When I was a child, Mum was constantly trying to teach me to be mindful of what other people would think of me. “You can’t wear THAT! Tuck your shirt in! Clean your shoes!”
I couldn’t see what the big deal was about. I never noticed whether anyone else had cleaned their shoes or not, and so what if another person’s shirt was half out? That in itself tells me nothing about the person (except that they haven’t checked their waistline in the last few minutes).
Further, I hated branded goods. I would be the last person to choose a polo shirt or a pair of jeans with some big name embossed on it. No, give me plain every time! I found the idea of wearing some big brand name prominently, quite repellent.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that most human beings have a constant nagging voice in their head reminding them to care about what other people think of them, and most human beings make judgments about other people based on their appearance – cleanliness, tidyness and chosen brands. All of this passed me by and seemed most mysterious. What do dirty shoes tell me except that a person hasn’t cleaned them recently – how on earth could I know what their reasons for not cleaning were? Busyness? Poverty? Lack of care? And why do people want to pay more to have a big name on their jeans, jacket or handbag? This makes no sense to me!
Now I have to accept that most humans are hardwired to care about these things whether they want to or not, and that’s the world I have to live in and interact with.
A Nobel physics laureate, the American Richard Feynman, was a colourful and curious character who played bongo drums and published two volumes of personal anecdotes. Significantly, the second volume was entitled, “What do you care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character.” The titular episode concerned discussions between Feynman and his wife about how formal (or intimate) messages on their greetings cards and embossed pencils should be.
I do not share all of Feynman’s traits – he used his lack of social restraint to become a pick-up artist, for instance – but I admire how he was determined to let the American public know why the Space Shuttle Challenger crashed (it was launched in conditions too cold for a critical component in its booster rockets) without allowing the truth to get buried under bureaucratic obfuscation.
Feynman’s writings provide fascinating insights into how people think. He could count either by ‘hearing’ numbers or ‘seeing’ them – I can only ‘hear’ them. He could imagine physics equations as graphical constructs – I could only mentalise them as algebraic symbols to be manipulated according to certain rules. He helped me to understand the kind of intuitive mind that a great scientist has, and therefore why some scientists can see their way directly to solutions when others (like myself) have to go the long way round. I recommend his two volumes to anyone interested in further exploring a mind not entirely unlike mine.