Approval is Overrated

At the Berlin Wall.  July, 2013.  7 months after declaring our independence from approval:)
At the Berlin Wall. July, 2013. 7 months after declaring our independence from approval:)

Here’s a handy rule for getting nothing done in life: Seek approval.  Have your family sign off on your every decision.  Get a job where the very lifting of a finger requires your boss’s signature.  Never do anything out of the ordinary or risky for fear of failure or ridicule from your peers.  Think that your friends have to agree with or be jealous of your decisions in life.  Live the entirety of your days, stepping around gingerly, all concerned with what people are thinking.

Don’t get me wrong.  Approval is nice.  It is nice to have family, bosses, pretty people or peers approve of what you are doing.  It feels all warm and fuzzy to get the thumbs up for all your major moves.  It is validating.  It is reassuring.  It feels right.  It’s all smiles.

Here’s the one little problem with that strategy:  It leads to absolutely nothing.  It does not change the world, it only deepens mediocrity’s rut.  All that a life of approval-seeking does is produce more of the same.  More people on anti-depressants.  More impressive pot bellies.  More cookie cutter houses that are built too fast and that ensnare their naive owners in too much debt.  More blah, day-to-day living, much of it spent commuting to a barely tolerable job doing something you don’t enjoy for people you don’t like.


If you have had enough of approval-fueled existence realize one thing:  No Pony Express is rushing to the rescue with a delivery of some cure for your own timidity.  Changing your life is going to take some really uncomfortable, bold moves on your part.  You will have to go against the grain.  You will need to ruffle some feathers.  You are going to get people talking about you.  And yes, you will have people disapprove.

If this sounds too awkward and you don’t think it is worth the trouble, do us both a favor and stop reading this.

If, however, a life more meaningful, exciting and intentionally-lived is of appeal, join me in my working Declaration of Independence from the Approval Culture:

From this instant, decide that you will do whatever it takes to absolutely and completely live these truths:

You don’t have to care about what everyone thinks.

This isn’t about being a rebel or being reckless.  This is a fundamental truth in life:  if you care too much about what other people think, you become imprisoned by the prevailing attitudes around you.  You are no better than those that stood by and condoned the worst atrocities in human history.  You are the epitome of small town thinking or big city politically-correct-and-impossibly-fashionable lifestyle adherence (equally despicable ends of the same plinky coin.) You are expendable and destined for the rubbish heap full of everyone else who blindly followed.

You were never destined to be imprisoned by your cubicle

As comforting as it is to have a measure of climate-controlled stability, you were never supposed to be holed up in your cubicle.  You can decorate the walls of that office cell with pictures of Yosemite and quotes about dancing like no one is watching.  You can pin up big-fonted affirmations of the riches, Riviera-lounging and adventure that will some day flood into your life.  But the reality is that if you are not gutsy enough to execute a prison break, the farthest you will go is down the hallway to the water cooler for another rousing conversation with the guy from Accounts Payable.

Your current income (READ: Capacity to take on even more debt) was never meant to define you or your future

There’s a predictable cycle for most reasonably competent types.  You finish school, get a foot in the door of some workplace as a coffee-fetcher that is paid the bare minimum.  You stay in the job, lured by the prospect of promotions and raises.   Time passes, youth and its sparky ideals fade and you may be able to impress those above enough to get a raise.  Either that or you just stay put long enough that your step wage increase makes those 10 to 40 years of doing the same thing add up to ensure that you are one of the better paid photocopiers around.

Either way, there is a huge temptation to think your worth and self-esteem should be tied to the way the system pays you.  It is hard to resist the endless cycle of approval-seeking at work and society. You obsess about the opinions of others so as to increase your standing, which (hopefully) will increase income and, because you are a slave to the system, your self-esteem. STOP BUYING INTO THIS.  It is a slow, painful, unrewarding death march.  You can liberate yourself.  Freedom and meaning are possible.

Prison Breaks Take Planning

If you see yourself (as I did for longer than I care to admit) described by the depressing verbiage above, it is often tempting to do something drastic, like march into your boss’s office right away and say you quit.  For some, this may be just right.  For most, however, an effective escape takes planning.

If you belong to the second pack, make sure you start planning TODAY.  If you are dissatisfied at work (or in any major life context), decide exactly where you want to be a year for now.  Do you want to be on the beach in Thailand? It’s pretty nice.  Do you want to be in a better job? You can.  Do you want to be your own boss? Hey, crazier things have happened.  Each of those options are possible.  And quite frankly, “possible” is enough reason for you to get off your butt and put your all into making it happen.  It’s up to you.  Is it going to be the orange cubical jumpsuit or is it going to be a life of fulfillment?  You can do this.  Dumber people have pulled this off with spectacular success.  Don’t sell yourself short.

The world is dying for you to do something different

Here’s the deepest reason of all for shunning the approval culture: You are called to a life of service.  The world is suffering from a malady that only you can cure.  This isn’t grandiose thinking.  It is reality.  Face up to it:  You are supposed to help people in a way that is unique to only you.  You can make this world better in a way that nobody else can even imagine.  You have something that nobody else does.  If you squelch this individuality by conforming to the oppression of approval seeking, the world will be all the worse for it.

Realize this isn’t about you.  The biggest reason to declare your independence from the approval culture has nothing to do with you.  It is unselfish.  It is altruistic.  It is about following a calling.  It is about finding and following the reason you are living and breathing.  It is about relishing the fact that you are different and it is about giving yourself entirely to making the most of this life and its ample opportunities for service.


“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

(Apple ad copy from back in the day when they were the scrappy new kid on the block)


16 thoughts on “Approval is Overrated”

  1. I simply love it guys. ….. We are travelling parallel to you guys, , albeit different due to circumstances! Totally awesome, not a word I use often,, you guys deserve is usage! I have not even read the whole post yet! @@@

  2. For me, the most important thing about disapproving of approval is that it gives you accountability for your own life.

    The successes and errors along the way are all yours. You’re not following anybody else’s script: consistently learning nothing from the mistakes of your parents and friends or chasing your tail trying to make the meaningless mean something to you.

    Naturally there is risk involved and probably we all ultimately end up in the same place, but the route is your own, planned by you, using your own map, compass and pioneering delusion. And that’s the kind of self-responsible, flawed adult I always wanted to be.

  3. Well, you’ve basically said it all in this post. Fight the approval culture. I’ve never done anything in my life that required approval by someone else. that’s probably why my life has been kind of on the rockier side of things. lol So, you can live a boring but all-approved life or you can fight norms and shake the boat a little (or a lot)

    As I’m traveling in this part of the world (Asia) and I see a lot of conformity and agremeent by family members to go along with the program, I’m a little torn. Sometimes, conformity works:) There’s something nice about certainty and stability. Going to be exploring this in a post of my own and quoting your wisdom in the appropriate places.

    This post will make 105% of Asian parents faint and or hyperventilate! Keep up the good work and continue fighting the status quo. I think the reason you gave to do create your own path – sort of your duty and altruism to the world – is a great point!

    1. Vishnu, I am definitely interested in your upcoming post… you are right.. if any of my Asian uncles or aunties are reading this I can probably expect a tongue lashing:)

  4. Best line: “You can decorate the walls of that office cell with pictures of Yosemite and quotes about dancing like no one is watching.” priceless!

  5. I had this image in my head while I was reading your post. It was high school school senior giving a little tirade about, “Dude! I’m not going to play by anyone’s rules but my own!” Generally that’s the fast track to a minimum wage job at McDonalds. As for approval goes, sure, no one likes to think of themselves as toadies for the man but studies have shown that people fear loss more than they desire gain. I’m not sure it’s necessarily a lust for approval that keep people in suboptimal places in life but the very real fear of losing what little they have. Tt’s not as if the notion of seeking one’s own self-interest is a new concept for most people but as dramatic and interesting a gesture suddenly quitting your job might be, as you say, a prison break takes careful planning and the path is littered waist high with idiots chasing fools gold. The hard part is finding the intelligent way to do it. For that you might want to cozy up to your nearest naysayer. (Idea for your next blog: In defense of the naysayer) The point being that if people knew where to find that perfect, spiritually fulfilling high paying job you could line up 100 naysayers and people will still go for it. Generally though naysayers often have extremely formidable points. To extend the analogy, getting to the beach in thailand is pretty easy. It’s getting back that’s hard.

    1. “In defense of the naysayer” – I like it. Sounds like you should write a guest post. Are you up for it? I have learned to value the naysayers in my life. I have learned a lot from them and they have definitely help sharpen my vision. At times they have helped me in my wayfinding, at others I have persisted in what I felt called to, fueled by their pessimism.

      On a related note, I think it makes a lot of sense to seek out some naturally Machiavellian friends. If your goals in life outsize average ambition levels you will need political strategists that will support you.

  6. Thanks for the words of inspiration Bjorn. I know the the thing that holds me back the most from being what you described above is fear. Well really, if I’m gonna be honest, it is lack of trust. I have declared that I am a servant, and a servant of God at that, and yet I struggle to leave everything in His hands and give Him complete control in life. If I am ever not living that dangerous, exciting, world-changing life it is totally because of lack of trust. This will probably be my life-long battle. Can anyone relate?
    Milton Marquez recently posted…Lookout Point: When Solitude Leads to Self-DiscoveryMy Profile

    1. I spent some time with a couple Swedish Pentecostals in Bangkok. They had basically been living on “trust” for 7 years.. with four kids in Bangkok.. it was incredible. I am jealous of that. Very liberating and utterly terrifying. They were not just choosing to live above people’s chatter, they were putting their own physical welfare on the line. Crazy. And they were doing well. We should go visit their church startup sometime. You would love it…

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