Like the Proverbial Tree Falling in the Forest, PR’s Happen off Camera: Finding Meaning in our Pursuits


By Dr. Allison Belger

If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

Philosophers have pondered this question for years.  It’s an intriguing conundrum about human experience and perception dictating whether or not something has, in fact, occurred.

Over the past few months, I’ve thought about our need for validation and how much that need drives our work.  The topic originally came up for me as I began writing this blog several months ago.  With each post, I would receive feedback via social media, personal emails, and actual conversations.  I noticed in myself that with each Facebook “like” or Twitter retweet, I experienced a brief but noteworthy sense of excitement or validation—because someone out there had become my audience, for starters, and that he or she had enjoyed what I wrote.

In a conversation with some friends one night at dinner, we got to talking about the validation we receive when we put ourselves out there in the world, and how recognition can motivate us to keep doing what we’re doing.  One of the friends involved in this discussion happens to be a very well known and established blogger/public figure.  We talked about the flip side of validation and praise—the fact that one is equally susceptible to criticism and negative remarks when one offers up work to be consumed by an audience at large.  Our takeaway?  It’s best to avoid taking personally the sometimes harsh responses that might come our way and keep doing the work we believe in.  And as much as we might try to avoid reacting to the negative, we must also be careful not to place too much emphasis on, or be overly flattered by, the positive.

Ever since that dinner conversation, I’ve thought quite a bit about what drives me to write, what feeds the process, and for what reasons I continue each week–sometimes with more difficulty and less joy than others.  Is the validation from readers the factor that defines my commitment? Is it the pleasure of stringing of words together and the creation and linking of thoughts and content?  Would the satisfaction be the same if the articles stayed on my hard drive, never to be taken in by others?  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there…

With the proliferation of social media comes a vast and immediate audience for a variety of personal content.  Given my connection to the CrossFit community and the wider world of athletes who train seriously, my social media streams are inundated with people announcing personal bests accompanied by photos and video—providing legitimacy to their claims.  I’ve often thought about this phenomenon.  Does sharing successes at the gym or in sport drive athletes to perform better?  Does knowing that one’s workout statistics might be broadcast on the Internet make the workout matter more, raising the stakes and creating new meaning?  I’m guessing that the answers here are “yes.”  It is no secret that one of the benefits of group exercise is that we usually perform better in groups, partly because we are motivated by group energy, but partly because our results are up for comparison.  Completing a workout on one’s own, with nobody around and nobody to evaluate our performance, can be less motivating for some.

Could there be a drawback to this phenomenon?  Is there a problem if we need an audience or other recognition in order to do our best work?  If we dance with abandon, grace, and intensity at home all alone, does a lack of audience make it any less an achievement or expression of hard work and talent?  If we write a poem with lyrical sensibility and provocative content but share it with no one, is it any less powerful or significant than if it were published and distributed widely?  If we reach a new PR on our three-rep-max back squat but the video camera captures only one of those reps, does that make the effort any less inspiring or true?  If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there…

Take some time to think about what drives the things you do with the greatest intensity and commitment.  Do you do it for the validation from others? Do you do it for the love of the game or the love of the work?  Does it only matter to you if certain people know about what you do and like it?  But what if they don’t?

For the most part, it’s probably optimal to be spending our time, effort, and other resources on work and pursuits that make us feel good in some way, regardless of the number of likes we get on Facebook or re-tweets on Twitter.  Fun and rewarding as the positives are, a negative comment or a day without likes might be just around the corner.  And then what?  Keep in mind the purpose of your endeavors, and the answer should be clear.  If you’re doing CrossFit, for example, there’s a good chance you started in order to improve your fitness and health.  Remember that, as you surpass your PR’s and acquire new party tricks–like muscle-ups, handstand pushups, and snatches–and want to show them to the world.  Both aspects are great, as long as you don’t forsake the former for the latter.

I realize that some endeavors require an audience, including many forms of artistic expression.  Much like the tree falling in the forest with no human ear to register and therefore “create” a resulting sound, the dancer or painter needs human perception to register the work.  But hang with me here:  The point today is to consider the balance between our need for an audience and our capacity to be satisfied and driven independent of others.

If an individual produces work of some kind (be it in sport or elsewhere), but nobody is there to witness it, does it actually happen?  Can it have meaning?  Hopefully, yes. 


  1. Thank you for your post. For me, the Lord is watching and seeing what I do with the gifts and challenges He has dealt me. Everything is witnessed by God.

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