Less than a decade ago we needed validation to get where we needed to go. Schools validated us for college, which validated us entry level jobs, which validated us for higher level jobs. The same was true for art. In most cases, one book deal, or record deal, or gallery exhibition, led to two and then three and onward. One gatekeeper provided the initial validation we needed to play and the baton was handed from one gatekeeper to the next without much further thought.
Today, the gatekeepers are fading away. With them is fading our need for validation. For some, this is a welcome change. They are launching businesses and YouTube channels. They are self publishing books and albums. They recognise that they can do anything they want as long as they want it enough. For most of us, however, we’ve replaced this need for validation with a need for reassurance. Without someone to tell us whether we can or can’t, we instead find ourselves asking others whether we are any good.
The problem is that reassurance is pointless for two reasons. The first is that great work requires us to work at our edge and when we need reassurance we can’t work at this edge. The second is that reassurance is futile because we long for an endless supply.
The solution is to embrace the unknown by encouraging tension (before going any further, I want to be clear that stress is not tension. Tension is the force. Stress is one reaction to the force). The solution is to encourage the tension, dance with it and release it through art. Tension is the goal, not the consequence. It is a sign that we are making progress. Yet, most of us spend majority of our lives trying to alleviate this tension by seeking reassurance. We ask for the keys to the emerald city, but when we’re handed them, we get distracted and drop them along the way. Instead of retracing our steps and looking for them, we return to those who gave them to us in the first place and ask for another set. Not just because they have the keys, but because we seek another dose of reassurance. This is exhausting for those providing the advice and pointless for those receiving it.
To find satisfaction, we must flip our thinking. We must quit asking ourselves, am I good enough? And instead ask ourselves, what is the change I am trying to make in the world? How can I make this change occur more often? And, how can I seek less reassurance?
Harvard students go on to become CEOs and executives because they are taught to believe in themselves. Some may argue that the school validates them, but I think different. Yes, Harvard is a reputable name, but most students go on to start their own businesses. They are taught to believe in themselves. And they believe they will be rich. Instead of seeking out reassurance, they spend their time building their riches.
This idea is no better told than in the Cherokee legend of two wolves. An old chief was teaching his grandson about life. He said, “There’s a great fight going on inside all of us. It’s a fight between two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, guilt, sorrow and ego. The other is good. He is joy, love, hope, truth and faith.”
The grandson asked, “Which wolf will win?”.
The chief replied, “The one you feed.”