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Teaching Your Kids: "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

A barrier to self-confidence even more common than wanting others to like you is just being too concerned with what other people think. That's a lesson Richard Feynman learned while standing at his wife's hospital bed.

Feynman was a physicist who was known in scientific circles for his Nobel Prize-winning work on Quantum Electrodynamics. But Publicly, he was best remembered for his defining role in the investigation of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster. For those of you old enough to remember it, the shuttle exploded shortly after takeoff, killing the pilots and crew. And Feynman was appointed to a special Congressional committee to investigate the cause.

Well, characteristic of Feynman, he refused to go along with the official process arranged for him and the other investigators. He made his own arrangements to have personal conversations with NASA engineers that led to the correct conclusion that the cause of the shuttle disaster was a rubber O-ring on the fuel line. Then, during the panel hearing—unannounced—Feynman flamboyantly illustrated his theory by pulling O-ring material out of his glass of ice water and throwing it on the table, shattering it in front of hundreds of journalists and television cameras.

Apparently, the temperature the morning of take-off was much colder than any previous shuttle launch. Too cold, in fact, for the rubber O-ring to maintain its flexibility, causing it to shatter under pressure.

Now, was Feynman just born a brave soul? Probably. But there was at least one defining moment that shaped his life and his science by building on an already courageous character.

In the early 1940s, Feynman was working at Los Alamos National Labs on the Manhattan Project. That was the top-secret government effort to build the atomic bomb. His wife, Arline, whom he'd recently married, was undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in nearby Albuquerque, New Mexico.

So, Feynman would hitchhike to the hospital on weekends to visit her.

Well, Arline knew Richard was frustrated at his own inability to comfort her or heal her terminal illness. So one weekend, when he got there, she presented him with an eighteen-inch charcoal grill she'd ordered through the mail. She desperately wanted a home-cooked meal instead of more hospital food, and she asked him to cook her a steak.

Well, always the pragmatist, Feynman protested, "How the heck can we use it in the room, here, with all the smoke and everything?"

So, Arline suggested he just take it out on the lawn in front of the hospital. But the hospital was located right on Route 66, one of the busiest highways in the country at the time. And Richard again protested that with all the automobile and pedestrian traffic, he couldn't just fire up a grill and start cooking steaks. People would think he was crazy!

And that's when Arline said something that changed everything. She said, "What do you care what other people think?

And those words struck a profound chord with Richard. Not only did he cook Arline the steak she asked for, he did so every weekend after that for the rest of her life.

Feynman realized the wisdom in her words. Why should he care what other people think? He cared about Arline! Her comfort and happiness were more important.

You know, being overly concerned about what other people think can sap your self-confidence and paralyze you with indecision. His wife's words helped Richard Feynman realize that. And they can help you too. So, if you find your young person becoming too worried about what other people think, share this story and ask them, "What do you care what other people think?"

Then help them make a list of a few friends and family members who they really care about. That's Arline to your kid. Everyone else's opinion doesn't matter. In fact, not only should they not care what anyone not on that list thinks about them. They shouldn't even know what they think of them. What other people think of you is none of your business. Tell them this story and help them remember that.

Here are some questions to get you started.

  1. Do you ever worry about what other people think of you?

  2. Has that ever stopped you from doing something you wanted to do?

  3. What's the worst thing that could happen if you did it anyway?

  4. What are some situations where it does really matter what other people think of you?

Okay, in the next lesson, I'll share a simple idea to help build self-confidence in your child right when they need it the most.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith