Accomplishments don’t live in a vacuum. When we have achieved something, when there is a success to announce, you are almost numb to its sweetness unless it’s shared with others — unless you can revel for a few minutes in the congratulations of others. But often, our most precious moments of success come far too late for those who, in some way or another, we have always been trying to impress.
The profound effect of someone telling you that you can’t do something, that you’re not good enough, that you won’t make it, is one that ripples through time and nags at us even when we have, in fact, gotten what we set out for. A lover, a so-called friend, even a particularly callous family member can leave you feeling as though your achievements will be as much in spite of them as they are for you, and savoring it will be near-impossible if they don’t reach out and acknowledge it. We will climb mountains and cross oceans just to get the nod of approval and perhaps even a precious pat on the back from the person who told us we couldn’t. Even though we shouldn’t spend our time or energy on the people who spurn and demoralize us, their disbelief acts more as a motivator — I will graduate, I will get this job, I will buy a house. How much of our accomplishments are based, to some degree, on spite?
I recall being told by a frenemy, one I knew was no good for me, but whose approval and attention I sought with unmatched fervor — in true frenemy form, naturally — that I wouldn’t get a ‘good’ job. I hadn’t been accepted to any good schools, I was headed off to community college, and he was crystal clear in his venomous assertion that I was destined for mediocrity at best. I can’t even imagine what constituted a ‘good’ job at that point in our lives, nor if he thinks that his job right now makes the grade. But it doesn’t matter. What mattered is that, between then and now, the achievements I was proud of would not be fully realized until I got a ‘like’ from him on my delivery of the news, or he told me that he enjoyed this or that. It’s masochistic, sure, and as we are thousands of miles and emotional light years apart, his thoughts on the matter should be a non-issue for me, and yet they gnaw at me every time I reach a new step in my life. I have to prove him wrong.
It’s almost pitiful the way we shamelessly seek approval from every outlet we can get it — breathless calls to friends, humblebrags on social media, offhand comments that are meant to ensure delivery of your good news with a minimal amount of investment — but it seems so very natural to us. We all do this, we all want to get those pats on the back and that feeling like we’re being noticed and accepted. But I often wonder how much of those broad-sweeping announcements that accumulate ‘likes’ and comments of encouragement like gold coins are really meant to reach a precious few people. Is it worse that we feel better about our achievements when 60 people have publicly complimented it, or that we’ll completely ignore those 60 if the one person we wanted to hear from is completely silent?
When I see happy announcements from my friends and acquaintances, I always try to leave a note of encouragement. It feels insincere sometimes, and not because I don’t feel happy for them, but because it’s just something we’re required to do now. We’re all putting out our various levels of adulthood and togetherness to compare with each other, and we must then validate those steps made with the click of a mouse or a few nice words — often with minimal personal investment in this person’s life. You might have only met the girl once or twice, but hey, she’s getting married. Let her know that you think this is awesome for her. Will she care about your approval? Probably not so much as she’ll care how good it looks to have so many people complimenting her, but that’s as good a gift as you could have probably offered her, given how little you really know her. You won’t be invited to the wedding, but you’ll offer a “woo-hoo” of support on her status.
So perhaps the fervent announcement of these achievements is akin to casting the widest net possible out there, and hoping to catch the few precious fish that matter. Yes, it’s always nice to have a good haul, but at the end of the day, a few words from a near-stranger is nothing compared to finally being validated by those you long to impress in vain. To see that the person you care about has noticed, has seen what you’ve done and — begrudgingly or not — approved of it, is almost as sweet as the success itself. After all, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to congratulate you on chopping it with such ease, did it make a sound?