Misunderstood: The Rule of Thirds

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Billions. More people than we can even imagine. And, given the opportunity, they will love you. We should focus on them.
Billions. More people than we can even imagine. And, given the opportunity, they will love you. We should focus on them.

My younger sister, a talented musician and vocalist, is afraid to write and share original music because she’s afraid of rejection.

“What if people think it’s bad?” she said, when I pressed her on why she’s not writing new material.

A Grammy-winning musician who teaches at the university she planned to attend after high school was making promises to her.

He was going to assemble the finest musicians he knew to play her music in studio.

He was going to get her studio time in Los Angeles and a record deal.

He was going to do all kinds of things for her.

Open doors. Grant opportunity.

But then he didn’t. He didn’t do any of the things he said he was going to do. And now my sister feels like she failed. Because the gatekeeper didn’t hold up his end of the bargain. Because she’s waiting for permission to create her art.

“You don’t need permission to make what you love,” I told her. “Make it and share it. Good art will always be found and shared.”

You can see the doubt. The fear.

It’s the same look I have when I make excuses for… anything. It’s because I’m afraid too. It’s because I don’t know whether I’m good enough.

At writing. At work. At being a father. At being someone’s romantic partner.

“Have you heard of the Rule of Thirds?” I asked her.

She hadn’t.

As I explained it, I realized that the Rule of Thirds applies to more than just art.

That all of us are misunderstood. By someone. By our partners. By our parents. By our children. By our friends. By our co-workers. By our supporters. By our critics.

We Are All Misunderstood

By someone.

It’s because we’re the only species of which I’m aware in which two of us can look at the exact same thing and describe it completely differently.

Did she leave him for someone else? Or did he drive her into the arms of another?

Is that same-sex couple’s union an abomination? Or an example of love and courage in its purest form?

Was that deadly attack an act of terrorism—of pure evil? Or an instance of patriotism and the pursuit of justice?

Sometimes it can be as simple as words on a page. One sentence.

Without visual cues. Without tone of voice. Without knowing how the other person felt when they wrote the sentence, we apply how we’re feeling in a particular moment to fill in the knowledge gap. To apply meaning (that’s probably only correct a third of the time) to the sentence.

Relationships break over this type of misunderstanding all the time.

The Rule of Thirds

The rule exists to help artists understand and deal with criticism, but I really think we all need it as people to understand that the world does not see us as we see ourselves. Sometimes, that’s good. Othertimes, it’s bad.

Here’s the rule:

With anything you do or create, one third of people will love it (or you); one third will hate it (or you), and the remaining third won’t care at all.

This is an idea worth embracing, because there are a lot of people out there like me who aren’t very thick-skinned and who have an unhealthy desire to be liked and accepted by everyone.

I might get 40 nice comments on a post, but once in a while someone will let me have it, and I tend to focus on, and feel shitty about, that one comment. Should I ever expand beyond the WordPress bubble, I imagine this will get infinitely worse.

Most people I meet and know seem to like me. Maybe they mean it. Maybe they are being fake. I guess I don’t care as long as they don’t make me feel bad.

But there are others who clearly don’t like me.

Why does this person over here think I’m so nice and makes me feel cared for and respected, while this other person makes me feel like the lowest form of pond scum imaginable?

There are people who think I’m a shitty writer.

Why do these people over here think I’m special and talented while these other people think I’m worthless?

Should we spend our time trying to convince all the people who don’t like, respect or appreciate us, that they’re wrong?

That seems like a colossal waste of energy.

Because the truth is that one third of people are always going to think you suck. Let them.

Another third won’t pay any attention at all. I don’t pay attention to all kinds of things. How can I fault them for that?

Then there’s that last group.

The people who save our lives.

Make Things For One Person (Or 2.4 Billion)

In your artistic pursuits, everyone has one raving fan.

In your life, you have the equivalent of that.

So, maybe we need to be making things for that person. Living for that person.

Maybe we should be making things for the third in our corner. Maybe we should be living for those people.

There are people in my life who think I walk on water. People who tell me I’m their favorite writer. People who think I’m smart and kind and worth something.

Why not live for them? Why not write for them?

People will doubt us. Hate us. Tell us that we think, feel and do things that we actually do not think, feel or do.

People will tell us we’re bad.

That our work has no merit.

That we’re not good enough.

That our honest efforts toward love, friendship, and living a life geared toward constant improvement is something else entirely. That it’s dishonest. That it’s selfish.

We all have critics. Sometimes, harsh ones.

People who will never change their minds. Because they won’t. Or because they can’t.

The results are the same either way.

I know I can’t please everyone. Even people I really want to.

My best isn’t good enough.

It never will be.

And that’s just going to have to be okay.

There are about 7.25 billion people on this planet. One third of them are going to think I’m a stupid asshole. One third of them will never, ever care, no matter what I’m doing.

But that last third?

They’re going to love me.

They’re going to love you.

That’s 2.4 billion people.

People who will think you’re amazing just the way you are.

People who believe we’re more than what we think we are.

Wow. 2.4 billion.

That’s a lot of people to reach.

We better get started.

58 thoughts on “Misunderstood: The Rule of Thirds”

  1. Great post Matt. I think we all tend to focus on the negative, I know I do – afraid of rejection – when the worst type of rejection is not to trust yourself and at least give it a try.

    1. Thank you very much.

      May very well be my greatest human failing. Paralysis by fear.

      Things big and small. I think almost everyone is this way about some things.

      But I know, for sure, that everyone creating something and putting it out there for public consumption knows the self-doubt feeling too well.

      I’ll take a lesson in how to develop a thick skin any time someone knows how.

      Really appreciate you reading and commenting.

  2. Does your sister speak another language? When you learn another language you have to open your mouth and do your best to communicate, even though you might be telling people your hovercraft is full of eels.You learn by having a go, and not being afraid of being thought an eejit. Music is the same, it is a way of communication, and everyone needs to be heard. Doesn’t matter if its good or not. (Even though your sister sounds as though she is really talented). Don’t let the silence fall when you have something to say.

    1. I feel like people who can compose music absolutely can speak another language. So, in that respect, she can.

      She’s only 21. Still finding herself. It’s easy for me to say these things at 35. I was a much bigger know-nothing chicken shit when I was that age than I am now. 🙂

      Nice to hear from you, Elaine. Thanks for saying hi.

  3. “Waiting for permission”. That’s one thing I try to do for myself, is to give myself permission. Because 99 times out of 100, I’m the one that’s keeping the gate closed.

    Great post, Matt. I’m glad you encouraged your sister the way you did. I feel for her. She had her heart set on an empty promise, by the sounds of things, and she’s feeling the sting of “rejection by neglect” on the part of the “friend”. I would imagine that now she feels doubly anxious about her art.

    Whenever I think “what will so-and-so think if I do such-and-such and you know what? I bet most times, not only will they not care, most times they will not even notice!

  4. I’ll take that lesson too when you find a good one 🙂 Have a date tonight for the first time in 15 years. I literally feel sick to my stomach with self-doubt; not good enough, etc. But we all have to venture out of our comfort zones and face possible rejection. So scary, but if we don’t we miss out on all the good things and people in life. And that would be a shame.

    1. Oooohhh. First date.

      Yeah. It’s totally weird.

      I bet if you spend the time asking a lot of questions and listening and evaluating whether you ever want to see him again, you won’t have much time for self-doubt.

      You don’t need him to like you.

      He needs you to like him.

      2.4 billion people will love you. If he’s lucky, he’s one of them.

      1. Thank you so very much for your kind words; and you are right. I did just that actually (since I failed to see this reply BEFORE) and it all worked out well. Is he the one? Who knows. But he is the “right now” and that’s fun too. Someday, someone is going to snatch you up – and they will be the lucky one. Thanks again 🙂

      1. Thank you! It’s hard to remember that sometimes when it’s been sucked out of you in the past; but so nice when people remind you of it. Thanks for being so encouraging.

  5. Rejection is so, very heavy. I understand your sisters thinking 100%. I remembered one time in high school at drum major camp (I know, I’m a band nerd). Anyway, I got paralyzed by having to conduct in front of every one else. (It was a complicated compound conducting clinic~for those who care). I tried hard to think of ways to miss it by pretending to ‘forget’, be sick. Anything. I couldn’t take the criticism. In the end, I sucked it up and went. Turns out, I was the highest scoring compound conductor in the whole camp! There are great victories in life that so many of us miss out on because of the fear of rejection. . . Sometimes even less than rejection. For me it was an important lesson learned but by no means did it make me immune to the fear. When I got left (rejected) by my ex, it created a whole new batch of fear for me. Another one I’m gonna have to figure out how to overcome. Thanks for the post.

    1. Yeah. I think a lot of people who read this stuff, read because they went through, or are going through, divorce just like us.

      Everyone has self-doubt.

      It goes nuclear when your spouse checks out. I haven’t taken the time to dwell on and analyze what I feel are the worst aspects of divorce. But all of the fear and internal issues we develop while going through it ranks VERY high.

      That might be worth writing about someday. Even though I probably already have a hundred times.

  6. I’m part of the 1/3 that thinks this post is awesome and actually opened my own eyes towards my feelings of rejection. great post!

  7. Wow 2.4 billion? I can dig it. I suffer from such a fail fear that I never tried out for anything with my flute and still regret it. Maybe someday I will get the guts to go try for a symphony.
    My writing is only published because I had to set it up for a contest I was forced to enter and I waited years to start a blog because ‘no one would want to read it’. I might have started earlier if I had read this post back then.

    Good job and good luck to both your sister and yourself.

    1. Thank you very much. I think it’s very liberating when we start to figure out things like this. Most people won’t like or care what we’re doing. If I accept it, and work for the rest, then I’ll always have a chance. Everyone will.

  8. I have similar feelings every time I push the “Publish” button.

    There will always be those people that will think “Good God, this same old tired crap again?” and it bogs me down trying to come up with something new to write about.

    The best thing that was ever pointed out to me is that one way or the other its my story to tell. So love it or not, I plan on telling it.

    You are a great writer. Just tell your story

      1. Working on it every day brother. Same as you.

        When we have duelling book signings, I’m just gonna look over and give you an “air five”

  9. So as a chronic people pleaser and neurotic worrier of what other people think, thank you. This may be the best argument or case I’ve heard for not caring what other people think. I will recite this as my new mantra when I feel like something I wrote wasn’t liked or when I am in a social situation and worried about putting my foot in my mouth. Really, I want to look back on life and think that I was fearless, not that I hesitated to do what I really wanted for fear of people not liking me… Awesome blog post Matt!

    1. Really appreciate you taking the time to say hi, Gretchen. I think I remember you saying you and your family will be on the beach, soon. I hope if that is now that you’re having a great time!

  10. I have a great quote for you along those lines: “If I tried to read, much less answer, all the criticisms made of me and all the attacks leveled against me, this office would have to be closed for all other business. I do the best I know how, the very best I can. I mean to keep on doing this, down to the very end. If the end brings me out all wrong, then ten angels swearing I had been right would make no difference. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me now will not amount to anything.” Abraham Lincoln.

    1. That guy was brilliant. I bet he would have made an extraordinary and courageous president. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  11. This was fantastic and I needed it. Recently my posts have been read (according to WordPress stats) by less and less. However, those few, my mom, grandparents, closest friends love my words and read them over and over. I’d never heard the rule of thirds before but it makes sense. At this point I write for me more than anyone else, but there are some that love me and some that will never read me (especially because I write about faith). I guess I’m lucky because I haven’t yet had the hate me reaction.
    And I’m one of your 1/3 that love you 🙂 thank you for sharing this.

    1. It’s probably my own fault because I don’t write consistently or frequently anymore, but traffic here is about 50 percent of what it used to be.

      Also, I may just be writing uninteresting things. At any rate. Yeah. There will always be that third. Worth smiling and feeling good about.

  12. Great post, very thought provoking. I think the biggest thing with rejection can often be the immobilizing effects it can leave you with, like it chips away little bits of you that leave you some how ever more unprotected from its negativity the next time you have the misfortune to meet it!

    1. Sounds like you know just what that feels like. We should be more afraid of the paralyzing fear than the thing itself. Tough job, though. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  13. I absolutely loved this post Matt! I tend to be in the same boat of wanting to please and be liked by all. This made me see things in a different perspective and also giggle. Thank you!

  14. Pingback: Afraid to Say No | janetkwest

    1. Thank you so much, Stefanie. I’m constantly surprised at how similar we can all be in terms of the things we all often feel. Everyone feels a little self doubt and fear once in a while. Sometimes you look at people and could never believe it. I hope you know how flattered I am that you still read this stuff. Thank you so much.

  15. I’d never heard of the rule of thirds, Matt. But I like it, and it makes a lot of sense. It’s hilarious how one negative remark can just topple over all the positive– It doesn’t matter if X number of people felt a post resonated with them, it’s that 1 person who comes along and slut-shames/calls me shallow/stupid/whatever that I get all indignant about. For at least half an hour 😉

    Blogging has definitely helped me get over that. My job helps too, because the rule of thirds definitely applies here, hahaha!

    There is a lot of research out there about how we are trained to focus on the negative way more than the positive, and how negative feedback derails our contentedness for way longer than positive feedback spikes it up. Just being aware of that tendency helps me to keep my brain and perceptions in check.

    Anyways, I am a fan. And I count for 4 persons (HNHS) so the odds are in your favor.

    1. You DO count for four people!! And I appreciate that nugget about reacting to negativity more than positivity. That mirrors my personal experience. And is a reasonably sad observation.

      Thank you for saying hi, Aussa. 🙂

  16. 2.4 billion you say. So far I’ve only found about 2.4… But I shall persevere.

    Thank you so much for posting this, man. I’d never come across that rule before but it makes perfect sense. Keep writing for those 2.4 billion and I’ll keep at it for the 2.4!

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