The Net of Approval: What a 2,000 Year Old Quote Taught Me About Craving Praise

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius

2,000 years ago, before Facebook likes, article shares, video views, and all the other modern stamps of approval, Marcus Aurelius, the former Roman Emperor and most powerful man in the world, grappled with the unrelenting desire to please others.

Human nature hasn’t changed much since then. At least mine hasn’t.

A while back, I published an essay that gave the internet a panoramic view into my own personal battles. I spent the entire day furiously checking social media, wondering who the next complete stranger would be to give me a dopamine hit.

What about the personal pride from publicizing my vulnerabilities and insecurities? Meh. That would be lukewarm water compared to the jacuzzi of internet praise I wanted to soak in.

Yet again, I found myself facing a tendency to rely on validation from the world around me. As residency application approach, I’m falling into my familiar patterns.

For medical students, a specific narrative pervades the process of choosing where we’ll train:

“Your ticket to a career of fulfillment, happiness, and success is waiting at the best, most prestigious program you can get into. Of course, your values and priorities are important, but trust us when we tell you that those things will line up at the highest ranking place that accepts you.”

Every time we  “oooo” and “aaaah” at the sounds of Mass General, Hopkins, or Penn, and assume someone fell down their rank list when they don’t end up at one of the top programs, we propagate the culture of medicine we’ve all griped about.

In the process, we subconsciously cement in our minds that the editorial team at US News and World Report knows the one-size-fits-all path to becoming a good doctor for you, me, and every other medical graduate across the country.

I know it makes no sense, but when I think about where I want to end up for residency, I catch myself asking “what people will think of me if I end up there?”

At the core of this question sits the hope that someone else will fill the voids that I struggle to fill for myself– the ones that center around the general theme of “Am I [blank] enough?” Good, smart, impressive, desirable, talented, etc.

It comes down to opting out of the game of trying to impress everyone and opting into the one of honoring what we stand for and against.

Instead of trying to cast a net of approval that catches the hoards of strangers who might be impressed with a resumé of renowned institutions,  what if we tried to cast the smallest one possible? One thrown with a hefty dose of self-understanding and guaranteed to catch everything that gives us a sense of meaning, without any of the junk that comes with living a life dedicated to pleasing  everyone else.

After all, who knows what makes us happy better than we do?


I owe the inspiration for this article to Ryan Holiday and James Altucher, who talk about their similar thoughts whenever they press “Publish”, and the perspective that shaped it to my coach, Dr.  Margaret Cary


  1. Natalie H. says

    Jack Penner – it’s as if you were inside my brain when you wrote this. As I get closer and closer to the end of law school, I can’t help but wonder what my life will look like without things such as grades and class rank to give me confirmation that I’m fulfilling my potential and working hard enough (or not). What does validation look like if not breathing a sigh of relief when the final grades page loads? Is everything I have learned worthwhile if I didn’t learn it at a Top 25 school? So many questions about our own success and worth based entirely on the opinions of others. Time to cast a smaller net! And keep writing – you’re doing great things, but hopefully you’ve already figured that out for yourself 🙂

    • says

      Well this really makes my day, Natalie! First off, thank you so much for reading and commenting. What an awesome surprise to see your name come up on here.

      I ask myself the same questions all the time! It’s so much easier to have the backboard of school and training to give structure (and a convenient rubric). Time to cast a smaller net, indeed. I’ll definitely keep writing.

      Your kind words mean a lot. Thank you, Natalie.

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