I was listening to a woman explain her difficulty in deciding how to use her time outside of work. "Should I focus on writing my book, increasing traffic to my blog or getting another degree?" She expressed a passion for each choice. Yet I wondered if her need for recognition was driving her rationale for choosing.
When doing the research for my book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction, I found that the more accomplished a woman was, the more she confused what gave her applause with what gave her an internal sense of satisfaction. Once she experienced the "high of recognition," she kept striving to recapture it.
The desire didn't relate to age. I also found many younger women had an irrepressible desire to be renowned. They had been told as a child that they could grow up to accomplish great things. This is not a bad message to give children. Yet it needs to be balanced by the message, "You are good and lovable even if you aren't the best." If not, girls are brought up feeling they have to be recognized as great at what they do or they aren't good enough whether they choose to be a mom, a CEO, or both.
If your purpose rests on recognition, you will always be looking for "something more." The quest is often exhausting, disappointing, and unfulfilling in the end. You miss what makes you feel good in the present.
The problem lies in knowing how to define what gives you a sense purpose intrinsically instead of relying on a good evaluation to give it to you. In other words, if you can't articulate what activities give you fulfillment, you leave the assessment of your value to other people's judgment. You end up relying on others to tell you if your work is important and good. You might think you feel fulfilled when you are just pleased that they noticed how much you know and how hard you worked.
People are fickle when it comes to praise. What people love about you today they may ignore tomorrow. If you let a less-than-stellar evaluation steer you away from your life's work, it may take years before you rediscover what ignites your passion.
Additionally, if you don't get external validation for your current work, you might impulsively start looking for something else or you take on more projects looking for the one that will stand out. One of my clients said, "I take on so many projects I feel like I'm playing Whack-a-Mole. I whack away because every project seems important and I can't tell which one will win the prize."
Therefore, you shouldn't use praise to dictate your life choices. It's easy to be seduced by the adoration you get from your good work. When the attention wanes, do you give up and move on? You need a consistent theme that serves to focus your energy regardless of other people's opinions.
Donna Zajonc, author of The Politics of Hope, calls this the difference between "having a calling vs. feeding a craving." A calling is fueled by the pleasure you get from what you are creating. A craving is driven by getting attention and recognition for the good work you produce.
Callings stir your pride and gratitude even if circumstances are frustrating and disheartening. Cravings leave you feeling resentful and judgmental at the end of the day and easily offended when someone doesn't appreciate what you do. A calling keeps you moving in a specific direction. Cravings can leave you feeling lost and uncertain about your path.
If you want to write a book, are you willing to spend years on the publishing and marketing process that doesn't guarantee success? Do you want to increase traffic to your blog because you want thousands of hits or because you have a burning desire to share what you have learned? Do you know you will spend countless hours at your computer writing with little knowledge of the impact? Do you want to go to school to add the credential to your name or because you want to get better at the work you love to do?
Therefore, if you don't know how to spend your time, what job to take or if it's time to leave one behind, clarify why you would do any of these things in the first place. Would this choice give joy and a sense of contribution or just recognition and respect? Maybe you are just checking off a to-do list.
Determine what would drive you to accept any career path or project. What needs are you meeting? If you know what is honestly driving the choice, you can understand if your emotions are serving you or sabotaging you.
Are you serving a calling or feeding a craving? If both, are you compromising your freedom and energy in any way to boost your reputation? Would you be doing anything differently if you didn't care what people thought? Articulate your purpose first before you build your reputation. Your choices will be less confusing.
Adapted from Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction (Berrett-Koehler, June 2010).