January 17, 2023

Seeking joy takes precedent over increasing status


Approval is nice, but it’s not necessary.

The bigger goal is to love ourselves without making that love conditional on external approval. To build a strong enough sense of self that shrugs of the world’s opinion of our work, whether that opinion is positive, negative or somewhere in between.

This is what secure, healthy and mature people do. Instead of over relying on other people to decide how they live their life, they make meaning in line with their cherished values regardless.

After all, when did we decide that our worth and value were things that could be proved?

Ethan Hawke, one of my favorite actors of all time, summarized it ideally during a recent interview:

The world is not a very responsible critic. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Lots of things that are terrible will make millions of dollars, and lots of things that are staggeringly brilliant will go unnoticed. And if you’re in service of your art, then everything is easy. But if you want the art to be in service of you, promote you, if everything you do has to be successful and good, then you’re always waiting for everyone’s reaction instead of what you want to communicate.

Which are you focused on? Are you driven more by your fear of failure, or the concrete desire to do something in particular?

It’s the classic battle between status and expression. Not an easy one to fight.

Because status is a primal human longing. There is real survival value in it. Our fundamental yearning for approval drives us to be recognized and verified, since we know people with higher status get more.

Whether it’s access, popularity power, money, sex, and so on, our relative social position is not an insignificant goal. It’s not wrong to desire and enjoy that. It’s only natural that our yearning for status drives us to be recognized and verified for our work.

And so, the goal is not necessarily to outgrow approval, but to outgrow our dysfunctional ways of seeking it. To stop treating approval as another cheap solution to our pain and unresolved wounds. And trusting that it will simply become less interesting over time.

We get to a point where we don’t need someone else’s consent to do what feels right to us, and seeking joy takes precedent over increasing status.

My pursuit of external approval fueled my creative work for the first decade of my career. Whether it was friends, peers, mentors, audience members, family members, the media, strangers on the internet, winning people’s approval motivated everything. It was all about their reaction to my work.

And I achieved many wonderful things because of that drive.

But it was also perishable fuel.

Certainly not sustainable over the long haul.

Only when I decided to downshift my career into dual citizenship mode, did I finally began to outgrow my relationship with approval. Once I started securing day jobs that paid well, my full time employment became the secure base that underwrote my ability to now seriously pursue my art for love, not money or status.

And suddenly approval didn’t count anymore. Because I was free to do whatever I wanted.

It didn’t matter if my new book didn’t sell or my movie didn’t go viral, since the act of making it was already reward enough. It’s not like art was my livelihood anymore, so that opened up all these new avenues of expression. Centered around the question:

What do you want to communicate with the world? What kind of impact do you want to have?

This approach ultimately allowed my creative process to be optimized for comfort and joy and freedom, as opposed to approval, status and marketability. And interestingly enough, that made the work better.

Now that there was no more creative claustrophobia around everyone else noticing and liking and buying my creations, that status focused part of my brain could finally rest. Which invited new kinds of neurons to start firing.

Songs that I probably never would have written when having a big audience still mattered to me.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’ve completely outgrown my immature preoccupation with the small self. Enlightenment has not been achieved. Those survival urges still hijack my system on the regular, like they do for anyone.

I supposed the difference is, I know that my worth and value are things that can’t be proven.

It’s kind of like entering any number into a calculator trying to divide by zero.

What do you see on the screen? Undefined.

Because it’s not a real number. It’s not even an irrational number. It’s this mind blowing abstraction that’s not infinity, negative infinity, nor anywhere in between.

That’s the way we should be thinking about our own value.

There’s nothing for people to calculate because it’s not a number.

What if your worth and value were things that couldn’t be proven?