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 most powerful man in the world and the leader of the Roman Empire, felt 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, craving approval.

What about the internal pride I felt after facing a fear of vulnerability and capturing the complicated, wonderful man my grandfather was? Psshhh. That was lukewarm water compared to the jacuzzi of external validation I was soaking in.

I have a tendency to get too concerned with what other people think, seeking validation from the world around me, instead of from within. As residency approaches, I find myself doing it again.

For medical students, the narrative that pervades the residency application process feels something like this:

“You’ll find your ticket to a career of fulfillment, happiness, and success at the best, most prestigious program you can get into.”

Every time we hear (and say) “oh my gosh”, “holy shit” or “wow” when someone mentions Mass General, Hopkins, or Penn, and ask “what happened?” when we hear someone is going to a “lesser” institution, we perpetuate that narrative’s strength. In the process, we convince ourselves that some people at US News and World Report know the path to becoming a good doctor. Not just for you and me, but for every other medical graduate across the country.

Skeptical? Me too. I still buy into it too often. 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 at this program or that one?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to avoid this. I think it comes down to just stopping.

While it’s convenient to blame medical culture and it’s emphasis on prestige, I know I need to take responsibility for the fact that that I’m hoping other people will fill the voids that I sometimes 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 trusting that we do, in fact, understand our internal truths. 

Instead of trying to cast a net of approval that catches the entire world, what if we tried to cast the smallest one possible? One that’s thrown with a hefty dose of self-confidence, 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 and impressing 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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