they are.

    Nothing is stopping anyone from making that choice, but themselves.

  • http://www.davemadethat.com Dave Delaney

    Great post Justin. I would add to it, but Whitney has captured my thoughts as well. She rules. :)

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  • http://www.jeffpersch.com JPersch

    Thank you!

  • http://stardustglobalventures.com sherylbreuker

    I like what you said and it really resonates. The sticking point, for me, is the final statement. “Matter to someone, and you'll matter to everyone.” That's far to ambiguous for me.

    Now, maybe I'm just a dolt, and that being the case by all means ignore this, but as nice as that sounds. it isn't true and you can't make it so. Mattering to someone means you have value outside of YOU. That doesn't make more than that one person find value in you. Everyone is NOT going to like you simply because you matter to one person, but if your idea is that if you matter to one person, that one person is all that matters – it's still flawed because it takes the rest of the world out of your scope.
    I do think we need more authenticity, which means people can find the true us more or less palatable thereby allowing for a genuine case where we matter for REAL not just because of perception. Oh heck, I'll go write my answer to you in a blog post…I'll probably come back here and steal my thoughts back. :)

  • http://pghcomet.blogspot.com/ Bram R

    Don't worry Justin. I happen to know your grandma is into bondage too, so you're in the clear.

    ;) Nice essay. I've found engaging in online commentary to be a great way to accelerate the self-discovery and self-actualization process. I can proudly state that nobody ever accused me of blogging in a way that would enhance my popularity or even protect it. :) But it's been a ton of fun. I wonder if in some respects (self-esteem? individuality?) today's kids who grew up engaging in social media are developing earlier with a stronger sense of self.

  • http://justtagged.com/ Nick Rock

    Well said, brilliant post! Dont understand why a lot of peeps try to be someone else…

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Sheryl: You're right from a mathematical point of view. Just because
    you matter to one person, that doesn't mean you'll matter to everyone
    in the exact same way.

    But.

    One of my favorite films is one that you've probably seen a million
    times, too: “It's a Wonderful Life.” Wherein, George Bailey realizes
    that even his small, simple life — which is nothing like the life
    he'd expected he'd have — has ended up affecting the lives of
    hundreds of people, simply because he remained true to his own
    internal compass and never backed down from his principles.

    As cheesy as that sounds on paper (or pixels), it's true. No, I can't
    guarantee that living a life you'll be proud of is automatically a
    life that will affect millions of people in a positive way. But if
    you can have a positive effect on ten people, and THEY can have a
    positive effect on 100 people, and so on… it's not a bad start.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Or, by contrast, has the awareness of so many other people (thanks to
    the web's ability to make everyone ubiquitous) made it that much
    harder to be ourselves, or to stand out?

    I don't have kids, but by the time they're old enough to care what
    people think of them, I'm willing to bet the Internet will help them
    track their personal Q rating in real time. And then we'll REALLY see
    what kinds of choices people make under pressure…

  • NoOne

    The only good thing about this post was the title, it's not a perfect world! In my perfect world I would like to get rid of all the perverts and criminals, but it's not going happen, I for one I'm glad we have check and balances in are culture, the world would be pretty messed up place if it wasn't, We don't live in an ideal world and we're not all same thank god. Sorry to say your version of a ideal world would be pure hell!!

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    I have no idea what you're saying, but neither do you, so we're even.
    Thanks for clicking some buttons and keeping the internet awake.

  • NoOne

    I'm sorry I left my Psychology/Sociology degree at home. What your suggesting people be more than they are, I'm I right. I was responding to your comments. Over the years I have heard the same thing, so the message your trying put out is old hat. Even, do that mean you don't know what your talking either, try reading your own post and comments.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    Your grasp of the English language leaves me baffled. I think I know what
    you're getting at, though. Sorry I'm not enlightening enough for you, and
    best of luck finding inspiration elsewhere.

  • Basedow

    I always say there are many roads to success but the surest path to failure is trying to please everyone. Your article is great but your response post below should be embroidered on pillows. :)

    “I have no idea what you're saying, but neither do you, so we're even.”

  • butwait

    I work with young people, and I think they don't hear nearly enough of this perspective (or, if they do, they don't believe it). I'm thinking about putting together some profiles of people who are rocking their gifts and passions in their own way, in the hopes that it will widen the scope of some of my students. Better yet, maybe I'll ask them to help me curate such a collection. Thank you for thinking out loud here and for your belief in the strength that comes from being who you are.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    I think it's rare for young people to be encouraged to think
    independently, or to suggest that they take a proactive approach to
    failure. Our traditional educational system is not designed to reward
    innovators and iconoclasts. This is usually the structure that young
    free-thinkers rebel against (and find themselves in opposition to).

    Thanks for thinking outside the box and best wishes in implementing
    your new ideas. Let us know how it goes.

  • http://www.reallybigpeach.com/ Katrina Miller-Fallick

    As I have started as the social media…person…for the company I work for, I'm finding my self struggling with this a lot. I'm just getting comfortable being the square peg in the round hole of Salt Lake City, UT. But the “chances” I take with my personal on-line presence reflect not just on MY business, but that of the company that employees me.

    It's a struggle between being interesting (and authentic) and acceptable (and a talking head, lacking personality).

  • EricaGlasier

    Thank you! I needed a “just be yourself” post this morning :)

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you! I needed a “just be yourself” post this morning :)

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    It helps if you and your company are all in agreement on which chances
    are worth taking to benefit the brand and help it stand out from the
    pack, and which chances will get you moved down the hall into a
    cubicle with no windows and a Venus flytrap.

    Your personal account and your biz account are allowed to operate
    differently. It's harder to convince a committee to take chances than
    it is to convince yourself. Tread confidently but with eyes wide
    open.

  • http://justinkownacki.blogspot.com Justin Kownacki

    It helps if you and your company are all in agreement on which chancesrnare worth taking to benefit the brand and help it stand out from thernpack, and which chances will get you moved down the hall into arncubicle with no windows and a Venus flytrap.rnrnYour personal account and your biz account are allowed to operaterndifferently. It’s harder to convince a committee to take chances thanrnit is to convince yourself. Tread confidently but with eyes widernopen.

  • http://www.echristopherclark.com E. Christopher Clark

    Stumbled across this by way of Gradon's blog, and I had to say that this is one of the most important things I've read in my self-imposed blogging hiatus/self-evaluation:

    “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.”

    Excellent stuff here. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.echristopherclark.com E. Christopher Clark

    Stumbled across this by way of Gradon’s blog, and I had to say that this is one of the most important things I’ve read in my self-imposed blogging hiatus/self-evaluation:nn”The problem is not that you donu2019t yet have the clout to say what you really mean, or that youu2019re afraid of offending those who think better of you.nnItu2019s that you have no idea what you really believe, or what you have to say.nnBecause if you did, youu2019d be speaking, acting and living the same way the idealized version of you would be doing.”nnExcellent stuff here. Thanks for sharing.

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  • http://twitter.com/R8chel_Marie Rachel Howe

    Very inspirational, and it actually sorta sounds Seth Godin-ish in a way. Great post and thanks for sharing.

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