We’re all familiar with the term “work-life balance.” But it wasn’t always as popular a…
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Nice to meet you. What do you do for work?”
“I’d love to follow up. Do you have a business card?”
In the United States, it’s common to talk proudly about work. We chat casually about our careers, our job titles, how big our companies are, and what they’re worth. We often ask children what they want to be when they grow up.
We use phrases like “work ethic” to describe someone’s good character and have held up the traditional 9-to-5 as the best way to provide for ourselves and our families.
So it shouldn’t be difficult to understand how many of us have come to identify so closely with our professions. After all, our jobs take up a lot of our time—it’s only natural that they take up a lot of our thoughts, too.
Before we know it, we’ve begun to identify ourselves not only with what we do, but by what we do.
From there, it’s easy to find we’ve tied our self-worth to our job, as well.
High-Performers Often Tie Their Self-Worth to Their Job
So why is it a bad thing if our self-worth is tied to our job?
Haven’t we always done that? Heck, weren’t people’s last names reflective of their professions, back in the day?
Sure! But it feels like there’s a big difference between “Joe Carpenter” and “Joe Financial-Analyst,” doesn’t it? As our world has changed, so have our job titles—and what they mean in our society have changed pretty dramatically, too.
Gone are the days of being the only blacksmith in the village. Back then, our services were vital to our small community. We could be relatively well-assured we were performing a duty that would keep our income and position fairly stable over time.
Now, we work jobs that aren’t nearly as straightforward. We aren’t always providing direct services to a community we’re part of. Our professional value to the people around us can be more difficult to measure.
This leaves our value as professionals more open to interpretation. Our value as workers is ever-changing, based on external factors we have little control over.
Work-Contingent Self-Esteem Leaves Us Vulnerable to Things We Can’t Control
When we tie our self-worth to our job, we’re leaving ourselves at the mercy of all those external factors we can’t control.
Here’s an example.
Imagine you’ve spent the better part of a month preparing a presentation on a brand new project for your company. You’re heading up the team, and you’re feeling great about what you’ve accomplished so far.
Two days before the presentation, your boss scraps the project. The funding dried up, the market research uncovered a snag, or the board decided to go in a different direction. Either way, it’s been shelved.
Someone with healthy, non-work-contingent self-esteem might feel frustrated or disappointed that things didn’t go the way they’d planned. But they recognize the decision was out of their hands, and it doesn’t make them feel bad about themselves or their skills.
On the other hand, someone with self-worth tied to their job—or work-contingent self-esteem—might take the turn of events personally. They might start to believe the decision was within their control—that they need to work harder and longer hours to prevent this kind of thing from happening again.
If they then begin to work harder, they might see some positive results. Maybe they receive compliments from the higher-ups or get put onto a new project. It has nothing to do with that original decision to shelve their last project—but because they’re seeing an increase of praise, attention, and short-term success, they continue to work at an accelerated pace.
And then comes the burnout.
Burnout is more than just stress. It’s a combination of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms that cause exhaustion, unhappiness, and decreased productivity.
Burnout is common amongst high-performers, and it can be extremely tricky to overcome.
Managing contingent self-esteem and not tying our self-worth to our job is a huge step toward avoiding burnout to begin with.
Our Self-Worth Must Exist Beyond Our Jobs
High-performers tend to set high standards for themselves. And that’s okay—as long as they aren’t impossible standards.
Because when we set impossible standards, we can’t actually meet them. And if our self-esteem is contingent on meeting them, we’ll spend a lot of time feeling bad about ourselves.
The solution lies in allowing our self-worth to exist outside of our job titles.
Identify personal values
How often do we look back at past stressors and think, “I don’t know why that upset me so much. It didn’t even really matter to me.” ..?
As the old saying goes, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Identifying your personal values will help you prioritize what matters to you over the myriad other things that happen every day.
Define success and failure for every project.
For better or worse, high-performers are often perfectionists. They take on too much, always strive to be better, and leave themselves prone to burnout.
All of that striving leaves little time, though, for identifying what success actually looks like. And when we haven’t defined success, it’s much easier to feel like we’re always in a state of failure—that we need to push ourselves harder and harder.
When you start something new, take a few moments to set a goal. What will success look like? Keep it realistic and attainable, and don’t forget to celebrate when you get there!
Learn to fail gracefully.
Failing at a task doesn’t mean you’re failing as a human being. In fact, it usually means you’ve learned a thing or two about how to do it better next time.
Figure out what it is that will make you more comfortable with not succeeding. Consider keeping a journal where you can debrief your experience, what you learned, and how you feel.
Seek feedback from those around you. You may find that talking openly about what happened and how you can improve in future might even get you excited about your next attempt!
You Are More Than What You Do
Tying your self-worth to your job is a slippery slope. We can forget that we don’t need to be successful at work to deserve love, empathy, or rest, for example. It can make us really hard on ourselves and set us up for a lifetime of burnout and frustration.
It’s okay to care a lot about your work. Just remember to regularly reflect on what exactly it is that makes your work important to you, and pursue the things that make you feel genuinely fulfilled.
In other words, set your intention, and forget the rest!