The story of humanity’s longing for approval begins in an ancient blaze. It was the moment when, hundreds of thousands of years ago, our ancestors realized they could control fire. The discovery gave them warmth and protection from predators. It also led to the innovation of cooking, which let our ancestors extract more usable calories from the food they gathered and killed.
In the millennia that followed the taming of fire, our ancestors’ brains nearly quadrupled in size. Humans developed language and became storytellers. From fire, we forged the essence of who we are today. But sometimes, certain deeply ingrained instincts can backfire on our fulfillment of purpose.
A Neurobiological Legacy
Modern humans owe a lot to the nutritional perks of our ancestors’ campfire cooking. But what happened around those fires counts more than we might think.
Illuminated by firelight, our long-ago ancestors could gather past sundown to discuss the matters of the day, exchanging essential knowledge and forging communal bonds. As flames licked the blackness of night after night, we became social creatures. Our connections to each other were vital for our survival.
That history got baked into our neurobiology. To this day, strong relationships remain crucial to our physical and psychological well being. The U.S. Surgeon General recently warned that social isolation is as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes daily.
We also crave the approval of our tribe, whether that’s our colleagues at work, our family members, or our friends. Our thirst for acceptance is the evolutionary legacy of a time when being rejected by your tribe was a death sentence. “Ancient brains, modern times,” is how the leading high-performance psychologist Dr. Michael Gervais sums it up in the newest episode of the Flow Research Collective Podcast, hosted by FRC’s Executive Director, the award-winning journalist and bestselling author Steven Kotler.
Dr. Gervais's clients range from world-record holders and Olympians to internationally celebrated artists and musicians, as well as MVPs from every major sport and Fortune 500 CEOs. He's also the voice of the Finding Mastery Podcast and co-creator of the Performance Science Institute at the University of California. In his new book, The First Rule of Mastery: Stop Worrying About What People Think of You, Dr. Gervais highlights why overcoming the Fear of Other People’s Opinions (FOPO) is critical for achieving our fullest potential.
FOPO is detrimental for a very simple reason: Our energy is limited. When we spend it on things we can’t control, such as other people’s opinions of us, we’re depleting precious neurochemical resources. Without even realizing it, we end up squandering the opportunity to build mastery in the things we can control.
This doesn’t mean we should stop caring about what people think, altogether. That’s not really an option. But there’s a difference between wanting to be accountable to the people who’ve got your back and trying to shape yourself into the mold of whatever you think will impress others.
In a culture that’s obsessed with performance, people’s identity is often intertwined with the achievements they rack up. Recognizing and moving beyond this trap is essential for authentic mastery. It all comes down to cultivating an identity that’s built on a foundation of purpose. It means finding what rings true to your strengths and values, and making that your North Star.
Dr. Gervais distinguishes between a performance-based identity that’s driven by the quest for external validation and an identity that’s based in a sense of internal purpose. While a performance-based identity can motivate people to achieve truly remarkable success in the near-term, moving toward a purpose-based identity leads to greater fulfillment and resilience over time. It’s a highly-leveraged position for sustaining focus and drive.
“When you think about any world great, they led with purpose and they were honest about it,” says Dr. Gervais. There’s no stopping someone who knows what they stand for.
Accepting Uncertainty and Change
Recognizing what we can control and leverage for maximum impact, rather than worrying about external opinions, is only one part of the self-mastery equation. Another key variable is embracing uncertainty and change.
“The hard part for so many of us is that anxiety is part of the ecosystem,” notes Dr. Gervais. Many of us become distressed over the unknown and unfamiliar, even though impermanence and change are fundamental facts of human life. We are always up against the unknown. But when we worry too much about trying to plan for what comes next, we risk wearing ourselves out before we get there.
Embracing change makes us better equipped to meet the unknown. It allows us to approach new challenges from a place of acceptance and adaptability instead of anxiety, instilling us with an ethos of, “‘I’m going to figure that out,’” Dr. Gervais says.
Mindfulness practices, like meditative moments and daily gratitude breaks, can help us stay grounded, present, and genuinely connected to the current moment and to others.
Finding Your People
Another antidote to FOPO is a supportive community—a posse that has your back.
Having a posse isn’t just socially beneficial. It’s a factor in your energy and performance. When you have people around who care for you and support you, challenges become less threatening. Your brain registers that if you fall down, the people around you are going to pick you up. You take bigger swings and bounce back better from your misses.