When I go to bed each night and reflect whether or not it was a day well-spent, I merely ask myself if I did my best to make legitimate progress toward a goal of mine or to help someone else make progress toward one of theirs. A simple “yes” to either or both is the only metric that matters. Rather subjective and simplistic, I know. The other potential flaw in such a metric is that I, alone, own the assessment. No one has to validate my actions, I am judge and jury. As time goes on, I have chosen to rely less and less on others to validate my decisions, contributions, or performance. It seems perfectly natural to me that I feel this way, but I know it wasn’t always the case. Heck, early in life we all allow what others think of us to trump what we may think of ourselves. I’ve grown convinced that provided we have a solid moral compass, the more quickly we unlearn this instinct, the happier we will be.

As young children, we are conditioned to please our parents. Staying out of trouble and, at times, giving parents reason to be proud is what drives pre-adolescents. Then we go to school, and we do the same for teachers. We fill out worksheets, we “behave” in class, we regurgitate memorized information on tests, and we seek validation in the form of grades. On the athletic field, it is all about the trophy we “earn” for being the best amongst a given grouping of peers. As adults, many of us find jobs or even careers where the performance appraisal that someone senior to us writes is what decides if we are fortunate enough to keep our job or promote. Heck, last week I listened to a retired football player (Hines Ward for you Steelers Fans) tell the listening audience that he retired because he no longer had anything to prove to his critics. It should come as no surprise that so many of us go through life (or at least a significant portion thereof) with the focus being proving ourselves to others. How many Americans go into extreme debt to buy things they don’t really need to impress people they don’t even know? We seem to care more about what others think of us than what we believe ourselves. What an unfortunate way to go through life.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I do enjoy pleasing others and giving friends, family, and even strangers reason to smile makes me smile. The difference is I choose to look at external validation as a potential result and not the desired effect. It’s not about the trophy, it’s about the effort. It’s not about the applause, it’s about the journey. It’s not about the grade, it’s about what we learn.

Making my parents proud pleases me, but it’s not my specific intent. Getting an A in a class is of no importance to me, continued learning is. High marks on my periodic fitness sports (performance appraisals) matter little, self-satisfaction in leading WITH my team matters much. Getting the next promotion would be nice, but it doesn’t validate who I am. And if given the choice, I’d wear no ribbons on my uniform at all.

In my professional career, I have adopted a philosophy of picking myself as opposed to waiting for someone else to pick me. I take great pride in doing things that are not my job, I don’t like to wait to be tasked to do something, and I very much enjoy creating opportunity. This blog is but one thing I gave myself permission to create. I write regularly and enjoy it a great deal. I don’t give much thought as to who reads it and I surely don’t expect there to be any comments, but it has proven to be a great relationship and conversation starter. External validation is not what drives me to write, to lead, or to simply be. That said, I am not a robot and constructive feedback is not lost on me. Truth is I am fond of the thank-yous I receive from others with whom I continue to enjoy life’s journey.

Earlier this month, I saw an unsolicited blog post about me by an artist that I admire greatly. Reading it touched me more than I expected and, at first, I was unsettled by the smile it put on my face. As stated earlier, I was the only judge and jury for my work and I need no one else’s approval. So why did the appreciation expressed in this singular post fill me with such pride?

It may seem to contradict the message above, but I don’t think it does. I am willing to admit that it does feel good when someone else sees merit in the things we do. But as good as it feels, I don’t believe that should be the reason we do it. We do it because it matters to us, because it makes us smile, and because we see it as meaningful use of our time.  If others see value in it, all the better.

  • Do your contributions to the world around you make you proud?
  • How much of what you do is purely done to gain the approval of others?
  • When you close your eyes tonight, will you be proud of the way you spent your day?