What Other People Think

I have a friend auditioning for The Voice this weekend. She’s not telling many people because she doesn’t want to make too big a deal about it or get anyone’s hopes up (including her own maybe?). I want to tell her: please don’t let these judges—no matter how talented, powerful, or accomplished they may be—define you. Don’t let your enjoyment of the moment depend on their reaction to it. This is, of course, easier said than done.

I crave constant validation from other people. No amount of praise or straight A’s or job offers satisfies my appetite. My stomach simply expands, the way a snake’s body does when it swallows an antelope.

Success, some say, means being happy with yourself regardless of other people, but we are social animals, and trying to accomplish anything in this world requires the good judgment of others (customers buy your product, the director picks you for the part, your lover marries you, etc.). The balance between defining yourself and letting others define you is a precarious one, and I haven’t been particularly good at negotiating it. Honestly, I’m not an expert in success. I’m not a Madonna or a Steve Jobs. I’m an ordinary person. Plus, you shouldn’t trust anyone who is trying to tell you how to be successful. Most likely, they are selling something. My credibility if I have any is that I’ve been happier these past few months. I think it’s partly because I have been thinking much more critically about my personal—and our cultural—definitions of success. That’s one reason why I decided to start this blog: I wanted to create a space where I could explore and challenge my ideas about “the good life” (and hopefully connect with other questioners who will make the questioning less lonely).

I want to say to my friend: regardless of what happens at The Voice audition, you are a success to me because you seem happy. It seems to make you happy the way you systematically put yourself out there (starting your own businesses, performing in your bands, etc.), and luck or chance or timing or a dozen other things have caused many of these endeavors to succeed. Some of your endeavors will fail. You’ll never have a moment when you “make it.” It will go on and on. I guess that’s why I hope you allow your biggest fans to share in your moment this weekend, no matter what these judges—who are complete strangers—have to say about it.

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2 Responses to What Other People Think

  1. splendidbauble says:

    I love this post. And I’m not just saying that to validate you! Why do you feel the need for constant validation from others? I find this somewhat surprising, since you’re so good at praising others and making them feel “successful.” Do you think you give praise so that others will praise you in return? Does all this make “success” a context-dependent rhetorical construct, based on giving and receiving praise, and on praising people to others? I mean, if someone happens to a Rhodes Scholar, does that mean anything until someone assigns a value judgment to that fact and says, “Wow, I’m impressed that she is a Rhodes Scholar!” Same with someone being a gazillionaire. But what if someone is the first person in her neighborhood to graduate from college? Is that person not successful? People are constantly making value judgments about what constitutes success. I think those value judgments depend in part upon one’s peer group, ethnicity, education, geographic location, etc. Expressing those value judgments through praise or disapproval (i.e., rhetorical acts) continually reinforces or challenges notions of what constitutes “success.” As for me, I try to let other people worry about my success or lack thereof. I accept praise, but try to deflect it as much as possible. I’m learning to praise others for what I admire about them.

    And yes, you’re right about your friend. She keeps busy doing what she loves, she surrounds herself with good people, and she continuously tries to make her life and others’ lives better. If you think she’s successful, then she is. And I agree with you 100% (in a non-validating way).

    • Jenny Dolan says:

      Isn’t it ironic: I sent this post to my friend, and then I eagerly awaited her approval of it. 🙂 You are absolutely right that “success” is completely cultural and relative. For some people on the planet, success is mere survival. I feel like the more education and privilege you have, the more pressure there is to make something out of it. Also, many of the things we think will make us successful (getting a promotion, for instance) actually don’t make us any happier. This is something I want to explore further.

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