Who the Hell are “They” Anyway?
How often do you hear the phrase “they say”? As in: “They say it’s going to rain on Wednesday.” “They say the Cubs are going to have a good team this year.” “They say the climate in changing.” “They say that’s the way we always do things.” “They say you can’t do that.”
I could go on ad infinitum with examples of this ubiquitous little banality, but I think you get the point. The “they say” qualifier is so pervasive in common conversation, we pay little note to it, except to accord it a credibility it may not deserve.
The use of the “they say” phrase is generally intended to imply the relative truth or generally proven perception surrounding the particular statement that follows. The assumption we are expected to accept is that, if “they” say it, it must be true. Even if we don’t know who “they” are, it’s assumed that this faceless group is a reasonably informed and unbiased source whose opinions are invariably better than yours.
In most cases, such as dealing with the weather, sports or politics, this lazy reliance on what “they say” is so innocuous it does little harm. However, when it comes to how we live our lives or seek career success, an important lesson to learn is that most of those who are “they sayers” are in reality “naysayers.”
If we blindly accept what “they say” and allow it to influence our attitudes and actions it can have a very deleterious impact on our future. Without taking the time to question and challenge what “they say,” – especially when it comes to our life, career and future – we run the risk that “they,” not we, will be in control of our future.
Taylor Swift best expressed this sentiment in her first hit-song, Tim McGraw:
They say not to have too much fun
They say not to get too much sun
I guess I’m screwed, I’m neither one
Don’t say “hell”, say “what the heck”
Do what’s politically correct
Don’t pray in school, but have safe sex
Isn’t that what they expect?
Who are they?
Yea you know what they say
Who are they?
Someone I gotta pay
Who are they?
They probably own the Village Voice
The Nashville Scene, The People’s Choice
To me it is all a bunch of noise
Decided on by the funny boys
They say who does and don’t belong
They say our hair’s too short or long
They say who’s right and who is wrong
As if we’ll all just come along
Swift’s implied advice is prescient beyond her years. Where would we be today if, for example, Henry Ford had caved in to what “they” said in 1908; that manufacturing an automobile so inexpensive that even the workmen who assembled it could afford to buy one was a fanciful pipe dream? Suppose Fred Smith had taken to heart when “they said” that express overnight parcel delivery was an impossibility? That’s right. They’d be no FedEx. And how about Steve Jobs? They said in the late 1990s that Apple was finished; a has-been company doomed for the corporate junkyard. But Jobs refused to accept what “they said.” And his transformative technology reshaped one industry after another, from computers and smartphones to music and movies. In the process, of course, he also reshaped our lives. As a side note, Taylor Swift would probably be writing poetry while on Wal-Mart coffee breaks today if she had accepted the “truth” that major music publishing houses don’t hire teenage songwriters (she landed her first writing gig at Sony/ATV when she was 14).
You are probably going to meet a lot of “theys” in your life and career, just as Ford, Smith, Jobs and many others did. I know I have. They want us to believe that they know what is best and that it is best for us to go along with what they say.
From my perspective, the best way to respond to what they say is to say, “you don’t say.” In other words, you should be the one to have the say, not they. If we blindly allow the “they says” to influence our thoughts and actions, the opportunity to prove that they were wrong will be lost.
The problem is that “they says” evolve into a set of rules promulgated by an amorphous group of “theys.” These become presumptions and assumed truths that must be followed because they say so. Some of the biggest “they say” edicts I have experienced include: “They say you can’t attack the traditional products of the industry.” “They say you can’t start a new life insurance company.” “They say you can’t give all employees ownership in the company.” “They say you can’t write a book titled, Cheat To Win. Thank goodness I didn’t listen to what they say.
The truth is that success is easier when we don’t allow what “they say” to determine what we do. Listen to their idle pronouncements with a cheerful inner indifference. The key question you’ll be silently asking is who “they” are. Challenge the “they says” and when you do, more often than not, you will find they lack credence. Careers should not be built on what “they say.” Rather, a career should be based on what you say and do.
The next time someone throws a “they say” at you – especially when it pertains to what you want to achieve – stop, question and challenge the assumptions behind the “they say.” If you find their views based more or custom and assumption than reality – and you often will – you will recognize the opportunity to prove that what you say is more viable than what they say. The poet Edgar Guest noted that when he wrote:
The real path to success, is not what “they” said, but what “we” did.