One of the big challenges in life is being content with ourselves and our work without needing others to notice the good things we have done. As social creatures we want acknowledgement, praise, and approval from our fellow humans, so simply being good or doing good on our own doesn’t seem to satisfy us in the way we need. We all recognize and understand that we should be content without someone patting us on the head to tell us good job, but nevertheless, we pursue social approval all the time.
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson look at this type of behavior within our charitable donations in their book The Elephant in the Brain. They write, “Griskevicius calls this phenomenon blatant benevolence. Patrick West calls it conspicuous compassion. The idea that we’re motivated to appear generous, not simply to be generous, because we get social rewards only for what others notice. In other words, charity is an advertisement, a way of showing off.”
As a child, I used to seek approval and gratitude from my mother in a similarly conspicuous way. If I did a chore like vacuuming, I would leave the vacuum out so that my mother would see that I did something. She would tell me to put the vacuum away and be a little frustrated, but at least I could be sure that she knew that I did something good.
These direct appeals for attention, praise, and recognition are frowned upon. We don’t like the person at the gym water fountain who over-plays how out of breath they are and tells us how hard that last set of squats with all that weight was. We don’t like the person in the office that goes out of their way to show us how long the report they wrote was. As adults, it is harder to get away with obvious gestures that are designed to get people to notice the good things we do.
Our charitable uses of money or time are a way to get around this. We can publicly donate a large amount of money, we can save our money for donations in public settings such as charity auctions, and we can make sure that everyone sees our Facebook photo about how blessed we feel to be able to give back by volunteering. As long as it appears that our main motive is to do something good, we can get away with the same type of bragging or showing off that I did as a child when I made it super obvious that I had done my chores.
A couple years back I bought a bright green GPS sports watch. I do a lot of running and I like having a nice watch for my workouts, but the watch was a bit more flashy than what I really needed to purchase, and if I am honest with myself, I really don’t need a GPS watch at all if I want to be healthy and enjoy exercising.
What the watch reminds me now, is how often we look at things outside of ourselves to define who we are and to make us happy. We look to others to validate who we are and purchases like my watch help us tell others what we want them to see in us. Rather than being content with an activity on our own, we want people to be aware of us doing the activity and we want all kinds of rewards for what we do and who we are.
In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “rejoice only in that which comes from your own store. And what do I mean by ‘from your own store’? I mean from your very self, that which is the best part of you.”
Senecas advice is for us to work toward being happy in our own skin, with our own decisions, without needing something external to make us who we are and without needing someone external to approve of who we are. When we cherish designer sunglasses, brag about the functions of our new GPS watch, or take our neighbors on a ride along in our new car, we are using something outside of us to amplify a part of us that we want others to see. Simultaneously we are not satisfied by just ourselves and need something else to display our value. We are not satisfied with our actions and decisions in isolation, and need someone outside of ourselves to applaud us.
If we can be more confident in who we are without needing the validation of others, we can have a more steady and stable life. We can enjoy the times we spend with others and enjoy the things we have, but we won’t feel as though we need to define ourselves by things external to us. Those things can become compliments and we can enjoy a few simple things without a constant need for more and better stuff.
In his book The Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes the following, “You must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability to get out of your own head. Detachment is a sort of natural ego antidote. It’s easy to be emotionally invested and infatuated with your own work. Any and every narcissist can do that. What is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence, and self-awareness.”
In this quote, Holiday is encouraging us to focus on our work and goals in a way that is not flashy and that does not seek praise. He is encouraging us to practice the skill of doing good and meaningful work, even if we are not immediately recognized for what we do. Often, the important work that must be done isn’t sexy and isn’t visible to the people we want to impress. We won’t always be immediately rewarded with a trophy or a bonus for the work that needs to be done, but if we are the one to put in the extra effort and effectively and efficiently do a good job, we can find our way to success.
The flip side, and what Holiday is urging us to avoid, is doing work only when people are watching. He encourages us to recognize and work against the expectation that we will be noticed and recognized for our work, because the public recognition is not the most important piece of what we do. If we only put forward hard work and extra effort when we know our effort will be visible and publicly rewarded, then our effort in is not actually about the work, but instead about the praise and status that comes looking impressive. We may like the praise and incentives do matter for human beings, but if we are trying to approach the world rationally and make a difference, then we should recognize that this approach to life and work likely won’t guide us toward making the biggest impact possible.
When I was a child, one of the chores I always hated was vacuuming. When I would actually do what my parents had told me and vacuum, I intentionally leave the vacuum out because I knew that my mother would then have to acknowledge that I had vacuumed. I would be sure to get a “thank you for vacuuming, now can you please put the vacuum away?” but if I did my work completely and put the machine back in the closet when I finished, I risked getting no notice from my mother for having completed my chore. This is the childish mindset that Holiday is encouraging us to get away from when it comes to doing important work in our life. We should strive to be successful in life because it will mean that we are making a difference in the world or can obtain further resources to allow us to do more through charity and meaningful good deeds. What we should avoid is working hard to try to improve our status and to have more ego inflating fun trips and toys to try to set us apart from others. Focusing on the first goal will ultimately take us further and lead to better quality work and engagement with the world than the second ego inflating goal. Only performing and doing our best work when we can be praised for it will lead us to situations where we fail to cultivate habits of hard work and focus, and will drive us to positions where we are not working for ourselves and for the good of humanity, but for our ego and to make showy purchases to impress other people that we likely don’t even care much about.
In his collection of thoughts, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the lessons he learned from those around him when he was growing up and maturing into an emperor who would be known for his wiseness. In his writing he dedicates a long section to the lessons he learned from his father. One of his lessons deals with reputation and how we see our reputation. Aurelius writes, “He was a man who looked to what ought to be done, not to the reputation which is got by a man’s act.” I highlighted this section because I think that it is an idea and perspective that I want to cultivate, but that I find difficult to live out.
The lesson that Aurelius learned from his father and focused on as he wrote this section is to think of others and to think of society before thinking of oneself. To truly commit to the causes at hand requires a certain selflessness that cannot be fostered if your main focus is on what you will receive by taking part in acts that are beneficial to the whole. It is not a bad thing to recognize that benevolent actions and social engagement will have positive outcomes for you as an individual, but it is a bad thing to participate in outreach programs if you are only doing so to enhance your own reputation.
As a whole, our society in the United States recognizes that it is not always a bad thing to volunteer time, effort, or money toward positive causes with a thought of a reward at the end. We offer tax write-offs, provide t-shirts and donuts, and dedicate space to the names of volunteers on plaques or buildings as a way to encourage and recognize those who do good in our society. Benefitting from the good you do for others is not a bad thing, and offering small rewards may help others move in a direction where they become more generous with their time and money and are more willing to help others.
The real challenge is finding a way to do good acts without expecting some sort of reward or recognition. The more we can focus on doing good because we feel that it is our social responsibility or because we understand that it gives our lives internal meaning, the more we can engage in social causes and become fully committed to our actions. Participating to be noticed and recognized means that our full energy and effort is not being brought to the table, and as a result we are not doing the most good we can do.
In his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, Scott Russell Sanders comments on the things we desire. Sanders writes, “Love simply. By that I mean, think about what you actually need for a good life, not what friends or ads have taught you to want.” This is a very meaningful quote to me because it speaks of the importance of self awareness, and of getting away from the pressures to buy and have things.
As a recent college graduate I love reading quotes like this one or hearing people talk about the importance of realizing what goals and desires you actually have. Television shows portray a certain lifestyle, and advertisements fill your mind with ideas of how you should live and what things you should buy to be happy. If one can spend time to understand that having lots of things will not translate to happiness, then they can begin to live more free. I am not suggesting that anyone should abandon all desires for material items, but rather that having a BMW does not need to be ones goal or benchmark for success (especially at a young age out of college). As I read back through this post, I am currently reading a book called Insight Out by Tina Seelig. In her book Seelig talks about entrepreneurs and motivation. In a similar sense to what was discussed by Sanders, Seelig encourages asking yourself and anyone who wants to create something, “What motivates you?” and “Who are you?” These two questions force someone to understand what forces driving them, and what they expect and need for happiness.
What Sanders quote also hints at is our competition with and comparisons against our friends, co-workers, and those we went to school with. Striving for a lofty job title, a big house, and fancy cars just to be able to impress other people is damaging to yourself, your relationships, and ultimately your future. I think Seelig would agree with my interpretation of Sanders’ writing, and could reach the same conclusion. Having motivations that are external and based on rewards and social praise will drive you towards goals that don’t align with what you actual desire or what will really make you happy.
The drive to achieve greatness should not be based on what you want your external projection to be. Learning to step away from television to avoid projections of what success and happiness look like will allow a person to be more flexible in their decision making and to become more happy with the lifestyle they already live. In addition, Sanders would agree, learning to be confident in the person you are and letting go of comparisons against the people around you will help you develop real relationships with them rather than having a relationship based on impressing someone with material wealth.