My least favorite thing in a person
The Big Apple
I lived in New York City last year for two weeks. It was a trial run to see what life in the city was actually like.
I’m no Republican, but Brooklyn was a bit too left-leaning for my taste.
A woman told me she refused to listen to male musical artists. Her friend snapped in approval and gave her a resounding, “Yass.”
A dude with a master’s degree shared that some men can get pregnant.
I got reminded I was a straight white man a number of times. It felt odd having people assume things about me based on my race, gender, and sexual orientation.
None of this made me feel offended or oppressed, obviously. I enjoy spending time around people I differ from philosophically and politically. I love engaging in disagreements, so long as they are done in good faith with the goal of exchanging ideas. My opinions continue to evolve over the years as my values change and I have conversations with people way smarter than me.
But one conversation on the subway really left a sour taste in my mouth.
It was centered around gentrification: when a poor urban area becomes more desirable from wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses. This process tends to displace the original inhabitants.
(e.g. Williamsburg, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn, was an industrial site with a low cost of living up until the 1990s. Now it’s one of the most bougie areas in NYC, flooded with yoga studios and vegan cafes. The population went from predominantly black to only 5% black in just a couple decades.)
A friend of a friend was complaining about all the white people in certain pockets of NYC. I chuckled because he himself is white.
He bashed the lucrative businesses that moved in. He scorned the non-native New Yorkers moving in from all over the country (which he himself was). He pitied the black and Hispanic populations that have been replaced in gentrified neighborhoods.
I didn’t even disagree with his points or sentiments. I wouldn’t want to be culturally or economically pressured to move out of my neighborhood.
But I asked him two questions:
- “Who specifically should we be mad at?”
- “What actions or changes should we ask those people to make?”
In other words, What can we do about it?
These weren’t nihilistic, rhetorical, or passive-aggressive questions. I was genuinely curious because I didn’t know how to feel about the concept.
Unfortunately, once I challenged him to get more direct, the conversation fizzled and we moved on to something else.
So what’s the thing?
This article isn’t about gentrification. It’s not about any of my sociopolitical opinions at all. It’s about my least favorite practice.
Complaining about the way things are without offering any possible solutions. Spewing negativity and hopelessness without any proposed course for change.
Complaining is different than criticism, of course. We need to criticize bad ideas.
But complaining exists in a vacuum. It goes out and asks for nothing to come back in.
I’ve seen this countless times when coaching others. People will say, “I just need to vent.” They will dump all the things they are frustrated and resentful about.
After affirming that I hear and see them, there’s a vital question I tend to ask once someone airs their grievances.
“That’s a lot,” I say. “I’m sorry this is happening…So now what?”
I love when people voice their concerns—about their lives, those they love, or the world. But the most successful, impactful, and fulfilled people I’ve seen in my practice all have something in common.
They always share at least one of these three things after speaking about their frustrations:
- the lesson they’re learning
- the positive value they’re getting from this crappy experience
- the actions or changes they’ll take to move forward
So should we all be willing to save the world?
Immediate counterarguments pop up as I type this all out.
First, it sounds like I was expecting that guy on the subway to march straight to Washington DC to talk to lawmakers about reforming NYC zone laws.
It’s not a crime to dislike something and then complain about it. What irked me though, was his immediate evasion once I tried to suss out his actual ideas beneath the complaint. Once I discovered there were none, it was clear he was just virtue signaling: letting those around him know he values justice and fairness, but expressing it only with words and not with actions.
And second, awareness is important.
The case can be made that we need complainers who take zero action. They can spread the word until it eventually reaches someone who is willing to push for change.
But that never seems to be the goal of the cynic.
Chris Williamson, my favorite podcaster, shared a quote from one of his subscribers on the topic of cynicism:
“Cynicism is a psychological protector.
Its role within the system is to protect you against experiencing anything bad. It is a pre-emptive strike against a perceived threat.
If I tell myself that ‘all women are bad’, then I’m less likely to seek a relationship with women and, as a consequence, I’m never going to feel the pain of rejection.
If I tell myself that ‘everything is shit’ or that ‘things will never get better’, then I am excused of ever having to try at anything.
The upside of never trying is never having to feel the pain of failure.”
Fighting against things we don’t like is hard and potentially endless work. The world is a beautiful place but with nearly eight billion people living on it, there will always be problems big and small somewhere.
Complaining on a subway is easy. Doing something about it can be nebulous.
Cynicism is one of my least favorite practices because it’s negativity masked as care.
A man who hates his job cares about living a fulfilled life. But quitting and pursuing something else is scary. He could fail and feel embarrassed. So he keeps clocking in and complaining about his crappy boss and pay.
A woman who says, “All men are trash” has now saved herself from any future heartbreak. Because now whenever a guy harms her in any way, it simply confirms this story she’s been telling herself.
What about me?
To end this rant, I’ll share one of the biggest reasons cynicism enrages me so.
I used to do it all the time. My past words and beliefs make me cringe.
I blamed invisible entities for all the bad in my life for years. I would say…
“Society coerced me into going to college.” That’s why I failed out and owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
“Women have too high of standards.” That’s why I’ve never had a deep and meaningful long-term relationship.
“Capitalism is corrupt.” That’s why my bank account is the way it is and I’m in loads of debt.
If each of these cynical stories were correct, then I’m off the hook. None of the undesirable outcomes in my life are in my hands.
There’s a quote I often come back to:
“Not everything in your life is your fault. But it is your responsibility.”
I understand we all begin at different starting lines. I would never tell an impoverished woman in Bangladesh to just start a business and take ownership of her life.
But if you’re reading this blog you’re probably in a position to be taking way more responsibility than you already are. With every challenge come lessons, potential changes, and opportunities to grow and thrive.
We just have to be open to looking for them.