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.