You Don’t Need to Know What People Are Saying About You

How to live your life on a need-to-know basis

I recently offered this piece of unsolicited advice to an author whose first book had just been published: “Don’t be constantly checking your Amazon rank. Limit yourself to 30 times a day.”

It was only sort of a joke, since I had a feeling this author was likely to check 50 times a day. In reality, I meant zero times a day. That’s probably unrealistic for first-time authors, but if you want to know the truth, I haven’t looked at my Amazon page, let alone the ever-fluctuating sales rank, for the last three books I’ve published. (It should go without saying I have never so much as glimpsed a Goodreads review for any book whatsoever, for fear my face will melt off from the radioactivity.)

This avoidance might be construed as an admirable sign of willpower, some indication that I’m above all that self-obsessed competitiveness and have opted to spend my time blithely sniffing flowers while taking leisurely walks with neither a care in the world nor my phone in my pocket. But really, it’s more of a head-in-sand kind of maneuver. I don’t look at my Amazon page because I don’t want to know what’s on it. I don’t want to see the project I’ve toiled over for years reduced to appraisals in the vein of “just meh” or “it was okay, but the author tends to go on and on.” I don’t want to know that my book is currently ranked number 12 in some finely sliced category like “Culture, class anxiety, real estate envy, Gen X rumination, dogs” and 1,000,000th overall.

Not only do I not want to know it, I don’t need to know it.

Checking your Amazon rank throughout the day is like weighing yourself throughout the day. There is no useful information to be gleaned. (Just as you can drink a glass of water and gain a pound, then take a walk in the hot sun and lose it again, your sales rank rises and falls according to the algorithmic whims of the market.) In fact, when it comes to putting any of your creative or intellectual work out into the world, I’m of the firm belief that public reaction should be taken in on a need-to-know basis. There are all kinds of things you could know. But it’s worth taking a moment to consider what you really should know. The list is probably shorter than you think.

You do not, for instance, need to know what people are saying about you on social media. This is especially the case with Twitter, where cheap shots and cruelty are rewarded and elevated and thoughtful discussion is all but impossible. (Tip: Turn off your notifications, at least those from people you don’t follow.) Nor do you need to know what people are saying on Facebook or Instagram — not because what they’re saying is probably mean but because it’s probably too nice. Those platforms are hotbeds of hyperbolic approbation, hollow acclaim festooned with hashtags and a zombie chorus performing countless variations on “yas queen.” So much this. A thousand times this. Literally dying. This slayed me. Not to mention the minimalist mic drop: This. You’ve heard these panegyrics slathered onto other people’s work. You’ve probably also heard these same effusive complimenters turn around and say something very different in the privacy of their own gossipy conversations. For instance, I didn’t finish it but I didn’t want to be the only one not saying anything. Lesson: Believe none of it.

And that brings me to what you really don’t need to know: What your friends are saying about you behind your back — about your book or just you in general. This is true for everyone, not just public creative types. My belief is that if you didn’t need to know it in high school, you don’t need to know it now. In one of my favorite essays by one of my favorite writers, Timothy Kreider talks about the universal condition of being privately mocked by others. “We all make fun of one another behind one another’s backs,” he writes, “even the people we love. Of course we do — they’re ridiculous.”

Kreider points out that, as dismaying as it is to imagine being the subject of unflattering discussion, the insults are in a way their own form of flattery. “Anyone worth knowing is inevitably also going to be exasperating . . . And those few people about whom there is nothing ridiculous are by far the most preposterous of all.”

This is true of human beings and it’s true of creative work. If it’s not flawed, it’s not really there. If a perfect book tumbles off a shelf and there’s no one around to hear it fall to the ground, did it make a sound? No, because the perfect book does not exist.

Near perfection may spare you from criticism, but it will also deprive you of genuine praise. And by genuine praise I don’t mean gushing New York Times reviews and Pulitzer Prizes and MacArthur “genius” fellowships (though if you get one of those, everyone will be so jealous that they’ll only say mean things behind your back for the rest of your life). I mean the kind of praise that is actually a kind of gratitude. And actually it isn’t gratitude as much as a kind of a hand reaching out. It’s a hand reaching out because you’ve reached your own hand out. You’ve reached your hand out and offered up something you made from scratch, the imperfect contents of your own brain, a sculpture carved from the marbled meat of your raw imagination.

Is the value of that experience something that can be measured by reviews or hashtags or people on social media or at bookclubs or your friends just trying to muddle through their own lives? Does that sound like something you can rank with a number?

If it is, I don’t want to know. And neither should you.

Weekly blogger for Medium. Host of @TheUnspeakPod. Author of six books, including The Problem With Everything.

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