Third Party Validation

There’s an old joke.

An extended family lives in a valley. One night a torrential rain comes over the mountain. Flash flooding…the works. The mother and children prepare to seek shelter. Dad decides to ride it out and do his best to save the family home.  Mom and the kids try to get Grandma into the car, but she won’t budge.  She just repeats “The Lord will provide…the Lord will provide.”

The storm worsens.  The water rises past the first floor and Dad and Grandma make their way to the roof.  A man in a canoe comes along and offers assistance.  Dad gets in the canoe and leans back to help Grandma on board, but she won’t move.  The canoe lurches forward. Dad screams that he’ll be back…  Grandma continues to chant “The Lord will provide…”

Dad comes back an hour later in a speedboat.  The water is half way up the second floor.  Grandma still won’t leave… “The Lord will provide…”

Another hour passes and Dad has commandeered a helicopter.  Grandma is clinging to the chimney.  He lowers a rope ladder to her but she refuses to grab and climb it.  The last thing Dad hears is “The Lord will provide,” as Grandma slips into the deluge.

Grandma makes her way to the Pearly Gates.  Grim faced and saddened, she asks Saint Peter why the Lord failed her.

“Look lady…we sent a canoe, a speed boat and a helicopter.  Whaddya want from us!”

We’ve all been that old lady.  We want the spotlight, to be seen by others as special, indispensible, worthy even of supernatural intervention. In these times first party validation—self-validation—just doesn’t cut it. The old “I’d never want to belong to a club that would have me as a member,” riff.  And as Dean Martin would say, ‘You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.’

The more powerful the admirer, the better, right?

Longing for validation is built into our genes. That makes sense. The longing keeps us connected. A little boy wants his mom to watch him jump into a pool and smile when he comes back up for air. A teenager wants her Dad to come to her High School play and cry in the third act, if not the very first moment she walks onto the stage.  Having someone who cares about us, actively telling us, and showing us that they think we are a unique and irreplaceable bit of truth and beauty in the universe is mucho importante.

The sweet inner voice that we begin to hear in our youth telling us the exact thing is validated by that kind of love—from family, friends, spouses etc.

I see this deep need as longing for “second party validation.”  And the more we get of it, the more the sweet inner voice overrides the petty voice in our heads.

Back to the joke.  The drama of the joke is that Grandma has gobs of second party validation.  Her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren plead with her to leave the house.  She’s valued and loved…even her crazy choice to stay is respected.

Why isn’t it that enough for her? What’s driving her to throw all of that love and assistance away?

Here is where the desire for what I think of as “third party validation” comes into play.  Grandma wants the ultimate third party—her idea of God—to validate her.  I think this obsession to the point of disregarding self and loved ones in order to get third party validation, is a very malignant form of what Steven Pressfield calls resistance.

Like the Terminator, as Steve wrote in The War of Art, resistance is a real shape-shifter.  When our kind inner voice grows, resistance redoubles its efforts and carpet bombs our consciousness with negative and petty, chatter.

When the little boy becomes an Olympic caliber diver, resistance keeps him from thinking “if mom appreciates my arm stand back double somersault tuck and I have given it everything I have, then the rest will take care of itself…”  Instead, resistance has him craving third party validation and his thinking follows.  “Why is mom sitting in the front row with that stupid smile on her face when I’ve got to perform for the judges?”

We want to play Carnegie Hall.  We want a billion dollars.  We want to be on TV, in the movies, in the paper, on the blogs, we want R-E-S-P-E-C-T from everyone we’ve ever met and everyone we’ve never known.  These are the internal third party validation bombs of resistance at play.

The lust for third party validation destroys more art, beauty, and truth every day, hour, minute, and second than any of us can even imagine.  How many times have you sloughed off a compliment from a friend or spouse about your work?

What do they know? Let’s just see what The Wall Street Journal has to say about my work before we break out the high fives…

Have you ever had a meeting with someone or some company you want to impress and led with statements like “I sold a bazillion gizmos last year and was named salesman of the year” or “and then I wrote/sold/bought/won/argued etc…” instead of “I have this idea… I read this article the other day and it made me think about…What if we tried this…What do you think?”

Remember your friend who lent you his van to pick up the fliers for the play that you produced that “only” twenty people came to?  That was the play that taught you about the importance of working with a lighting designer who actually cared about the work instead of the one who won an Obie for his last job.  Seven plays later, you were broke and the lighting designer you gave a break on your third “failed” play took you in for a week. He got you a job getting coffee for a bunch of television writers, who asked your opinion about a plot twist…  Marvel and embrace this kind of validation from people who think you’ve got potential and lend you a hand to help you realize it.

Don’t ignore them in a wild chase to get a rave from The New York Times Book Review.

Back to the joke.

Grandma has thrown away all of the earthy gifts from those who care about her the most.  She wants nothing less than her vision of the creator of the universe to descend from the heavens, pluck her from danger, and anoint her unique and special. [You can substitute whatever third party validation you’d like to get—The Supreme Court, The Pro Bowlers Tour, The Nobel Committee, The Scarsdale PTA etc.]

Grandma drowns waiting for the ultimate third party validation instead of accepting and appreciating the Godly help already at hand.

Get in the canoe.  Ride shotgun on the speedboat. Grab the rope.

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  1. Becky on March 4, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Nice blog post and made me laugh at myself and my secret desires. (For me, you could insert ‘Oprah’ for my third party validation. I mean, what writer wouldn’t like to be plucked from the flood by her? 😉 )

  2. Aaron Fung on March 4, 2011 at 2:46 am

    Mr. Coyne,

    I have heard this joke many times, but never interpreted in quite this way.

    Your interpretation of this old joke is the most profound I have heard.

    Thank you for that.

    Aaron Fung

  3. Seth Godin on March 4, 2011 at 5:41 am

    This is your best post ever, Shawn

    and that’s saying a lot.

  4. Jeremy on March 4, 2011 at 6:31 am

    Great, powerful stuff Shawn. When those close to me give genuine compliments, I tend to file them under “Biased” and discount their value.

    Why the hell do I do that? There must be a reason why they take the time and energy to share those thoughts: Because they care about me and respect what I’m doing.

    And there I go, brushing them aside to see if I have any emails from the publisher.

    Thanks for making me aware of this, Shawn.

  5. Wiz on March 4, 2011 at 8:14 am

    I enjoyed your post today. This week has had me questioning many assumptions about research and conclusions I have made recently. Thankfully, the inner voice spoke loud enough to make me reexamine my built in assumptions. How dangerous these assumptions can be when allowed to clandestinely become truths. This post was validation of sorts…thanks.

  6. Tricia on March 4, 2011 at 9:30 am

    I agree with Seth. Great post.

    But just to add, I think that third party validation is embedded in The Great American Dream, and ultimately, in most collective notions of success. And when it gets linked to low self-worth, it becomes rather toxic.

  7. Jeff Wilson on March 4, 2011 at 10:38 am

    Very timely post for me. I am a struggling entrepreneur who has grandiose visions of a car collection, and a big beautiful house. Like a child, I demand to know, where is my party with balloons and a pony?

    Since reading TWOA, I am realizing that being an entrepreneur is just like being a painter or musician. It sucks, but society rolls their eyes and dismisses these childish dreams. But, it’s OK to be a starving artist because I draw power from my choice to wake long before the sunrise to do my work. That is the only thing I can control.

    I am the poster boy for Resistance. I stalled on my dream for 4 years and have been miserable. After many therapists, psychiatrists, and anti-depressants I got worse. I built a whole life to insulate me from the pain of Resistance. Like Steve said would happen, my wife, friends and mother distanced themselves when I started my business. My best friend broke up with me for petty reasons. I felt like I a 9 year old left at a gas station in New Mexico watching the dust as my parents drove away.

    The damage was done, but I lived through it. Now, second party validation is happening. Last week, my otherwise quiet cell phone rang with a veteran investor from halfway across the country who is interested in what I’m doing. I am getting introductions to previously unaccessible pro’s. I am lucky to have a special advisor who sees my potential.

    Contrary to the teachings of the conventional motivational gurus, progress happens when I shift energy away from the desired outcomes and sit at my desk barely able to keep my eyes open. I just show up. Later in the day, I feel like puking, but I pick up the phone, and just assume that my newest victim on the other end of the line can smell that I am a newbie with no credentials.

    What if I am not worthy of these goals? What if my friends think I’m insane? Who cares, because today the bullets are whizzing by and I have to take whatever ground I can. No time for thinking or reflection. Be humble, rely on training and gut feel. I take pride that none of my friends or family would dare put themselves through this misery. I keep that to myself and for myself.

    • Lani Flores on March 5, 2011 at 10:34 am

      Jeff, this line in your comment caught my attention:

      “Later in the day, I feel like puking, but I pick up the phone, and just assume that my newest victim on the other end of the line can smell that I am a newbie with no credentials.”

      The “newbie you” and your “newest victim” are simply two important people, having an important conversation, about an important subject. The insidious need for third-party validation creeps in when we perceive ourselves less important/empowered than the other.

      Good luck.

    • Nickster on March 6, 2011 at 2:55 pm

      After I looked back at some other comments here, and then yours, Jeff, I was reminded of a great comment that Bobby Knight was quoted making, as written in “A Season on the Brink”, a book by John Feinstein which detailed the 1985-86 season of Indiana University’s men’s basketball team, which went something like this (a friend stole my copy and it’s still AWOL, mso here goes): “My players have learned to compete with themselves; in other words, their competition is their own potential.”

      I am an “Entre” as well, and my “art form is the building and protection of financial security for” my clients and their families (credit to Nick Murray, “The Game of Numbers”).

      Its not easy, but if you can allow yourself to square-off this way, the 3rd party crap [we feel sometimes] is just that. “I compete with myself; my competition is my own potential”. In my world, that potential is limitless, and so its pretty clear where I need to go to do battle. Everyday, you just look at your results to date compared to your limitless potential. That’s a game worth playing.

  8. Linda Proud on March 5, 2011 at 12:48 am

    It’s wonderful to have the enemy identified this way, with three words that even I may be able to remember: third-party validation. I meet it in many guises but the most pernicious and troublesome is when new writers seek it from me as creative writing tutor and indie publisher. I must keep this post and memorise the argument so that I’m a bit more coherent when I bust bubbles. I’m very familiar with second-party myself and must remember to teach this to my students as a ‘realistic expectation’. Thank you!

    • Kathrin Seitz on March 5, 2011 at 8:05 am

      Great post. I read and reread The War of Art and tell my writing students to memorize it. Resistance. Love what you say about Third Party Validation. I’ve worked with big time writers and movie stars and I’ve swept out a small theatre, given notes to the author and actors and made coffee for the twenty people who show up for the play. It’s all the same. Just do the work. Honestly. With humility. And forget about Third Party Validation. Thanks!

  9. Nickster on March 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    You know, that makes a lot of sense. Thanks for that great post Shawn.

  10. Ken Moir on March 7, 2011 at 10:03 am

    I agree with Aaron, above: great re-purposing of the old joke — and so very, very true. And like Linda, I need to bookmark this post and refer back to it (often)!

  11. skip on March 9, 2011 at 9:38 am

    if you march to your Own drummer, you do not need anyone’s validation, approval, or support. survive a few near death experiences and you might think come to think/feel as i do.

  12. Eeleen Lee on March 10, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    I’ve heard various permutations of that joke over the years. but I never thought I’d see it used in a post about creative-writing- brilliant! WEll done!

    The need for 3rd party validation can override the essential of honing good basic writing craft. The most common question new writers ask me , “How do I get published?”. Ermmm, don’t put the horse before the cart or arse before elbow…just turn up and do the work first.

  13. Jamel Platenburg on November 28, 2011 at 9:31 am

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