Re-defining Success Through Internal Validation, Not External Validation

On Monday I posted this little illustration to Instagram, which many of you (as in like… DOZENS of you) commented on with a collective AMEN and I figured that served as an indication to me that this topic might be one worth going deeper on:

 
 

When I posted that image, I remember the exact state I was in, and maybe it’s one you can relate to it.

Just a few moments before I had realized I was feeling uncharacteristically tired (typically an indicator something is out of sync), so I took a second out of my day to ask WHY? (High five for recognizing my Indicators; Double five for getting curious about it!)

Without realizing it, over the previous few weeks I had let myself drift back into an exhausting state of “success chasing.”

“Success chasing” is what I call the state where I’m fueled more by my desire for external validation than I am by my satisfaction with internal validation.

Success chasing is where the driving force behind my decisions, productivity, and general output comes from wanting to “achieve” something or be recognized for something rather than the satisfaction of creating something from my core self.

Now the trickiest part of success chasing is that it often disguises itself as motivation. And motivation feels like a very good thing -- it fuels us to go after our goals.

The problem, though, is when that fuel is coming from a place of lacking, ie. the distance between ourselves and that external validation we crave.

We see what we want. We realize we don’t have it. We work hard to get it. Right? Well unfortunately that particular line of logic also means that our work is stemming from what we don’t have.

That I think is what so many of you latched onto in that illustration. The world around us not only feeds us messages reminding us of what we don’t have, but it also makes it pretty clear there are a few traditional things we should have: million dollar businesses, big girlboss-y teams to nurture, and a rapidly growing fan base.

But... there’s an alternative.

There’s the fuel that actually comes from internal validation instead. From recognizing not what you want to have but how you want to feel. Not what you want the outcome to be, but what you want the process to be.

Instead of success chasing, it’s what I call creative satisfaction (satisfaction as in fulfillment, literally the opposite of lacking.) It’s that feeling that you’re designing your life in a way that’s deeply aligned with your values. It's a fullness; an integration.

And THAT feeling creates its own kind of fuel, a different kind of propulsion that isn’t rooted in a sense of lacking or deficiency. Instead it’s one that’s rooted in abundance -- an overflowing sense of joy and confidence.

Here’s a little diagram to show you the difference as it sits in my head (I'm a sucker for diagrams!):

 
 

Now how do these two types of validation relate to success?

Well, in our culture, we often label the external validation framework as the one that defines “success.”

Why? Because it’s the one we can see.

It’s the one that gives us things we can measure like money and followers and best-selling books and website traffic.

The other framework is much more personal and intangible. Oftentimes, the only one who can even identify it or quantify it is the person engaging in it.

But is there any reason that the second diagram shouldn’t still be a perfectly acceptable framework for success?

In fact, most of us would probably agree that out of the two, it’s the only one that’s really sustainable.

In the traditional version, the joke is actually on us because we never actually catch up to that nebulous benchmark of external validation. We experience tiny milestones along the way, but without cultivating a practice of appreciation, we end up staying in that “hungry” state, resulting in an excruciatingly endless hunt.

And the other framework? Well that’s the one I finally came around to with my revised definition of success in that first illustration.

I found my way back to it by reminding myself that every Monday morning I wake up with equal amounts of peace and excitement. No dread, no expectations hanging over my head, no orders to follow. I’ve reached a point in my professional life where I thankfully control every facet of how I run my business, and that includes NOT waking up on Mondays in a frenzy. It also includes making things I love, that I’m proud of, and answering ultimately to my intuition.

As a sensitive and creative soul who values flexibility, that IS my ideal.

What could be more successful than carving out a life for yourself that allows you to live your values daily?

 

And so if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this letter and my wacky diagrams, it’s this:

You get to DEFINE what success means to you.

Keep in mind though, if you do select Diagram #2 -- the path of alignment -- you WILL have to choose it over and over and over again. Your instinct WILL be to drift back into Diagram#1 and into the chase for external validation. You’ll want the milestone, the public pats on the back, that glorious feeling of being accepted into the tribe of humanity.

Trust me though, all of that will ring hollow compared to the glorious, sustaining satisfaction of being accepted BY YOUR INNER SELF every single day.

Last week I came across an interview of Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, on 99u.com and this excerpt that speaks to this notion perfectly:

“...I frequently get emails from young people starting out and asking, ‘How do I make a successful website or start my own thing?’ And, very often, it’s tied to some measure of success that’s audience-based or reach-based.’How do you build up to seven million readers a month or two million Facebook fans?’ But the work is not how to get that size of an audience or those numbers. That’s just the byproduct of what Lewis Hyde calls ‘creative labor,’ which is really our inner drive. The real work is how not to hang your self-worth, your sense of success and merits, the fullness of your heart, and the stability of your soul on those numbers—on that constant positive reinforcement and external validation. That’s the only real work, and the irony is that the more “successful” you get, by either your own standards or external standards, the harder it is to decouple all of those inner values from your work. I think we often confuse the doing for the being.”

A few weeks ago I was gifted a Five-Minute Journal and since the Color Your Soul theme this month is Gratitude, I’ve been trying to cultivate a gratitude practice for the first time in my life. (ps. it’s working. The gratitude thing is for. Real. ) Every day the journal has a line for you to write your own "I am" affirmation, a guiding belief that you can repeat every day to yourself. As of last Monday, here's mine:

“I am ALREADY successful because I have designed a life that I wake up excited to live every day.”

This week I challenge you to redefine your idea of success and write your own “I am successful” statement, one that acknowledges the way(s) that you are already a success.

Remember, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop striving, stop wanting to be better, or stop trying to create a brighter life. It just means that you take a moment of gratitude for how far you’ve already come.

When you already feel successful, you move forward from a place of abundance, not scarcity.

When you already feel successful, you move forward from a place of abundance, not scarcity.


When you are fueled from that place of creative satisfaction, you’re striving from a sense of peace, not poverty; fullness, not famine. From a place of WANT, not from a place of need.

I hope this week’s letter has given you the permission you need to redefine success on your own terms. Be careful not to “confuse the doing with the being,” dear friends.