The other day, I was listening to an interview with David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of the popular Ruby on Rails web development framework; partner at the web-based software development firm Basecamp; co-author of three books; and now, of all things, race car driver.
During the interview, he said something that really made me stop and think.
He talked about intrinsic validation versus extrinsic validation.
That is, doing things in life to validate ourselves versus doing them to be validated by others or something external to us, like friends, parents, family, bosses, or even society as a whole.
Take writing a book for example. If you do it because your end goal is to get praise and to be recognised as a best-selling author, then you’re doing it for the sake of extrinsic validation (and, believe me, criticism will hurt). But if you’re doing it because writing is a fulfilling process for you, one that connects with some inner passion, you’re doing it for intrinsic purposes.
There are no “good” and “bad” labels here, but obviously the more we’re connected with our intrinsic validation, the less our fulfilment, happiness, and growth are dependant on external factors like others’ approval of our choices (ugh!)
That very simple concept hit me so hard because, to some degree, a lot of my life choices have come from, or been highly influenced by, a desire for extrinsic validation.
And I mean a lot.
I’m not just talking about my college years, which I spent doing workshops, internships, and piling up the certifications to fill my resume so I could go on the hunt for a job with a little bit of fake confidence.
I’m talking about things that have really and strongly shaped my life for years—and not always in a good way. Like buying into the Silicon Valley dream and wanting to “make it big” with my startup.
That wasn’t my dream. That was other people’s dream.
But I bought into it because, deep down inside and being truly candid with myself, I was desperately looking for extrinsic validation.
Being called “a successful entrepreneur,” being featured in this or that newspaper or magazine, building a multi-million-dollar company, being listed in one of those 30 Most Successful X Below 30 lists—really attractive and important things for someone like me back then. I didn’t have a damn clue of what I was doing and I was full of insecurities and fears, so I was unconsciously seeking extrinsic validation for reassurance.
Here’s a story that’s a more recent example of this pattern. I was considering enrolling in a year-long business coaching certification program—because, you know, I love coaching and it seemed as a “logical” progression given my history.
Since I discovered the art of coaching in 2010, I fell in love with it both as a practice and as a personal development tool. From that point on, I’ve been involved to some extent with coaching, mentoring, and leadership, from a personal journey perspective but also helping and coaching people one-on-one and in groups to achieve their goals and upgrade their lives.
So getting certified seemed like a natural step to take after being involved with coaching for more than 6 years. You know, it’d be nice getting some official recognition for all those years and practice I have under my belt, etc., etc.
At least, it seemed natural until I realised how messed up my validation system was.
After getting exposed to that intrinsic versus extrinsic idea, I started reflecting seriously on it. And, given my history of extrinsically influenced choices, I owed it to myself, at the very least, to analyse how closely this new decision was aligned with my intrinsic validators.
Because we’re talking about a serious commitment in terms of energy, time, and money (a year-long course and thousands of dollars). So, it’s not one of those decisions you want to jump into just because it seems like the “logical” next step. You want to question it and dig deeply into yourself—you want to be sure this is something you love, not just something that’s “okay.”
Don’t get me wrong. I really love serving people—especially the creative types—and helping them to thrive and grow so more people get to live their definition of a Remarkable Life, whatever that is.
That is absolutely an intrinsic validator for me.
But I don’t need someone to “enable” that intrinsic validator for me.
And that was a big component of why I was choosing to enrol in that program. Committing to a lot of time, energy and money just for the sake of being able to write the words “certified coach” on my LinkedIn profile to prove I know my stuff definitely shouldn’t be one of the primary motivations to do it.
At least if I know what my end goal in life is, which is to enjoy a truly Remarkable Life myself, and not to prove to the world how much worthy I am.
Instead, what about doing things that are really align with my core values, with my passions, and are a great fit with as many of my intrinsic validators as possible?
And that, by the way, has been the other big piece of the puzzle I’ve had to figure out while working through this:
What really are my intrinsic validators?
In other words, in what ways do I give myself validation?
Because the extrinsic piece of that puzzle was clear to me.
But the intrinsic piece of it—the part that can really produce fulfillment; long-term, sustainable happiness—not so much.
Oh, well, as it turns out, I didn’t have an answer handy for that one. I needed to reflect and journal on it a lot before I could even start to articulate how I self-validate in a holistic and healthy way. So you can just imagine how disconnected and far away from it I was.
As it turns out, my triggers for self-validation are really simple but really powerful:
To have fun doing something, just for the sake of doing it. Whenever I make the goal more important than the journey to it, I’m shifting to the extrinsic side of things, and with time it will end up producing frustration and making me feel miserable, as it has tons of times. But if I’m just having fun on the journey, without being that obsessed with the goal, things just flow and I can experience a lot more freedom, joy, and happiness.
To learn something, just for the sake of learning. Again, if I’m doing workshops and taking courses just to get recognition or a piece of paper with a fancy title on it, it won’t work out so well for me. But doing so for the sake of learning something new and expanding, even if the practical applications of it are slim, well, to me, that’s fun. For example, I started learning human beatboxing (you know, making awesome beats only with your voice), because it’s something I’ve always secretly wished I could do. Practical applications? I don’t have a clue—probably none. But I’m having lots of fun learning it and practising with my son Noah (and by the way, it’s a damn hard skill!)
To grow, just for the sake of growing. I’ll admit it, this one’s weird. But, to me, there’s something intrinsically fun about learning more about myself (can you see a pattern here?), about how my mind works, about what makes me tick, about my strengths and how to put them to service, and so on and so forth. This one helps me understand and learn more about human behaviour and psychology, which is strongly tied to the next one.
To inspire, to help, and to serve, just for the sake of others. Strangely enough, I don’t feel like this one needs any explanation. But just in case, I’ll give one anyway: it won’t work if I’m doing it to get something out of it, like money, fame, special treatment, or a good deal.
As you can see, each of these builds on top of the others, so they’re very interconnected.
The best part of identifying my intrinsic validators is that, as soon as they were clear to me, I could think back to all those moments when I’d been chasing after any of those intrinsic validators but for an extrinsic purpose (like “trying to provide value” to get a special deal out of it) and see how and why it didn’t work out for me.
I would just end up frustrated, unfulfilled, or feeling like shit.
“I’m just trying to help here, and I’m adding immense value! What’s wrong with it?”
Well, what was wrong with it is that I was doing it from the wrong place.
But as you can probably see by now, this whole intrinsic versus extrinsic discussion isn’t a binary thing—zero or one, all or nothing, black or white.
In fact, I picture it like a range of shades of gray in which you’re finding your balance, shifting back and forth toward one end or the other. And I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t really separate both extremes of that range, extrinsic and intrinsic (at least, I can’t). They’re always going to be related in some way.
It’s a matter of making sure you’re leaning more towards the intrinsic side, especially for the big choices in your life. The ones that matter.
To put it another way, it’s a matter of making sure you’re not making choices based purely on extrinsic validators.
So, for example, I know now that if I were to put the same amount of time, energy, money, and commitment into enrolling in a dance education program instead of completing a coaching certification program, I would end up without a piece of paper with the word “certified” on it, but I would be immensely more happy and fulfilled.
What about you? Do you know what your intrinsic validators are? Leave a comment and share your insights with me.