I Approve: The Value of Equality

Woman gazes in mirror.There are those rare individuals who cannot be distracted by the external markers of success—things like social rank, wealth, education level, and professional status. These individuals behave in ways that quietly but effectively elevate the lowly and humble the arrogant. How do they do it? They ignore two common misconceptions and act instead on bedrock truths about equality and individual value.

Misconception #1

Each person’s value is determined by rank on the pyramid of social success. Your worth as a person increases or decreases as you accumulate (or fail to accumulate) prizes like wealth, power or fame.

Almost all of us believe Misconception #1 at some point in our lives, and it’s no wonder: We are approval-seeking machines. From our infancy, everything we do — crying, playing, using the potty – brings either praise or reprimand from the grown-ups around us. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s the only way to socialize children. But is also conveys the pervasive idea that our value depends on behaving in ways that others see as praiseworthy. Success-driven behaviors can undermine the very thing we think they will provide: the certainty that we are important, lovable, good enough. If you’re waiting for the one achievement that will give you this certainty, prepare to wait forever. The only way to create such inner peace is to replace Misconception #1 with the following truth.

Truth #1

Each person, including you, is infinitely precious. No success or failure can ever alter that fact.

We may give lip service to the idea that every human consciousness is equal and invaluable. But in practice we go on ranking everyone according to external measures of success, surreptitiously comparing their achievements to ours. And deep down, most of us conclude that we’re a bit (or a lot) less equal than everybody else.

It is this lurking sense of inferiority that makes us lust for success, consider ourselves pond scum, or both. Ironically, this mind-set is precisely what keeps us from acting in ways that would elicit natural validation of our true value from the world around us.

The next time you find yourself in a situation where you feel worthless, think about the most powerful hero you can imagine, and how they would react in your place. Now consider this: your hero isn’t the one coming up with this new, self-confident behavior—you are.  Whatever you see your hero do in the fantasy you’ve created is precisely what you can do in reality, once you choose to believe in your own value.

Misconception #2

People will value me to the extent that I affirm the superiority of people who rank above me in the social pyramid, and my own superiority over people who rank below me.

Success is a currency that is not accepted by the heart: You can’t buy love. Only people who are caught in the same misconception will bond with your accomplishments. Success-based relationships are parasitic, and they vanish when the fame, money and power do. To forge caring connections, you don’t need a stronger résumé; you need Truth #2.

Truth #2

People will value me to the extent that they believe I value them.

Virtually all arrogant, domineering people spent their childhoods being cruelly devalued. As adults, they are starving for validation, and they try to force people to acknowledge their significance by sucking up to the powerful and dominating the weak. This tends to create the very hostility they fear. There are much better ways to get the acceptance we crave. One of the easiest is what I call “tossing the fish”.

If you’ve ever been to Sea World, you’ve probably seen trainers reward the dolphins and seals by feeding them fish. Sea mammals will do anything for anyone who’s carrying a bucket of what they love most. They’re a lot like people that way – and you just happen to have a bottomless bucket of what humans love most: approval.

Often people treat approval as though it were a severely limited resource. They give it stingily, if at all, as though every bit of approval aimed at someone else leaves less for them. But the more we express genuine approval, the more we motivate positive behavior in those around us, the more approval we’ll receive from them. (By the way, it’s crucial to fully internalize Truth #1 before  you set out to toss fish. Otherwise your compliments and new-found interest will come across as a Machiavellian ploy.)

In order to keep Truth No. 1 at the forefront of your thoughts, there are two techniques you may find helpful. First, rather than picturing intimidating people in their underwear, try to imagine them as their “bare selves” – as all those things that worry or motivate them. That way you can offer encouragement or support, just as you would with your peers, colleagues, or subordinates.

You may also try a technique I learned from Barbara Browning, a brilliant media trainer who teaches people how to come across on television. Barbara tells her clients, “treat the interviewers as though they were guests in your home.” This is exactly opposite  of most people’s first reaction. When the cameras roll, all their mental functions cease and they just sit there drooling (I speak from experience). But when you enter the mind-set of the “gracious host or hostess,” you equalize your own perception of the intimidating person’s power versus your own. The more lowly and inferior you feel at these particular moments,  the more important it is to get out of that frame of mind and into reality. The “host/hostess” trick can help you make the transition.

It may take you several months of practicing these techniques before they come to feel natural. However we are all inexperienced travelers on this uncertain voyage through life, and we cling to the twin myths of inferiority and superiority out of fear and fear alone. To transcend that fear and connect honestly with others, priceless soul to priceless soul, is to succeed in the truest sense of the word.