Personal Development

Looking for Outside Approval

As a child, I internalized a lesson that is still with me today.

I learned not to rock the boat.

If I did something on my own, the repercussions were not always positive. Sometimes people got upset with me. Other times I was scolded.

For example, in school we were supposed to cut out our drawings of fruits and vegetables and glue them onto a cornucopia.

Well, I apparently wasn’t paying attention to how everyone else was doing it, and I did what made sense to me. I glued the paper so that it seemed as if the food was coming out of the side.

When the teacher saw what I was doing, she expressed concern, and she showed me what everyone else had done, which was gluing them on top in an abstract way.

I wasn’t in trouble, but I was singled out in front of everyone, and I didn’t like the feeling that I had inadvertently done something wrong.

And this same situation played out in a number of ways in school, at home, in relationships.

So I made a point of always trying to figure out what was the right thing to do so that I didn’t do the wrong thing.

Sometimes this is a good thing. For instance, in software development, I get asked to create a feature, and it’s easy to follow the spec and still end up with the wrong thing. It’s essential to ask questions and get clarification so you don’t waste anyone’s time.

But sometimes my seeking out the right thing slows me down. My approach to a particular situation might be perfectly fine, but I get this feeling that it’s suboptimal or that someone smarter than me might handle it different.

So then I don’t do it. I don’t volunteer my idea. I don’t take initiative. I don’t trust my own work will be good enough.

And not doing it means no one can be upset if I do it wrong. If the boat’s getting rocked, it’s not by me, so I can’t be in trouble.

Often I spend time looking into best practices to see how other people approach a particular issue. Sometimes there is a best practice, and sometimes there are opinions masquerading as facts.

But what am I really waiting for? Am I looking for approval from a secret society of experts who have figured out the One True Way?

Sometimes there isn’t a Right Way. There are often many ways, and just because someone is finding success one way, it doesn’t mean you should follow in their footsteps.

Sometimes there isn’t a way yet. There is no one to follow, and no one to say, “Yeah, go do that.” Anyone who has advice here would say, “No way! Don’t do that! No one does that! Here, follow this tried-and-true path.”

When I don’t have a resource that tells me exactly how to do something in a way I can easily understand, such as how to represent entities in a game, I worry I’m doing it wrong, or I’m doing it suboptimally, and it can cause me a lot of anguish.

I’m piecing information together and coming to new conclusions, and I don’t necessarily have someone at hand to let me know if I’m on the right track. I’m on my own, and I hesitate.

It’s as if I become afraid of someone’s disapproval, even if no one is there to do the disapproving but myself. I fear I’ll mess up badly even if the worst-case consequences are easy to recover from.

But these fears probably mean I’m growing and learning somewhere. So I push through the fear.

I rock the boat.

Because even though the lesson not to do so is still there, I internalized a new lesson as a grown-up:

I get to choose who to listen to, and I can trust myself.