Thoughts on the Thoughts of Others: Opinions, Conformity, and Individualism

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

-Oscar Wilde

To be clear, I want to acknowledge the irony of my using that particular quote as an article opener. That being said, Oscar is right, in this instance. Far too many in this world never actually become real- they remain reflections of friends, shadows of family, and imitations of those they would strive to impress.

Of course, that’s not you- you’ve never held your tongue for fear of being impolite or out of place. You’ve never claimed to like something you don’t, or disliked something you do like to more easily agree with someone, I’m sure. On top of that, you’ve never stopped yourself from standing up for what you believe in- when you know that no one else does. Right?

In reality, we have all done this- and (I would argue) anyone who claims to say otherwise is very likely socially illiterate. It’s perfectly normal, and absolutely common- but what is normal is not inherently good, and what is common is far too often wrong. Simply because the default state of our lives is one of compliance and conformity does not mean that this is where we should remain- in fact, we must actively fight to move on from this place.

Before we can move, however, we must first understand our position. In reality, we can never know the thoughts of another, all we end up with is what we think others think about us. One good way to illustrate the degree to which this is true is to consider how often you spend time thinking about other people. It’s almost certainly less time than you spend thinking about yourself, correct? Now, because egocentrism is a universal human trait (and rightly so), we can apply that as a rule of thumb to others- they think about you in about the same level of detail and for the same amount of time as you think about them. What’s more, when you think about others, it’s almost certainly in some way related to yourself- so and so will hate me if I say this, they’ll love me if I act this way, they see me in such and such a manner.

This knowledge isn’t useful unless you temper it with the understanding that, because of your inherent egocentrism (which is not inherently bad), you are guaranteed to assume that others care about you (and what you think) to a far greater degree than they actually do. In other words, no one cares about you as much as you think they do- and that’s a good thing. When you accept the degree to which people really think about you, and you acknowledge that they don’t care nearly as much as you thought, you gain a degree of freedom that you didn’t have before.

On top of the inherent disinterest of others, we can add another layer- the fact that it is impossible to have perfect knowledge of another person. Even if you watched someone their entire life, saw every interaction and conversation, you would still never have access to their thoughts. What this means is that no one, friend, family, or lover, will ever understand you perfectly in the way that we all so deeply desire to be known. More importantly, the knowledge (and acceptance of the fact) that you will never be known perfectly provides an even greater degree of freedom- if you will inevitably be misunderstood, then you can rid yourself of attachment to the desire to be understood.

This is where individualism comes into play. With the knowledge that none shall know you better than you already know yourself, you will no longer be compelled to act with regard to the inaccurate, weakly formed, egocentric opinions that others may have of you. Every time you are presented with the impulse to submit your Self to the thoughts of another, understand that you are choosing whether you will live for that fragmented perception held by someone that will never know you truly, or whether you will affirm that your Self, as you know it, is worth being displayed in the best manner that it can- through honesty.

I will presume that since you are here, dear reader, you seek to know your Self- and it is through the journey towards knowledge of Self that we gain value as individuals. While I would like to say that everyone is inherently valuable, I will not- because that line of thinking has become a bromide for the weak to validate their weakness. Instead, know that all people, including you, have the capacity within them to achieve value, real value- should you be willing to do what is required to find that. If you would choose to seek that treasure elsewhere, in the minds of others, you will never find it- and in the process lose the chance of ever finding it at all.

Remember, the weak man concerns himself with the thoughts of others and ends up being thought of only as weak, but the strong man concerns himself with the journey and ends up being remembered in the legends as a Hero. Which path will you take?

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

-Steve Jobs

Garrett Dailey

Garrett Dailey is a formerly homeless D.I.Y. philosopher who believes that one cannot understand the universe without first understanding themselves. To that end, he has committed to a lifelong journey to become the best version of himself, and in the process, create a community for others who wish to do the same. May we all be led from ignorance to the truth. Pros aion Aletheia aionios.

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