Do you remember the first time you got a “like” on something you posted on Facebook? That little spark of excitement you felt was fun, right?

Like a standing ovation, glowing review, or positive feedback from fans in the audience, it’s nice to get that little bit of validation – to feel like we’ve earned someone’s “stamp of approval.”

And there’s certainly nothing wrong with feeling good when we get that occasional pat on the back. But there’s a dark side to feedback too. Because what happens when we don’t get the “likes”? When the audience response is tepid?

What happens to our confidence then?

As of May 2013, there were 4.5 billion likes being generated every day1. Combine that with tweets, retweets, swipes, etc., and you’ve got an awful lot of feedback flying around out there on the line. There’s probably never been a time in history when it has been so easy to elicit or give feedback to so many people so quickly.

And if our self-worth is too reliant on that external feedback, it can be a bit like riding a roller coaster – our emotions and confidence going up and down from a totally ignored status update to our teacher’s approving smile to mixed comments from the audition committee.

It can become easy to question ourselves, and to worry constantly about what others are thinking. What will the audience think? What will the audition committee think? What does my teacher think? What will my friends think?

How do we break out of this cycle, and as e.e. cummings said, find the “…courage to grow up and become who you really are.”?

The impact of “likes” on self-esteem

A recent Cornell study yields some interesting clues about the connection between external validation, self-esteem, and a third factor that plays an interesting role in the confidence equation.

96 undergraduate students participated in a study to see what sort of impact social media “likes” might have on self-esteem.

And because of findings in other research, the authors suspected that a sense of purpose in life might affect the degree to which fleeting instances of external validation impacts one’s self-esteem, so everyone started by taking the Life Engagement Test to gauge their sense of purpose in life.

They were then told that they would be pilot testing a new social media site called “Faces of the Ivies” (sort of like Facebook), and that they would have to create a profile, and upload a profile picture. Each participant was asked to take a selfie, and the experimenter then uploaded the photo to the site (in reality, there was no such site, and no uploading of any photos).

The experimenter then said that the profile picture would be displayed for 5 minutes, during which time other users would have a chance to view and “like” the photo. After 5 minutes, they were given feedback about how many likes they received. Of course, the feedback was totally made up, and given to them at random.

One group of students were told that they received an average number of likes (27 likes to be exact). Another group was told that they received an above average number of likes (48). And a third group was told that they received a below average number of likes (6).

Then they took a self-esteem assessment.

The role of purpose

As predicted, getting more likes did indeed seem to boost self-esteem. Those in the above average likes group had significantly greater self-esteem scores than those who received an average or below average number of likes.

But here’s where things got interesting. Getting a high number of likes only increased self-esteem for those who had lower scores in life purpose. Students with a greater sense of purpose showed no real change in self-esteem even after getting a lot of likes.

It’s almost as if purpose served as a buffer, helping students’ sense of self to be better insulated from the opinion of others. Where having meaningful long-term goals, and valued activities helped cultivate a sense of personal value that was less contingent on others’ opinions.

Take action

A difference of a few likes on one’s profile picture, and having a rough performance are two very different things, but what if cultivating a stronger sense of life purpose could help us become more resilient in the face of the ups and downs of a life in the arts? What if this might be a way to help us remain less affected by the external validation (or lack thereof) that we receive every day, keep our eyes on the big picture, and stay the path even when we have one of those days where it’s easier to be our worst critic than our strongest supporter?

Umm…but how are we supposed to find our purpose exactly?

This is a question that goes beyond the scope of this post, but there are lots of thought-provoking articles online like this, and even a TED playlist for purpose-finding insights and inspiration.

And, since purpose is an important component of perseverance and ''grit'', there’s a whole chapter2 devoted to the research on purpose in Angela Duckworth’s recently released book on grit (Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance).

Ultimately, while there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for cultivating one’s sense of purpose, it seems that a good place to look is at the intersection of a) things that you geek out about, b) the skills you have and enjoy using, and c) a vision for how you might be able to make others’ lives better in a way that has personal meaning.

And it needn’t be some grand history-altering pursuit like world peace. It could be something that you may not even realize has the kind of impact it does.

Such as?

I’m usually zonked out before any of the late shows come on TV, but I did see Jimmy Fallon’s first night hosting The Tonight Show. His guest was actor Will Smith, who said something that I think relates to music as much as it does to acting, or any of the performing arts.

Namely, that what’s most important, is to “keep loving people.” To remember that art is not about us and our ego, but a way to make a contribution to others. “To help people get through the day,” and ”to help their lives be better and to be brighter” as Smith put it. Or, as Fallon saw it, to do what he could to make sure his viewers can go to bed with a smile, no matter how tough their day may have been.

I had never thought of The Tonight Show in that way. But I imagine it would change your approach to the job when that’s your vision and purpose for doing what you do. Have you ever thought about purpose, and how you might define this for yourself?

Footnotes

  1. Source: Facebook’s Growth Since IPO in 12 Big Numbers
  2. (It’s chapter 8, if you have the book)