But in 4th grade, Billy’s opinion of my head was that it was big. Everyday at recess, he persistently reminded me and all the other students about his stance on the immensity of my head.
He said he didn’t want to be on my dodgeball team because my head was an unfairly large target.
“It’s not that big, I can wear hats!” and “A big head means a bigger brain!” were among my brilliant comebacks.
He loved this. A reaction. I was mad. He knew it. Every time I retaliated, he won.
I decided to strategically confide in my Mom without my Dad knowing. Look, my Dad is the sweetest man in the world, but he’s a tough OG. He grew up in a different era. Telling fellow students to “meet behind the library” after school was an acceptable way to resolve issues. They’d grapple, then be friends the next day.
When he was around the same age as I was, his summer job was at a beer factory in Philly working primarily with ex-cons. A couple of them took to liking him. They’d come to his baseball games which would send a message to other kids and tougher co-workers to never mess with him.
And I was afraid of little old Billy.
I was also afraid my Pops was going to think I was soft. Mom would definitely understand so I asked her if I could shave my head so it would look smaller. Makes perfect sense, right?
“Why would you want to make your head look smaller?” My Dad questioned from the other room.
After some prying, I explained the torment I was getting. To an adult, this probably didn’t seem all that offensive. But to me it was. What felt like months of embarrassment was probably only a week or two, but I needed it to stop. Plus, I was trying to holler at Michelle and Billy was messing up my rep.
That’s when my Dad told me the strangest advice I ever heard, even to this day.
“Next time he insults you” he said, “You look him in the eyes and say ‘Keep bragging about me’.”
He didn’t care if the mockery was true or not (Like I said, my head was/is oddly shaped, not big.) He knew that getting mad is the food the bully thrives upon. It’s the creatine in the post-workout shake. It makes the next encounter even more aggressive.
But Dad, No. I’m not telling this kid to keep doing this. That’s insanity. I wish this suffering on no one! Especially not me.
But I had nothing to lose. Also, I was eleven and still great at listening to directions.
The next day, Billy was in full effect. In the middle of class, he said he couldn’t see the blackboard because my head was in the way (He wasn’t even sitting behind me.). Yes, that’s actually pretty funny.
But I did as I was told. Turned his direction. Squared him up and said “Thank you for the compliment. Keep bragging about me!”
The class went silent. I mean, they were already silent. But I’m talking yoga class all you can hear is the one dude breathing heavily silent.
Billy had nothing. His strategy was derailed. His bullets were no longer effective. They went right through me.
More importantly, that was one of the the last times he ever tried.
I wasn’t worth his effort. The response was too confusing to spend time decoding. It had a similar effect as the strategy that Will taught Ashley in the famous Fresh Prince bullying episode. It would be much easier to move on to weaker prey who would retaliate according to his plan.
Today, Billy is still everywhere. Often in disguise, but more clever and creatined-up than ever.
He’s in the comments.
He’s in the whispers when we walk in the room.
He’s talking to your boss.
He’s watching the game at the bar.
He’s in the crowd.
He’s reviewing your artwork.
He’s writing on Yelp before he starts the car.
He’s scrolling up and down your timeline.
He’s reading this article right now.
Every Billy has something to say about how life should or shouldn’t be.
But most of the time, Billy isn’t doing anything worthwhile because Billy is scared of what any other Billy might say. Billy is insecure. Billy doesn’t love what he does, so it’s more convenient to lash out at people who have the very courage he is lacking. It’s easier, safer. It takes no specific talent or effort to be a critic, that’s why there are so many.
The people who really care about your work are usually too busy doing something meaningful to boast about you (So definitely thank them when they do!). The people who don’t like your work have nothing better to do but to remind you.
By responding on their terms, we keep the this vicious cycle in constant motion. By not giving in, the loop is destructed. Road work signs go up and they have to turn around.
Next time we feel the fear of scrutiny for our mission, just do the work, trust yourself, and deliver. Learn from the results. Then do better work.
When Billy shows up, because he’ll be prompt as ever, thank him for spending his valuable time on planet earth thinking about you. After all, Billy could be focusing on anyone, but he chose you! That’s the finest of compliments.
Or better yet, give him nothing. Keep building to bring value to the people who do matter.
Own all of who you are. The good and the bad. You have the best intentions. You know who you are, so let them brag about you.
Oh and Billy, I appreciate you. I hope you find the inspiration to pour your heart into something truly meaningful.
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