I’m Telling You This for Your Own Good

We interrupt the holiday merriment so I can get something off my chest. Back in October, Seth Godin wrote a blog post titled “Do You Need A Permit?” The gist of his piece is that we do not need anyone’s permission to change the world—in Godin’s words, “make a dent in the universe”—or at least to take a stab at it. But the thing that struck me and gnawed at my brain was this:

It’s safer to tear them down (with their best interests at heart, of course).

Have you ever known anyone like that? I sure have! He takes shots at other people’s opinions for sport. The debates are fun at first, but after a while it gets tiresome. He’s forever pointing out problems that don’t exist and warning people of conflicts that haven’t happened.

For a time he hounded me about letting my hair go white because he said I would face age discrimination. Then I realized something: he’s the only person who has ever made an issue of it. Total strangers walk up to me on the street to tell me how beautifully my hair shines on a sunny day. A guy less than half my age guessed my age was a decade younger than I really am. (Make that “a guy younger than half my age.”) I’m a Boomer who blogs and tweets.

Oh, but he’s telling me this for my own good, just like when your mother told you to eat brussels sprouts. As Godin says, he believes he has my best interests at heart. He’s cautioning me against the hard facts of life. He’s preparing me for the inevitable discrimination I will face because, in the female line of my family, our hair turns white before we’re 40. He is, I realized, warning me that I will meet other people like him.

The people who warn you that you’ll face obstacles are, often, the biggest obstacles you’ll face. Naturally you’ll encounter practical challenges in life, but you knew that going in, right? The people who tell you that you’ll face bigotry are, in fact, perpetuating some form of bigotry. If they offer warnings or criticisms but no useful help or advice, they are part of the problem, not the solution. Advising caution may be helpful, but advising inaction rarely helps.

I’m not completely against warning people about possible dangers ahead. Mom was partly right about the brussels sprouts, too. They’re full of nutrients, but I can get the same benefits from other vegetables I like better. As an American Red Cross volunteer I do community outreach and talk to people about emergency preparedness. But I don’t focus on emergencies, I focus on what they can do to prepare. When I brainstorm with colleagues or friends, I’ll sometimes suggest a possible obstacle and ask, “What would you do if…?” Then we come up with a plan. I try to look at my own plans that way or enlist a friend who can give constructive criticism.

Here’s the real lesson: people who try to knock you down for your own good are really warning you to avoid people like themselves. That much is good advice and you should heed it. A little caution and advance planning is useful, but for 2011 I resolve to avoid negativity even when it advertises itself as “for my own good.”

What have you been told “for your own good” that turned out to be more about fear than about surmounting obstacles? We’re open for comments.

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