— Ivan W. Lam (@IvanWLam) March 20, 2015
Complaining is Silly. Either Act or Forget.
Near the end of my college career, I learned about the designer Stefan Sagmeister. He quickly became one of my favorite designers, as his work was bold, thoughtful, emotionally rich, and perfectly radical. It was practically the opposite to my approach and sensibilities in design, which is why he has since been my inspiration and motivation to experiment and to think outside my own little box. In 2008, he published a book (or a volume of booklets) called Things I Have Learned In My Life So Far, creatively illustrating and writing about his life learnings. One of the learnings that really caught my attention was “Complaining is silly. Either act or forget.” It made a significant impact in how I react to external events. Paired with the goal to be positive (both in my post-college job search and just in life), I managed to take back the energy and time I wasted passive-aggressively tweeting and Facebook-posting rants and cynical notes, and used it proactively to resolve problems in my life.
When to Forget
Whenever I feel the urge to complain or vent to someone or via social media, I pause and ask if 1) it’s worth telling someone, as in whether telling that person or the public would realistically change the situation, and 2) the thing I want to complain about really matters to me or if it’s just a momentary frustration that would pass in a few hours or days. First of all, I rarely post anything negative on social media anymore because I believe that when a person is being negative, it affects the mood of the people around them. So I try to avoid doing that unless it’s absolutely necessary or urgent. And since social media is rarely a medium to express absolutely necessary or urgent information, I’ve made it a rule to only post neutral or positive things.
If I determine that complaining about something leads to very little change in the situation, I would drop the topic and “forget” it. For example, on my commute to and from work, unpleasant things occasionally occur, whether it’s a conflict between two people or it’s the way certain passengers behave differently from the social norm. In the moment, I would come up with scenarios for how I would respond if I was in the conflict. Then I would want to share that with my friends and coworkers at the next possible opportunity (ex. “Good morning! Oh my god, these two people were fighting on the bus on my way to work. One was being really rude, and the other person was trying to reason with him. If it was me, I would’ve told that person off…”) That’s when I would pause and realize how sharing this piece of information results in very little benefit for my friends or coworkers, for me, and for the public transportation system. Ultimately, what we would get is another story about negative experience of riding the bus. Unless I plan to lead a reform or awareness campaign in social etiquette on public transit or something, I believe it’s better to just drop the subject and move on to talking about things I care more about.
When to Act
When things actually do matter, like at work, it’s harder to “forget” them when they bother us. Working in a fast-pace environment, I encounter a lot of changes in plans, much to my preference instead to set a simple goal and work straight towards it. So when a project direction shifts or a deadline is shortened, my immediate thoughts would generally be negative, and I would want to vent to my peers. But instead of complaining or ignoring the problem (“forgetting”), my inherent drive to do well, especially in my career, suddenly leads me to be very pragmatic (“act”) and run through the list of potential questions to solutions in my head (“Are we sure we need to do this?” “What have I already done that I can salvage for this?” “Can I even take this on?” “How should we reprioritize to make it work?”) This helps me stay ahead of the situation and gives me as much control as possible.
Now and Plans for the Near Future
Of course, this is all work in progress. I am still learning and trying to become better with this approach every day. It may actually be nice to bond with friends and coworkers over a trivial story about a bus ride. And it may literally be a life-changing move when someone begins a conversation with a friend after seeing their cryptic tweet. Would complaining be considered silly in these situations? There are still fine lines I need to discover and learn about.
But for the most part, so far, it’s made a positive impact on my life; I find that I have more pleasant and stress-free moments, simply by reducing the number of times I let myself get angry and worked up over something I should have forgotten instead. As a result, I have more time and energy to act and focus on things that I enjoy.
This philosophy has worked out so well for me that I would love for others to adopt it. But another philosophy of mine is preventing it: I believe that how I live is my business and mine alone, and the same goes for other people. So as annoying as I find other people’s complaints to be, telling them to stop complaining disrespects their personalities. Until I figure out a way to act respectfully, all I can do now is to distance myself from them as much as I need, hide their posts from social media, and make my philosophy available in my space (here) and hope they stumble upon it.
Practically speaking, it can be more tough to actively tell people about “my approach”, especially when I have yet to fully prove that it works in normal social environments. For example, there are many complicated and controversial issues in American culture. It is sometimes said that silence to a social issue equals agreement with the status quo, while any action from sympathizers and supporters may mean detracting from the goals of the movement and worsen the situation. What’s left is the dissent, loudly and angrily pointing out the issue. But since acting and forgetting are out of the question, who am I then to advocate for suppressing the dissent?
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