When I was a kid, I was obsessed with guarantees. I would ask my mom over and over again if she thought something I wanted to do would work.
I’d ask three different ways to gauge the results and, if one of them veered towards ambiguity, I’d keep rephrasing the question. If I couldn’t get a satisfactory response, I probably wouldn’t do the thing I was asking about.
Needless to say, this habit of mine drove my mom crazy. Her constant refrain: “You can’t always get a guarantee in life.”
But no matter how many times I heard that, I refused to believe it. “Sure you can!” I would think. “You just have to prepare everything perfectly and then it will all work out.”
So I blithely made my way through life in constant search of guarantees. This worked out fine while I was in school, as I tended to take the classes I already knew I’d be good at.
But my entire theory came crashing down once I hit the “real world.” Unsurprisingly, my self esteem came crashing down with it.
Now, ten years later, I’ve finally realized the problem with my quest for guarantees. And I’ve even learned to seek out opportunities that would challenge everything I already knew.
I never want to become the person seeking guarantees again.
The Never-Ending Cycle of Seeking External Validation
So why was I so obsessed with guarantees? Because I was living in a fixed mindset and I needed to know that everything I was doing would end in success.
Sadly, this was the only way I could feel good about my intelligence. Basically, every time I sought a guarantee, I was seeking external validation.
If this sounds sad, it is. As confident as I was in myself as being a good person, I never felt confident about my intelligence or my worth to the world. Therefore I had to seek out external validation in everything I did.
But there was no amount of accolades I could get to “fix” the problem. It was a vicious cycle of seeking outside of myself — and it’s a cycle many go through.
You know the worst part of this? The way seeing external validation can mask itself. You might not think you’re doing this. I never did. I just thought it was normal to want my teachers to approve of me, my grades to be as high as they could be, and my opportunities to be plentiful.
I thought this was what anyone striving for excellence would want.
Here’s the difference: a setback on any of these goals would paralyze me. A bad grade in a certain subject meant never trying that subject again. A hard time learning a concept meant I was destined to be a failure in that area. Instead of learning from my challenges, I avoided them.
That’s not what someone striving for excellence would do. That’s what someone striving for external validation would do. And the whole ride is driven by fear.
The Danger in Seeking External Validation
Seeking external validation may seem harmless enough, but it’s not. To create a life in which external validation thrives is to build a house of cards.
It only takes one gust of wind to topple the whole house down.
Don’t do this to yourself. When I graduated from college and struggled to find work in my field, I was crushed. “But I had such great grades,” I thought. “My professors told me I had so much promise.”
I didn’t try to solve the problem. As I kept struggling to find work in my field, I started to feel victimized by the system.
Rather than finding creative solutions to my problem, I first felt like a failure, then I felt failed by the education system, then I felt failed by my city and the lack of opportunities it brought.
Just read what I did: “I felt…I felt…I felt…” Where’s the “I did….I did…I did…”?
It’s not there. Because the only active role I took in this process was feeling sorry for myself. And that’s what a fixed mindset can do to you. If you thrive on external validation — and get it often — then the day you stop getting it will feel like the end of your world.
Hopelessness settles in, external validation dissipates to nothing, and your confidence withers away. Don’t do this to yourself.
Finding Confidence Within is Imperative to Growth
There are going to be people who don’t think you’re good enough. There are going to be people who question your art. There are going to be long periods in which no validation comes from anyone outside of you.
Push through anyway.
If you’re living a life of creative work, then you’re entering into a life that comes with a lot of challenges. If you want to create, you’re going to have to put a lot of bad work out there before you get to the good. If you’re trying to innovate, you’re going to do a lot of things that don’t work before you find the thing that does.
There’s no way to keep doing this if you’re constantly seeking approval.
The creative life is a life devoid of guarantees. That’s the pain of it and that’s the beauty of it. But if you’re going to embrace it, you must embrace all of it.
Ironically, the way that I pushed out of my fixed mindset and found true confidence within was through trying things that I knew nothing about. I needed to operate without a safety net to prove to myself I could push through failure.
And once I did that, my entire life changed.
I’m lucky that I entered into a situation that gave me this much-needed paradigm shift. But I wouldn’t have chosen it on my own. I was pushed hard by my boyfriend (now husband) and at the time I was really frustrated with him for it.
But now, I’m so grateful. I wish I could have come to this on my own, but I didn’t. And that’s what creatives helping each other is all about.
Sometimes we need help. But help doesn’t mean validation. The only validation he gave me was that he knew I could handle failure if it came, and all I could do was try to believe him and get really comfortable with being uncomfortable in the meantime.
Now, I live a life of seeking out bigger and bigger challenges. Failure isn’t my biggest fear anymore. Complacency is.
I know how easily I can slip back into the fixed mindset. I know how much I will always want external validation. The only way I can avoid succumbing to that is to do things that scare me.
Like starting Off The Rails, for example.
Kali and I knew we wanted to do something like this, but we didn’t know how. Heck, even now we’re testing different ideas and figuring out the best way to serve you. A
nd we might make mistakes along the way (actually, we will make mistakes along the way). The thing that’s keeping us going? Knowing that working on this is more important than our desire for external validation and supporting each other through the hard parts.
When you’re doing creative work and struggling to find the confidence in yourself, find confidence instead in the need to do the work you’re setting out to do. Remove yourself from the equation and focus on your work and why you believe it’s so important to do.
Once you do that, you’ll be able to start doing things that scare you. And once you do that (and realize you live to tell about it), then you can find the confidence within.
Because how much better is it to know that you can bounce back from setbacks and failures rather than proving over and over again that you can do the thing you already know you can do? Forget external validation.
Finding confidence in yourself is the only way to find fulfillment and do the thing you’ve been put here to do.
So, let’s get to work.