That's like, just your opinion man


In Israel it occasionally happens that someone declares himself “king of the Jews”, “messiah” or even the “reincarnation of Jesus Christ” - it’s quite common and has been dubbed the “Jerusalem Syndrome”. We have quite a few of these prophets, along with a healthy supply of self proclaimed gurus, rabbi’s and cult leaders with their respective followers. We also have a horde of state endorsed religious nutcases (Israel does not have separation of church and state) with varying degrees of psychosis. Faced with absurd claims for divine ordination, it’s easy to take those titles with a grain of salt; yet for some reason this logic seems to be forgotten when you hear about the “King of Sweden”, “Lord”, “Sir” or the “Duke of York”… suddenly people attach meaning to those self proclaimed or state endorsed titles. Faced with these people, claiming to somehow be “better” than everyone else - through merit of lineage, historical fluke or a certificate by another delusional person - one particular answer seems highly appropriate:

I don’t have to accept your assumed nobility, it’s just your opinion - do something noble and then come talk to me. Similarly when someone tells me they are a “Master of Science” or a “Doctor of Philosophy”, it’s just an opinion. This opinion might be widely accepted by their friends their colleagues and some institutions, but that does not mean I have to accept it. Show me some mastery of sciences and I might agree.

How many times have you sat through an interview with a “Senior” or “Principle” engineer who was spewing bullshit with utter confidence? It is wise to remember that his title is just his and possibly his workplace opinion; Perhaps by my standards he is something else entirely. I don’t have to accept anyone’s opinion - and that fundamental principle is one of the most crucial for keeping your mental health in check. Automatically accepting someone elses opinion about a stranger is obviously absurd, but the subtle implication which is far more damaging is implicitly accepting someone else’s opinion about yourself. A kid comes back from school crying, “Tom called me an idiot!"; “just ignore him” says his mother but it really isn’t as simple as that, is it? We spend a lifetime being indoctrinated to automatically internalize other people’s opinion, developing an unhealthy addiction fueled by “positive” opinions and flattery. But do not forget! a compliment is just the flip side of an insult and is nothing more than someone else’s opinion; internalize it and you have become prime target for manipulation. We are surrounded by “AWS heroes” and “GitHub stars” who are being manipulated by blunt marketing schemes - it’s easy to call bullshit on that because they mostly don’t get paid. But then people join a tech enterprise and suddenly they agree to have their professional identities be dictated by corporate bureaucrats 🤦. “These are the requirements to be a level 11 Software Engineer” - this isn’t D&D! only I get to set my bar of professionalism, the most you can do is set a bar for how much you are willing to pay me and I always get to disagree and walk away. If there’s one thing I learned from spending time with artists it’s the value of having to form your own professional identity. When you are painter, no one will promote you to “senior painter”. There is no authority to tell you how good you are, no titles to chase, no mandatory subjects to learn. There is only you hearing other people’s critique of your work - forcing you to decide on your own what to learn next, where to improve, are you good enough with this technique. People can flatter you or trash you, pay you or ignore you; but ultimately you and you alone decide the value of your work. In our world of organized labor we talk about “being promoted” or “earning that promotion” without realizing what this means: we have accepted someone else’s opinion of what “good” and “bad” are, their system of values and rules; how sad it is that “promotion” always depends on someone else. One is never “promoted” by others because that implies they decide your value; only you can decide what “promotion” is by your standards or else have your ego manipulated by managers. Yes, they get to decide how much they pay you, but never confuse a paycheck with values. Letting other people dictate our priorities and goals has become the de-facto standard. It’s quite common in corporates to have an HR person do “career planning” conversations with employees who do not realize how they signed over their most basic autonomy. A “career” is supposed to be (at least in modern times) one’s professional journey in life, are you really interested in the opinions of corporate bureaucrats on where it should go? often what they deem as promotion I view as demotion.

A while back I tweeted my thoughts of what “senior engineer” means to me

The tweet became viral and I was utterly unprepared for the backlash. People I don’t know, working for companies I have never heard of, got offended. I received angry responses like “Who are you to tell me I am not a senior engineer?!”, “I’m a senior engineer at company X and even I don’t meet those standards!"; In essence people read my tweet, implicitly accepted my definition of senior, judged themselves by my standards, decided they don’t meet them and blamed me for the resulting feeling of inadequacy. How fragile are their egos that they must impose a title someone else gave them on the made up standards of someone they have never met and has zero impact on their livelihood? These people depend on external validation so much that any differing opinion is a personal threat. When that happens, every technical debate becomes a personal attack, every argument an insult. The “solution” in our society is to compensate with ego stroking compliments, but that only makes matters worse. Although we ridicule it, the “shit sandwich” method exists largely because it works; in fact I would argue it is the prevailing method of management, with countless management coaches teaching to periodically compliment “subordinates” and give them “recognition”.

The most important thing you can do for yourself is develop your autonomy, taking responsibility for your choices and compromises. For that it is crucial to realize that you don’t have to accept other people’s opinions, which does not imply disrespect! People are entitled to have their own opinion, as long as they don’t try to force me to agree. Sadly the vast majority of people confuse respect with conformance, demanding agreement rather than acknowledgement. Disagreeing with people who identify with their opinions too much carries the risk of violent reaction - I’ve been called anything from idiot to racist - but that’s fine, because I don’t have to accept their reaction either.

At some point there will be a moment when you will disagree with someone with a title - a CEO, a king or a Gruppenführer; they will tell you something you think is dumb dangerous or unethical. At that moment you will have to wake yourself up from a life dictated by other people and say:

Well, that’s like, just your opinion man.

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