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Letting Go of External Validation

Can you define the happiest moment of your life?

Up until recently, I thought I could pinpoint it down to an exact point in time.

During my senior year of college, I was convinced that my sole purpose in life was to become a management consultant. I perfected my resume. I talked to all the right people. I read all the right books. I went to all the right networking events.

I was sitting in an art class, just finishing up some drawing in the late evening during the middle of October almost two years ago, and checked my email as I started walking out the door. 

And in my inbox sat an email from McKinsey inviting me to a first round interview. 

I was absolutely ecstatic. 

I started hyperventilating and had to pace back and forth across the hallway in an attempt to burn off the adrenaline that had been so instantaneously flooded into my body.

I called my now ex-girlfriend to share the news. As I began telling her that I had finally gotten an interview, I realized that I was scheduled for the upcoming Monday, which happened to be the final day of a three day weekend, and that the two of us had a camping trip planned for that same weekend. And as I told here about how excited I was, and how this was the most incredible opportunity that had ever bestowed itself upon me, and how I wasn’t going to be able to go camping, she just listened and answered in short phrases, and then hung up the phone. 

I later learned that my agreement to partake in this camping trip had been incredibly important to her, and that she was devastated by my inability to go. But at the time, in my naiveté, I was too focused on the external validation showered upon me by the most prestigious management consulting firm in the world. It felt to me as though everything I had done up to that point had been worth it. Every sacrifice I had made, every late night studying or Saturday spent in the library instead of at the beach, was worth it. I was on top of the world.

So I spent that weekend holed up in the library instead of camping out in the woods, videotaping myself answering every interview question I could think of and practicing case after case after case. I don’t think I ate for two days. 

And yet when my interview came on Monday, I couldn’t have been more unprepared. I completely floundered, later told in the debrief that I “lacked direction in my thinking during the case” and “required too many prompts in order to solve each problem effectively.” Needless to say, I completely blew it.

In the months that followed, I bottomed out. I was devastated to have not been chosen, to not be good enough for that job or numerous others that I applied for and didn’t get. 

I did find a job though, a great one in fact. One that helped me grow in ways that I could have never imagined. I worked that job for a year and learned from incredibly smart people and lived in a beautiful place and made some great friends.

But when I first decided to partake on this motorcycle adventure back in May, I had no idea whether or not I could make myself happy. The life I led between that ecstatic moment in a hallway outside an art room and my decision to drop everything and travel around the United States seemed filled with changes, disappointments, and moments of deep sadness that managed to outnumber the good times and happy moments. 

I recently had a drink with that girl I let down by not going on that camping trip, and she brought up that specific moment, that specific phone call, almost two years later within just the first few minutes of our conversation. She brought up how sad she had been that the trip didn’t happen, and I couldn’t help but wince at the way I had let some company truly rule over the happiness I felt in my life. 

Because as I look back on the last two and a half months, I can clearly see that I was happier then, and am happier now, than any other time in my life because I have let go of the constraints of external validation. I have chosen to be happy for who I am, not for what other people say or think about me. 

Happiness is a choice. You can hand that choice over to the world, and hope that things happen to you that are righteous and good. You can let what other people tell you drive the way you think about yourself and your life. I did that for a long time. 

Or you can grab your life by the horns and say “I am the captain of this ship. I control my own thoughts and actions, and I choose to be happy.” 

Sure, life isn’t always that simple. Life will beat you upside the head with a tire iron on occasion. And as a middle class, white, American male I cannot say that I have lived a life filled with true pain and suffering. I have lived a life more comfortable than probably 90% of the 7 billion people on this earth. I recognize that there are people who truly got the short end of whatever perverse stick is used to determine where we begin our lives because I have seen those people across America and talked to them and been able to acknowledge that my life has been a cake walk in comparison. 

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when I’ve felt like everything is conspiring against me and that no matter what I do, I’m not good enough to exist. Because I let other people define what it meant for me to be happy and succeed. I craved that external validation like a drug, always searching for that next bigger and better hit that would come and take me away to the promised land, if only for a brief moment.

The transition from external validation to internal validation is hard. It requires facing down the demons resting inside the crevices of your mind, the voices telling you you’re not good enough or not old enough or not smart enough. It requires recognizing that freedom in your life is actually possible, no matter what anyone tells you. 

Because it is possible. The freedom to choose to be happy is possible. 

And when you do make that choice, the moments disappear. When I look back at the time I’ve spent traveling across the country, there aren’t individual points in time that I can point to and say that those times were that much better than others. The exactness of a single ecstatic event has gone away, replaced instead by a blanket of happiness.