Monday, December 21, 2015

Do you need to be awesome at work to have positive self-worth?

I suspect that, as people in tech, we measure much of our sense of self-worth against our performance at work. High performance means positive self-worth. Sub-optimal performance means reduced feelings of self-worth. Maybe this doesn't surprise you. Or maybe it is so automatic that you've never even thought about it as a thing.

Suppose I am doing a great job at work. Like many people, I'm feeling great about myself. I am able to advocate for myself, "sell" my value to managers and interviewers. I'm generous and kind to the people in my life. My success, creativity, and even happiness each seem to grow upon themselves. 

So what's the downside to using my success at work to good about myself? 

Consider this alternate scenario: I'm stuck on something, or it takes me longer than I'd like to create an adequate solution to a problem that I'd hoped to solve really well. I start to be hard on myself. I get hung up on thoughts of things I "should be", or "should know". I start to wonder about whether my employer really thinks I'm worth what they are paying me. I can't believe other companies could be interested in me. I withdraw from people, I ask fewer questions, I can become curt. When I'm in this space, unwelcome thoughts impede my analysis and I become even less effective, unable to break out of a rut of reduced performance. The possibilities for my future seem to narrow. Does any of this sound familiar?

Do those negative feelings help me get back to high performance? I say they don't. I say that feeling bad about ourselves makes us less effective and feeling good about ourselves makes us more effective. I'm not talking about the failed "self-esteem" movement, where parents tell their children that every little mundane thing that they do is wonderful and precious, where everyone gets a trophy and nobody distinguishes excellence from mediocrity. I'm talking about trying hard, recognizing myself when I succeed, cutting myself slack when I fail, feeling good about my effort sand looking for what I can learn from things that don't go well. We can have positive self-regard, be confident, and have an honest view of our strengths and weaknesses whether or not we are at our peak performance at any given moment. In fact, I say we must.

What do I do when I'm stuck in a loop of "poor work -> bad self-image -> worse work"?

It takes an act of will to remind myself that everything is ok, that this is just a temporary slump, that I've had many slumps before and that I've come through them all. Once I remember this, I take active steps to reach out more (even when I don't want to), to ask more questions (even when I think they reveal gaps in my knowledge to people), to step away from a problem and do something easy just so I remember that I am a capable person. 

So what do you think? Do you tie your self-worth to your work? Did you even realize that you were doing it? Have you considered that you don't have to? Are you willing to go after your best performance and happiness by decoupling self-worth from work success?

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