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How the need for external validation can compromise your performance

When you are young, your strategy in life is to avoid failure at all costs. You naturally assume the lack of failure implies there is the presence of success. Unfortunately, life is not that simple.

In this article, and related podcast, we discuss why this is a bad idea and why you will develop as a one-dimensional leader unless you learn how to manage failure and learn from it. You need to understand what is the external validation trap, how it may be impacting your life and your career, and what can you do to fix it.

We urge you to learn how to manage failure when you are young versus being 40, with a family and children, mortgage etc., when failure is going to hurt far more because you have not developed the mindset and skills to handle it.

An Example of Failure

Many of you are familiar with Firmsconsulting’s Executive Program. In fact, many of you are subscribers to this program. In the Executive Program we teach members, in enormous detail, how to go into companies and fix their problems.

It is just incredible the amount of detail in that program. There is nothing like it in the world.

Before Firmsconsulting was founded we ran a different company that was trying to do this: teach strategy. And that company failed miserably. It just did not work. Sure, we ended up making money. But the bottom line is it failed by our definition of success versus simply by the narrow definition of the pursuit of money.

At the time of the failure many colleagues said, “You know what, there is no business here.” And we disagreed. We said, “Look, there is a need to teach people strategy at a practical level. Step by step. Versus the way it is now taught in the manner where it may be interesting but no one actually picks up any real skills.

MBA programs teach you the strategy concepts but not necessarily the foundation of critical thinking. And that is usually done poorly, even at elite business schools. If these skills were taught very well consulting firms like McKinsey would not need to run such rigorous case interviews at the top schools. The mere need for such a careful vetting implies that the skills are not uniformly taught.

Yet assuming MBA strategy programs are taught well, those programs don’t teach you the practical application.

They do not teach you what to do at 8am on a Monday morning on a strategy study. This step-by-step instruction is missing.

What is the first thing you do? What is the second thing you do? What is the third thing you do? How do you manage clients? What happens if a client does not accept the logical analysis?

It’s almost like breaking down every step of a consulting study into about 1,000 steps, so you can follow it and do it yourself. We felt there was a need for that type of instruction and our studies do just this.

We felt there was a need because when we were junior consultants we never had that training and we could have used it, and so could our colleagues. When we became partners we felt our teams could benefit from this as well.

Yet, initially we failed by our internal definition of success. And we stopped that business. And then we started a blog which people liked. People wrote in asking us to train them, which became Firmsconsulting. But the idea was always to go back to the strategy training. This is our core as former partners. We felt strategy was incorrectly taught in many places and many were picking up the wrong skills.

We wanted to go back to the one thing we knew well: strategy and teaching strategy.

And then we had a different idea. Rather than putting out templates and slides about strategy toolkits and methodologies, what if we took an entire consulting study and broke it down into individual steps, and for each step we will load the power point and do a training video.

And we are talking about hundreds of steps per study.

Many people thought this was crazy. That is the direct feedback we received when we discussed the idea. In fact, one colleague, a McKinsey Senior Partner, said, “That is a high risk plan“, when we discussed it.

Yet we did it. That is the Tech Merger Strategy study, which we launched around June of 2014.

So we rolled this out and the feedback was very good. As shown below.


As a side note, everything that Firmsconsulting has ever launched has never been an immediate breakout success, where everything just spikes and we get twitter hits and mentions in the press. We have never had that. That is largely our own doing since we do not advertise and carefully admit clients.

That said, our programs are always steadily growing and over time they come to be very influential. Although, we suppose if you define success as a steady build-up then it is successful.

So we launched that first study. It was moderately successful, by our definition anyway, and growing. Clients were engaged and found it very useful.

We rolled these programs out and never really worried about them. We knew the quality was high, the depth was pretty much unparalleled and if we produced something exceptional, it would work.

And then we said, “Lets do another study and we would liveblog it”.

So there we were, there was no real market for this and we were liveblogging the next study. Eventually the liveblog came to 600 pages of explanations with hundreds of videos and powerpoint slides. That is known as the LAB or the US Banking Market Entry strategy study.

That became somewhat successful. Others would call it very successful but by our internal measures that track impact it was average. Still, our overall program kept growing in popularity.

Then we took it even further and said, “What if we did an enormously complex turnaround strategy?” And that became the Empire International strategy study, which we also call the Corporate Strategy & Transformation study.

This became even more successful and the iTunes channel for this study is one of the top 5 career podcasts in most countries in the world. So, we kept growing from a tiny base where no visible market existed and just kept on playing the long game.

We never stopped or produced simpler and lower quality material just because the market did not initially respond. There is always the temptation to do that. We doubled down on building the most detailed study programs. Over time our studies have become even more detailed than the initial studies.

Our view is that we are building strategy training programs for subscribers who want to learn the real skills to make an impact versus simply learning a few concepts at a high level. We have been very disciplined in focusing on that former profile of client. Professionals who want to do strategy the right way. Professionals who want to make a deep and lasting impact.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with learning the basics of strategy just for interest. By all means, please do that if that is your goal. That, however, is not our focus. We make our work compelling and entertaining, but the goal is always to teach the right skills in great detail. For example, we have 12 videos dedicated just to executive focus interviews in just one study. That is the detail we believe is necessary to become a strategy consultant versus having a reading knowledge.

Our belief is it is not enough to have a reading knowledge of strategy. It is not enough to do the analyses. It is not even enough to do the analyses correctly. Nor is it about having the right recommendations that no one in your company wants to use. At the end of the day the only outcome that matters is whether or not your organization is better off as a result of you having done the work. That is strategy. Making an impact. Our programs are focused on just that.

And finally we started receiving the type of evidence we sought on the value of the programs.

We once received an email from a Deputy Minister in Sweden who was using the LAB study to understand risk in the banking sector, and wanted to understand the equations we built for risk. It was surprising to see a government official self-studying versus giving the work to her staff.

Another time we received an email from the head of strategy at a F500 retailer who was also using the programs.

In yet another validation we received an email from a major accounting firm who was using the power study to educate their teams and client about issues in the power sector. In fact, even partners at many consulting firms write to us about their experiences using the material.

These are just a few examples but they touched on what we were trying to accomplish.

This was the metric we wanted: impact. We wanted to know if the programs are being used to influence thinking and decisions by leaders at major organizations.

External validation vs. internal validation

Many people, when they start something and it is not very successful, give up. They give up because they are relying on external validation.

A need for external validation is manifested when we need others to like us and think we are competent, smart or “good” in some other way which is important to us. People who rely on external validation have their self-worth tied up to what people think of them. They want others to determine that what they are doing is amazing and works. And if they do not receive that external validation, they just quit.

Yet, the market is not that efficient. Many times the market is wrong and cannot see value when/where value exists. Sometimes the market needs time to come around. Often times the market needs to be educated. Pioneers routinely do things that make no sense to the market. Not because it is illogical but because the market is unable or unwilling to understand/accept the logic.

By needing external validation people are basically surrendering their identity and self-worth to others. External validation is temporary and unpredictable, and relying on external validation results in a dependent, needy and helpless mindset.


Social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley called this phenomenon the “Looking-Glass-Self”, summing it up as follows: “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.”

As you probably will agree, it’s a losing game.

When you rely on external validation and you don’t get it in the form you want, be it revenue, sales, praise or promotion, you give up. Even more striking, when you rely on external validation you are giving up control of your life. You let others’ perception of you impact the shape of your life.

To add to this, not surprisingly, when you rely on external validation you come across as trying-too-hard or desperate, be it in the case interview setting or in social setting, which makes you less attractive and less likeable.

As we mentioned many times before, desperation does not work in consulting. Consulting firms look for people who can represent the firm well in front of a client. And desperation is not an image the firm wants to project. So if you appear desperate, you are not viewed as a good fit for the firm. Of course, desperation is a poor strategy for any other setting outside of consulting as well.

The bottom line is, relying on external validation is a recipe for being miserable and never fulfilling your true potential.

In fact, you can never be above average since you rely on what the masses think is right and will do themselves, to determine what you will do. So you basically repeat a very common strategy used by everyone. And strategy is about picking a path that is different and gives you a sustainable comparative advantage (versus a sustainable competitive advantage). Strategy is all about making yourself stronger relative to your competitors.

The mission of Firmsconsulting is to find and nurture the next generation of leaders to solve mankind‘s toughest problems. That has never changed for us. We have followed that goal since day one.

In other words we are finding and nurturing people who can be visionaries and we train them to be able to solve the very toughest problems. Yet, people who rely on external validation by default are not visionaries, because a visionary sees something in the future that no one else can see. And even though no one may validate it initially they constantly tweak it and adjust it, and work towards it. So to be the leader that only you can be you have to learn to rely on internal validation.

The key here is that, people fail a lot, but you will likely quit when you fail, if you seek external validation.

If you are an executive or you are a consultant and you trying to learn certain skills, trying to do certain things, don’t be disappointed if you fail. Learn from it. Pick yourself up and do it better the next time, then better the next time, and then even better the next time.

The learning curve affects are important. Never quit because others believe you are wrong.

Can reliance on external validation be reduced

Fortunately, the neuroplasticity of the brain allows us the opportunity to literally rewire our neural net with new ways of thinking. We described some ways of how you can start rewiring your brain in the Impostor Syndrome episode of FCTV, so we will not repeat those ideas here.


The bottom line is, you need to become more self-aware. You need to understand what skills and strengths you have. You need to start relying on internal validation, with your sense of self-worth coming from within. You need to develop a sense of self-worth that is a constant, unaffected by what people may think of you.

And relying on internal validation does not mean that you are perfect. It means you value and respect yourself. You understand your worth. You set your own standards and goals, standards and goals that have meaning for you. And your goals should not be what you think you want, but what you actually want. This requires brutal honesty with yourself.

Then you can keep on growing and improving within the parameters that you established, with your success determined by your effort and not by what others think.

This is difficult but important work because what you think about yourself in no small measure impacts everything in your life, including how successful you can be in your career.

Why the need for external validation persist

External validation is not all bad. Valuing what others think of you is a part of how we operate in society. The key is to find balance where you primarily rely on internal validation.

There are many reasons many people tend to primarily rely on external validation, but we believe a chief impediment is a difficult childhood. For those people who rely on external validation it will be difficult to rewire their brains without exerting significant effort until the new ways of thinking take hold.

Still, you have to remember that to solve the toughest problems you have to be a visionary. A visionary can see something the market cannot see. They may not be the best at explaining it to the market now but they constantly push in that direction.

And if you are a visionary, people are going to shoot you down all the time. In fact, that is how you probably know you are a visionary. So you can’t be someone who needs external validation to proceed. You may fail and you need internal drive, also known as vision, to proceed.

Don’t be someone who seeks external validation because it’s a losing game. And actually it becomes a tool to manipulate you, by simply withholding praise people can control you. Or worse, they can make you change your strategy.

If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to post it.

Author(s) of this article:

Michael Boricki is a partner at Firmsconsulting. Write to Michael at [email protected]
Kris Safarova is a partner at Firmsconsulting. Write to Kris at [email protected]

external validation

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Image from dany13 under cc, cropped.



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