The Quest for Validation

A pattern I’ve noticed: after I fail to achieve something I think I should have, I enter a period of grasping for any assurance I can find that I’m really better than that failure. Actually, I look for evidence that I’m even better than success in that failed effort would have shown me to be.

That isn’t the only time I look around for validation. To a large extent your, my, and everyone’s life is a series of validation quests. But it’s when my value has been most strongly challenged that I am most completely aware of all the little places I’m looking to make a stand. A place from which I will be able claim some power or importance.

“I may not have gotten that promotion, but I’m nicer than the person that did.” “I may not have gotten that date, but I’m more financially successful than the guys she dates.” “We didn’t win that game, but that’s just because my teammates wouldn’t get me the ball.”

A friend made the point recently that there really is no solid ground from which to make that stand. That the whole quest for validation is itself a part of the way that we humans drive ourselves crazy. A part of our ceaseless desire to have a life better than can possibly exist.

The quest for validation doubtless has evolutionary advantages; it seems very unlikely that the most successful species on our planets has much that isn’t at least a little evolutionarily advantageous. The story for the validation quest is pretty simply: our constant effort to be demonstrably better than others at something leads us to compete harder and survive better than those not motivated in those ways. We are more likely to reproduce successfully if we work hard to be the best prepared for winter, rather than trust that what preparations we’ve made will sustain us through the lean months.

But we don’t live, anymore, in a world where there’s much need to worry about winter preparations. There’s little possibility of dying in most of the world today because we were caught ill-prepared by the fall snow. There’s much said about the cut-throat nature of modern society, but it’s demonstrably less so than most of the past. No one dies in the first world anymore just because it was really cold outside for a long time. Nor do many first-worlders die from it being very hot and dry for a very long time.

And in a world where one can’t derive much success from a constant feeling of insecurity, it’s worth considering the possibility that our validation quests are the opposite of useful. That they are, perhaps, the primary driver of unhappiness in the world.

3 responses to “The Quest for Validation”

  1. But perhaps we should be careful in giving up the validation quest too.

    My first thought was that this post, aside from its virtues and intelligence, is in fact a meta- validation quest. Isn’t it all about validating that it’s okay to not have any validation quests, and that in fact this makes you a better person? Of course it doesn’t seem that way to someone reading it on the lower level of ordinary meaning in communications, it just seems like a true and reasonable statement about not pursuing validation quests.

    But I would just say: be careful. The thought that seems at risk, at least that I consider to be risky, is the thought that you were actually better *not* to have achieved something rather than better to achieve it. And the way to get out that trap is to ask yourself this: would I have thought this *before* failing to achieve whatever it is this sometime? Because if not, that should be a red flag.

    Regardless of whether you agree with me, thank you for providing such an intelligent essay. It’s only possible to comment at all *because* it’s intelligent. Feel free to drop by my websites at adamisom[dot]com and the one linked to me in my comment name of Adam Isom. And if you’re wondering, I found this through The Lone Gunman. Cheers!

  2. It’s absolutely correct to point out that making a public point against validation quests is itself a form of validation seeking. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve wrestled more than once with the egotism inherent in doing anything as simple as talking or keeping a blog.

    The point I would make, relative to your third paragraph, is that there is a big and important difference between doing something in a quest for validation, and doing something because it’s valuable to do it. I don’t think I made this as clear as I could have, but I’m not saying that failing makes me see the failed quest is hollow, but rather that there’s an ancillary quest beside the quest that resulted in failure that was itself hollow. The egoistic, “everyone will love me for this accomplishment” thing is basically what this was a meant to rebut, not the accomplishment that was unachieved.

  3. I checked out your links. Thanks for sharing.

    I totally agree. Well said. I’ll be returning. I know I have validation issues sometimes.

    Just by the way, you might be interested in reading The Meditations or in checking out the blog of Ryan Holiday (ryanholiday[dot]net). These thoughts on not seeking validation reminded me of them.