You Hate Yourself Because We Told You To

Or, how to lose an unwinnable game

Nikki Lee
7 min readApr 10, 2015


The Awl recently published a letter that they (aptly) titled “I Hate Myself Because I Don’t Work For BuzzFeed”. The response given includes some great advice, but the original letter is what’s important here. You should read it. It’s raw and visceral and there’s something very deeply true about it.

You don’t need to work in media to relate to this:

How can I ever feel good about myself or my life knowing I’ll never have any what I described? That I fucked up the biggest opportunity I’ll ever have?

Or this:

If you’re not part of the main media Twitter clique (the people who get custom-made twitter avatars from @darth — that clique) then what’s the point of even being part of the media? It’s just so hard to shake the desire to be these people (both BuzzFeed people and famous Internet people).

We’ve all looked at someone and felt this — just replace “BuzzFeed” with your own personal Everest (emphasis mine):

I mean this business is so fucked up and I don’t understand how anyone could say otherwise… unless they work at BuzzFeed where literally everything is perfect and the industry is in great shape because you get free shit, never get fired, traffic is always going up, and the money never ends.

You hate yourself because you’re not good enough

I joined the Global Shapers Community in 2012. As a direct result, I started paying attention to the goings on of the World Economic Forum. The biggest, most important thing that they do is run an annual gathering in Davos where everyone who is anyone in international affairs comes together to debate policy, network, and be seen.

(a friend went to Davos and ended up accidentally chatting with the president of Iran)

The first morning that I woke up to a Twitter feed full of firsthand reports from Davos, I wanted to throw up. Why wasn’t I good enough to be there, saving the world?

Everyone wants to be the best

Never mind the fact that I would probably hate going to Davos. Never mind the fact that almost everyone I talk to in real life a) has no idea what Davos is and b) generally could not care less about it.

People that I thought were winning thought it was important. I didn’t actually want to go to Davos, I wanted to be cool enough to go to Davos.

I Hate Myself Because I Don’t Work For BuzzFeed isn’t about BuzzFeed. It’s about Davos. It’s about the Forbes 30 under 30 list. It’s about making 6 figures. It’s about getting engaged on Facebook, finally landing that promotion, buying that house, writing that article. It’s about having the most pageviews and Twitter followers and Facebook friends.

It’s about being on the Homecoming Court. It’s about eating lunch at the cool kids’ table. It’s about having the best birthday party in your whole first grade class.

It’s about finally, finally being good enough. Being the best. It’s the new anorexia (and also the old anorexia).

There’s always someone better

Fact: There are more than 7 billion humans on this planet. No matter what it is that you care about, you will always, always be able to find someone who can beat you.

You hate yourself because you’ll never win

Life isn’t a video game. You can’t freeze time on that one glorious moment when you beat the bad guy and save the land and rescue your love interest and everything is finally perfect. Life isn’t a trophy for you to put on your shelf.

You can’t win because winning doesn’t exist.

Too many of us are stuck playing a losing game. If we just accomplish that one thing, we’ll finally be happy with ourselves. The truth is:

  • Getting that raise won’t do it
  • Losing those 10 lbs. won’t do it
  • Dating that person won’t do it
  • Starting that company won’t do it
  • Going viral won’t do it

Each of those things gives a tiny high, a little hit of dopamine. But you’ll go right back to beating yourself up as soon as it fades.

Our metrics are fucked up

It’s so easy to get caught up in numbers. How many people subscribe to your YouTube channel? How many Instagram followers do you have? How many reads did your last article get? Yeah, but how many favorites? How many recommends?

We’ve made the entirely understandable translation from web traffic to self worth. Here’s the thing: web traffic is not deterministic. It’s not fair. It’s not objective. And it sure as hell is not a meritocracy. We’re not turning lead to gold — we’re just brushing some glitter onto it.

Darius Kazemi perfectly sums it up in his (brilliant) XOXO talk on being a successful creative:

I believe that beyond a certain threshold of work that you put into your projects, success is entirely out of your hands.

There are two main ways to build a following online (assuming you make things that aren’t terrible):

  1. Get in while the network is small and the playing field is still level.
  2. Get backed by someone with an audience.

It’s strikingly similar to how to get a job (assuming you’re qualified):

  1. Apply while the applicant pool is small and the playing field is still level.
  2. Get backed by someone who has an in at the company.

A few words on numbers

My roommate, Jeffrey, is extraordinarily extroverted. He’s outgoing, and friendly, and always up for a social gathering. He is, in many ways, my opposite.

I used to wonder how Jeffrey had so many more friends than me. Eventually, I realized that this came down to one key factor: we have different definitions of the word “friend”. Jeffrey has far more people that he can go to a party or music festival or soccer game with. When it comes down to close friends, people you would call for anything at any time, we even out.

The point here isn’t that extroverts are shallow (they aren’t) or that introverts are missing out (we aren’t), but that when it comes to meaningful human connections, numbers go out the window. We don’t have 50 best friends because we can’t maintain intimate, meaningful relationships with that many people.

It doesn’t matter if 1,000 or 10,000,000 people see what you do. Your brain doesn’t have the means to make real sense of either of those quantities of humans.

You hate yourself for the wrong reasons

The most meaningful essay I have ever published was read by about 100 people. In it, I talked about my personal experiences with depression. Almost a dozen people reached out to me, quietly, afterwards. They confessed their own struggles and said that they felt less alone because of what I had written. That they felt like maybe they could make it through.

The most popular essay I have ever published was read by more than 80,000 people. I wrote it in two hours on an airplane. People have reached out to me to say that it mattered to them, too, but not so many that I can’t count them on my hands.

This is not to say that popular works do not matter, or that they cannot be good. It is to say that being popular and being good are not the same thing. As far as I can tell, they aren’t even correlated.

The best advice on success I’ve ever gotten

A while back, I had coffee with one of my mentors. We talked about the World Economic Forum, and how they choose who to highlight, and she gave me the following advice:

There are two ways to be noteworthy. You can be the absolute best in the world at something. Or you can put together two things that haven’t been combined before.

You can be the absolute best in the world at the game that exists. Or you can make your own game.

Make good things, not popular things

Here’s the secret to feeling good about yourself: be someone worthy of your own respect.

Make things that you think are good. Do things that you think are interesting.

At the end of the day, you’re the one stuck in your head. You have to live with yourself, every second of every minute of every day. Stop chasing the elusive and fickle attention of the masses. Just pick something, anything, that you’re interested in and chase it. Do something worth being proud of. The rest will come after, and even if it doesn’t, it doesn’t actually matter.

  • Do you hate yourself for not working for BuzzFeed? Write for yourself. Break a story that you think is important, even if only 10 people read it. Put your heart into it.
  • Do you hate yourself for not working at the hot new startup? Build for yourself. Find someone who needs something, even if there’s no money in it. Make the best possible solution to a problem you didn’t even know existed, even if only 10 people download it.
  • Do you hate yourself for not having 10,000 followers? Look at the followers you do have. Read their names. Look at their pictures. These are real people, and they care about what you have to say. What do you have to say that needs to be in front of 10,000 people anyway? If it’s so important, say it anyway, and don’t stop saying it.

If you’re going to hate yourself, at least have a good reason. Hate yourself for not trying. Hate yourself for never doing anything real with your life. Hate yourself for not caring about the people around you.

Hate yourself for wasting time hating yourself, when you could be using that energy to make the world a better place.



Nikki Lee

Designer, engineer, maker-of-things. Product manager building a better government at 18F.