A few short years ago, Oprah Winfrey defined the single link between each of the guests she had on her show across the twenty-five years she was on television. Winfrey said, “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: they all wanted validation” She continued, “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’”
The ideas within Oprah’s assessment sound pure and clear. From the time we are children seeking the approval of our parents, to the image of who will be present at our funerals, we are fueled by being seen and believing that our lives matter. We need and long for recognition in our schools, families, and every social structure that we are a part of; especially in our work lives. It’s human and very necessary.
Executive coach and strategist Joan Shafer notes that recognition is not a monolithic concept. Americans actually under-play basic human recognition by orders of magnitude. A recent Gallup poll showed that 65% of Americans received no praise or any form of recognition in the workplace within the last year. Shafer believes that we are living at a more superficial level, especially inside the workforce and shared, “Underneath the glam, I believe there are millions who are desperate to be recognized, validated, appreciated, acknowledged, critiqued, given feed back, noted, thanked, and much more.”
Yet beyond feeding the basics of a human soul, something has changed with regard to validation and its intuitive origin. Author and trend observer, Van Wishard also laments the ‘surface level’ life that Americans present. He believes that the state of American validation is tied to a near century long decay of genuine spiritual underpinnings and a culture grounded in our shared past.
Wishard observes, “Religion, history, family heritage, pride of collective meaning – all this has been the underpinning of validation in the past.” Looking back in history to the current day with social media, Wishard sees a common link, “The “Great Gatsby” generation; the “Beat” generation; and now the “Facebook” generation. They are all movements about being “known.”
If ‘being known’ is the dominant motivator, Wishard skeptically wonders what our country views as our sources of “valid, validation?”
Without a common definition of validation, the concept has been decentralized in a frenzied, subjective set of silos. We have flown past the basics of “see me, hear me, thank me,” to “you must see me, celebrate me, and everything that is great about me.” In getting to this shallow state, we have lost: inhibition, pause, humility, empathy and the critical skill of self-editing.
The drivers of the validation explosion pivot off of technology enabled hype through constant connection and the American fascination with wealth. With massive wealth comes nothing more than a life viewed only at the surface level for what is physically accumulated; often little regard is paid to depth of character, moral courage and wisdom until the most celebrated and exalted prove all too human.
CHANNELS OF VALIDATION
Technology and social media platforms are producing incredible levels of connection, discovery and knowledge sharing—for which we should all be grateful. Yet the social contract between the individual and their relationship to the larger world is driving us to hype the self to extremes. Our lives, especially when connected so quickly through digital channels, become fake images of the true person swarmed only by acquaintances with cursory views into that individual and what they believe and value. The great paradox of our time is that the emotional distance between us grows deeper with each digitized connection that we make.
Television, one of the most potent amplifiers of a single life, set the stage for the social media explosion that is still unfolding. Years back, America would watch shows like “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” as the country’s collective attention (up to 15M people a night) honed in on a single channel. Whoever was on stage with Carson that night had their lives amplified beyond simply being “seen and heard.” Carson himself became one of the great American market makers for enabling actors, musicians often comedians to have their lives transformed in a single moment. To simply be on with the “King of Late Night” meant an opportunity that few could ever dream of.
In a rich recent documentary on PBS of Carson’s life and impact you can watch an emotional Drew Carey and more stoic Ray Romano talk about what it was like to cross the curtain and onto Carson’s stage. In that moment, time stood still for many comedians. If you “nailed it,” as in the three-minute comedy routine, your career would be instantly transformed.
Drew Carey’s eyes well with tears as he recalls the moment when Carson called him over to sit by his side following his successful first comedy routine. Romano looking back at his first time on Carson’s show said that everything changed after that moment, “you jump up a notch in the business. Your income tripled. You were validated right away.”
For many years television and magazines remained the dominant platform to rapidly launch and validate an individual. Now we have perfected the channels of validation. We get and give validation from: the brands of clothes we wear, cars we drive, who we are seen with, what rooms of “power we are in,” how many friends we have, the fraternities we join, the awards we seek to receive, the colleges we attend, our rank or title in a company, our “status” with an airline, and the cities or towns that we call home.
On ‘The Tonight Show’ Carson only asked you to the couch if you had talent and everyone had a good laugh. In our validation nation we are invited to a buffet of confusion and multichannel posturing that activates the unhealthy sides of our psyches. ‘Millennials’ have fallen victim to the technology and constant connection the most—yet none of us are immune.
America has a ‘top ten’ list for every topic that any demographic wants to view. ‘Top ten’ places to: live, see, go, eat, travel, and explore. We have lists for the ‘best’: colleges, campuses, courses, and professors. We have lists for the ‘best’: doctors, hospitals, sports figures, and much more. There’s nothing wrong with any one of the lists except that they are subjective and seek to celebrate only by exclusion not inclusion. We must ask: why have these lists become so important to us? How did millions of Americans in the 20th Century ever make any decisions without them? What is our Pavlov-ian urge to be associated with what is stated on anyone of them?
FROM ‘EXCEPTIONAL-ISM’ TO FUNERALS
We also like to validate America herself. A term often used to describe our country is ‘exceptional.’ There are those who will argue that you are less than American if you even question what that means and how its measured. It’s a false and fruitless discussion. I too want America to be seen as exceptional. But the evidence of our ‘exceptional-ism’ is scant compared to what we are lacking. From our infrastructure, political stasis, and educational system to children being gunned down in kindergarten, we have a long way to go. Being exceptional doesn’t mean declaring it as truth without doing the gut wrenching work behind the aspiration.
As Oscar season is behind us, it’s easy to see that also have an award ceremony for every profession— just as there is an award for every child who “participates” in something. There is an incessant supply of content on television award shows that amplifies validation. From the ‘Grammys’ to ESPN’s ‘Espys’, to the ‘Webbys’ to the National Association of Funeral Director’s annual ‘Award for Excellence,’ we push validation from the moment an inspired child gives their acceptance speech in a mirror, until someone buries us in the ground with “funeral excellence.”
We must ask: why do we have so many awards? What do these awards really do to the individuals who receive them? How long do the after-effects of the award stay within the individual and continue to matter? If every one gets an award for nearly anything, haven’t we transformed the power of recognition for human achievement into hyperbolic, marketing enabled pageantry?
We have also sub-divided the country into two very different colors of validation: red and blue. Elections are no longer contests of ideas and great debates. Elections simply create winners and losers. When Obama won, that victory validated the 50% of the country who voted for him. Winning makes the other side seem incoherent and irrelevant. Yet that loser often represents nearly half of any population. Winning amplifies the belief that ‘our ideas’ held the day. Since we have no middle ground of debate and dissent, Americans cling to their echo chambers of political validation: MSNBC for the left, and Fox News for the right. Rare channels like C-SPAN offer an oasis where no side is validated; individuals and ideas are presented and different points of view can be heard.
DEACON WHITE AND THE HALL OF FAME
In the digital age, “social validation” is the new tonic. Social validation involves those who are your “friends,” “followers,” “fans” or others offering you the transient and hyper inflated currency of: comments, likes, reviews, shares, tweets, re-tweets, eyeballs, tagged photos, page views, downloads and much, much more. Nothing wrong with the technology and the connectivity but the behaviors that it drives us towards through the digital currency of validation should frighten us. What’s at stake in all of this is who we are as a country and the culture we have become. We cling to the fleeting sugar highs of validation that always lead to a painful crash.
There’s also some hope in all of this as the human need for recognition gets redefined. My belief is that the generation after the Millennials, will recoil from all this hyped nonsense. Let us hope for a flight to quality where recognition of real human achievement will be amplified by a few trusted, authoritative and transparent sources; a time when validation for accomplishments becomes tightly re-coupled with excellence.
In validation nation we have exploded the concepts of ‘halls of fame.’ Yet there are still some halls where the price of admission is not only extraordinary professional excellence, but also character and courage. Twenty-five years since he played his last game, the gatekeepers of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown N.Y. have never validated Pete Rose. Recently, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were denied admission during their first year of eligibility. All three were accused or admitted to using steroids.
This year, three far less famous names will actually be admitted to the hall, including a “bare handed” baseball catcher who died in 1939 named Deacon White. In a ceremony, on what is usually a hot summer day in July, Deacon White will be added to the most sought after room in all of baseball lore. He will be validated in Cooperstown, NY.
Most Americans will have no clue who Deacon actually was and why what he did mattered. He exists in the one channel of validation that our human minds simply can’t comprehend nor control- the afterlife.
Deacon’s accomplishments had to be discovered, studied and put into a context in order to celebrate his actual achievements. That’s a level of validation that rings true.
Congratulations Deacon. I see you, I hear you and I celebrate you— wherever you are.