External Validation and Personal Finance

I participate in a couple of online book clubs with a number of old friends (and friends of friends) who have been spread all over the country. In these clubs, we read a book a month and discuss them in an online forum with the understanding that we are exploring ideas and not necessarily trying to defend what we personally believe, but trying to understand the ideas better. Often, the discussions go far astray from the book itself, which is great.

Anyway, a question was recently posted to one of my book clubs that has left me thinking quite a bit lately:

Imagine that you were in a science experiment where you were cut off from society for ten years. You lived in your house alone and there was some space outdoors to exercise, but you had no direct human interaction, social media, texting, anything like that. If you wanted something, you could write it down and it would be given to you, so there’s no need to work. How would you spend your time?

The discussion about this question ended up boiling down to this:

What would you do in a world where you had zero access to external validation?

So, let’s be clear for a second: external validation means that your sense of pride is derived from the approval others show of your behavior. Your sense of feeling good about something you did comes from what other people think of it, not from what you think of the inherent worth of what you did. On the other hand, internal validation means that your sense of pride is derived from your own internal sense of having done the right thing. You feel good about yourself because you know you did the right thing. Most of us go through our lives guided by a mix of internal validation and external validation.

What if there was no external validation? What if there was no one around to applaud when you did something that they deemed good, and no one around to frown when you did something that they deemed bad? What would you do?

Most of the answers boiled down to a few common areas. People would become much more casual with things that are minor social no-nos, like picking their nose. People would dig into hobbies that they think their current friends and family would see as “too nerdy.” Several people liked the notion of no longer mowing the grass or cutting their hair.

As the discussion went on, I came to a quick twofold realization.

One, most of the things that people said they’d stop doing had some sort of financial cost associated with them. Getting their hair cut requires a visit to the salon or the barber and often additional hair care costs. Mowing the lawn requires a mower and gas and often additional landscaping costs. A lot of the regular social activities that people mentioned involved spending money or donating to a cause they didn’t care about.

At the same time, most of the things that people said they’d start doing had virtually no financial cost associated with them. Many of those things involved just being more comfortable in their own skin. Some of them involved “nerdy” hobbies, but they were often things like reading or watching more science fiction or playing roleplaying games (which you can do for free).

I thought about my own list. I’ve already chopped down a lot of external validation needs in my own life, but I recognize that there are still a number of things I do for external validation. I would definitely spend less time and money on lawn care. I would wear clothes until they were even more worn than I do, because some of my favorite clothes are well-worn shirts and hoodies and jeans which just reach a point where I don’t feel like I should wear them in public. Truthfully, I often wonder why I do those things.

At previous points in my life, I often considered what others thought of me when I bought cars and gadgets and clothes and I sought their validation after the purchase. I would often go along to do expensive things like golf outings and expensive dinners just to get that nod of approval from others.

What did those things really amount to? Nothing. Most of the people who I was seeking the approval of in those days aren’t a part of my life or are only in the most peripheral part of my life. The truth is that if you do things for external validation, your happiness is reliant on the approval of others, which is out of your control. If they take away that validation, you’re left with nothing. Furthermore, chasing that validation is often expensive, causing you to buy clothes and devices and other things just to get that burst of validation.

What’s the path out of that conundrum? Rather than doing things just because it pleases someone else, do things that bring value to you and fill your life with people who happen to also value those things.

Here are some strategies for doing just that.

Listen to your heart in terms of what you want to do and how you want to spend your money and don’t simply do those things to please others. Trust yourself with regards to what you should do with your time and with your money and what the right decision in a given situation is. Do the things that feel right to you, the things that leave you feeling good without someone else giving you that stamp of approval.

Accentuate relationships that accept you for doing those things; minimize relationships that expect you to do things for their approval. Naturally, you can’t always do this – you do have to listen to your boss, for example, and you have a commitment to some relationships in your life. However, in most relationships in life, you have a choice as to whether to accentuate that relationship or spend your energy on others. Choose ones that are supportive of the things that seem right to you internally and not the ones that insist that you make choices that don’t seem right to you internally just so you can gain their approval.

Whenever you’re about to spend money, ask yourself whether or not this purchase is really for you or whether the effect is just to please or impress others. If you’re buying something just so that someone else is impressed, strongly consider skipping that purchase and using your money elsewhere.

Seek internal validation in the things you do, not the things you buy. Take pride in the books you read because you were interested in them, not the books you bought. Take pride in the health of your body, not in whether others approve of how you dress and how you look. Take pride in your actions, not your purchases.

Stick to the golden rule when interacting with others. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Not only does it feel like the right thing to do – which triggers that internal validation – but because it provides a much better internal guide for dealing with others rather than just seeking their validation. Just treat others as you’d like to be treated and don’t worry about how others validate you. For me, that principle guides me to good hygiene and functional clothes, but it keeps me from buying expensive clothes to impress others. It guides me toward being friendly toward others, but being myself and happy with my own interests.

What’s the core lesson here? Don’t fall into the trap of spending money to try to earn some fleeting external validation. It won’t last, and it often won’t work. Rather, strive to maximize internal validation through your actions and cultivate friends who are on board with those same things that you find yourself doing. You’ll still find some external validation, but it’s often right in line with the things that cause internal validation, too, and that’s a good life to live.

Good luck!

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.