Monday, July 11, 2011

On Validation and Confidence

We all like to be congratulated on a job well done, or for otherwise contributing something to a group effort.  Everyone likes to feel like whatever they’re doing matters.  Hell, I get caught up in it sometimes with this blog, tracking pageviews and comments to a less-than-healthy extent.

At the end of the day, though, why does all of this validation matter?  Why are we so hard-wired to seek the approval of others for a job well done?  Shouldn’t the fact that you know it was a “job well done” be enough?

Yes…mostly.  Validation does matter if you’re looking to break into a new industry or taking on an entirely new skillset.  For example, I started writing for Eleven Magazine in Portland about a month ago, but the issue finally came out.  It’s pretty cool to see my stuff actually in print somewhere, and Ryan and the staff obviously do a great job putting the mag together.  Shouldn’t they get recognition for a job well done? 

Maybe it has to do with social proof; that people need to know that you provide some kind of “value” so that you can ascend the social hierarchy.  Or maybe it has to do with the idea that you need to feel like your life has some kind of meaning and impact on others; otherwise, what’s the point?  Or maybe you want some kind of concrete reassurance of the same.

I think a lot of times, though, it comes down to confidence.  On some levels, confidence is the absence of a need for validation.  When you’re truly confident, you don’t need an “’atta boy!” for just showing up, or to dote all over your significant other while others are around to somehow “prove” your devotion to each other. 

That’s why I think that the recent trend of giving out “participation trophies” is so dangerous; we’re undermining the confidence of an entire generation of kids, all in the name of “helping their self-esteem.”  Instead of actually earning those trophies, and understanding why hard work, effort, and talent matter, we just hand out gold-colored figurines atop tall bases to anyone whose parents care enough to bring them to an open field on time.  Kids come to expect this external validation, even through their adult lives.

We’re starting to see this with my generation (Gen Y), though I don’t think the “participation trophies” really caught on until we were teenagers.  Instead of true confidence, this constant validation provides people with a sense of false confidence and entitlement, and really engenders a “my way or the highway” attitude that is detrimental to learning and personal development.  The next generation after us is even worse (though that always seems to be the case…).  Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great things that we bring to the table as a generation, but this isn’t necessarily one of them. 

As a society, we have to start getting back to true confidence.  Confidence is being secure enough in yourself to listen to somebody when they say they might have a better way to do something.  Most of the time, it’s earned through hard work and doing a good job that you can be proud of.  There aren’t really any shortcuts to achieving it, though here are some tips that might help.  It takes time and effort to discover your confidence, though I’m pretty sure everyone has it somewhere inside of them.  It’s up to you to find it.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and former attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at Follow him on twitter @djgelner. Friend him on facebook here.

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