Often our drive and desire come out of our need for the approval of others. A need most of us developed as a child when we needed approval and attention from our parents and adults. When we continue to submit to this need for external approval, we give up on our authentic self and we seek things that no longer serve or satisfy us.
When we develop enough self-knowledge we can come out of this trap and become more authentic to ourselves and the world. When we get there, our work becomes meaningful that can truly change the world for the better. The self that needs the approval of others will never be able to do work that brings us true joy and brings meaningful change to the world.
I don’t mean to discourage you. Rather I want you to be clear and understanding of yourself. Because the journey is tough. The sacrifices are immense. The challenges are difficult. Unless you know why you are doing it, at some point you will come to regret your decision regardless of how your decision turns out for you.
People do things for many reasons. One dominant factor that drives our motivation as humans is our need for the approval of others. There is nothing inherently bad in seeking or needing the approval of others or seeking social approval for that matter. But the point is if you are doing something for social approval, you are not doing it for yourself or any higher power. As a result, although it may bring you success and fame, and power, it is unlikely to bring you any real happiness. Similarly, if the task is something difficult and requires sacrifice, you are likely to give up when going gets tough or you will produce only mediocre results.
The human child is born as an incapable being reliant on others for its survival. An infant is always looking for ways to improve its chance of survival which depends on others. At a young age, we develop a tendency to please others and seek the approval of others. Because when a father or a mother approves of us, it improves our chances of well-being and getting things that we want. If one or both parents are troubled, which is the case in most instances in almost every household where well-intentioned parents burdened by their realities fail their kids, this tendency of seeking approval becomes a strong part of our being. We do things that improve our chances of making our parents happy. Approval of our parents becomes our key priority.
Eventually, this trait becomes a part of who we are and spills out of the family into real life. The society, boss, and colleagues in the office eventually become new parents as we move up in life’s path who we seek to please. Everywhere social approval becomes a key driver for us doing anything. We seek fame and attention because it feels like approval. We seek success because it validates us. From there onward, we lose contact with our deeper selves and instead take on what others expect of us as our ambition and goals.
We seek a higher salary, prestigious jobs, travel to exotic places, want to build billion-dollar companies, want to become famous, and so on because it allows us to garner social approval. Others appreciate us.
Many of these things we probably genuinely want. But often we don’t know why we do certain things and want certain things. As a result, at one point our life falls apart. We lose track of what and why we are doing what we are doing. We fail ourselves. We fail our close ones. Chaos takes over.
The supreme job of being an adult is to break free of this need for seeking the approval of others. We become aware of expectations of others and expectations of ourselves and then we decide which we want to pursue and which we don’t want to pursue. Being able to do this is the most important achievement of being an adult.
When we can do this and shed off our need for external approval and validation from others, we can become our authentic selves. The self that knows who he/she is, is the self that makes the greatest impact and is capable of making the choices that not only serve the self but also the world.
Similarly, when you are authentic to yourself and not serving others or doing something to make others happy, you become capable of doing the right thing and doing it with all your might, and hence your chance of success grows manifolds.
Knowing the self is critical work for founders because the journey is tough and if you don’t know yourself your chance of making mistakes and failing gets higher. For many founders, like every one of us, seeking approval becomes a central drive for building anything. You want to build a billion-dollar company, you want to raise billions in funding, and so on and so forth because it validates you. But why do you want to do it? Is it something that your authentic self wants to pursue or do you simply want to impress everyone and be famous?
I don’t want to mean that having ambition such as raising a billion in funding is bad. I’m very much in favor of having ambition. I, myself, am quite ambitious. But I have also seen the cost of having ambition that is driven by external expectations and is not ours but learned from others. When we do things for the sake of external validation, we eventually suffer.
It is a useful practice to check with yourself time and again and see whether you want to pursue the ambition that you have set for yourself. It keeps us clear and makes our journey meaningful.
Building a wildly successful startup is a worthwhile goal and dedicating your life to achieving that goal makes perfect sense. In fact, there are only a few other things as important as building an organization that you can pursue in life. But you should build for the right reasons. Your drive should not come from your need for the approval of others but from deep inside yourself. Every time you make a life-changing decision, verify that you are using the right compass.
Originally published on 29 October 2020. Updated 11 January 2023.