Be harder on yourself (or someone else will)

As millennials, many of us grew up hearing that we shouldn’t be hard on ourselves. And then we were thrown into a world that is inescapably hard on us.

What matters is that we dictate the terms of that. If you are hard on yourself, you take control of what that looks like. You set your own definition of success. You have your own criteria for feeling good about something you’ve done. You value your own feedback over anyone else’s.

Because if we’re not hard on ourselves, other people will take over that role.

They’ll set the bar wherever they want. They’ll invent rules we can never fathom. They’ll make it simply impossible for us to ever feel like we’ve done a good job, or we’re doing okay.

You can never please everyone, or meet everyone’s standards. But you can set your own, then focus on them.

The trick is to have a clear-cut internal yardstick, coupled with an unshakeable belief that you’re capable of measuring up. Always.

I’m not particularly smart. Not naturally, anyway. I’m not great with people, or conventionally attractive, or any of the other key traits that seem to matter most in life. I can’t code. I’m pretty much invisible in a crowd. I stutter when I’m nervous.

But I do have one thing going for me which makes up for that: I’m incredibly hard on myself. For whatever reason, I have an inbuilt assumption that if I can’t do something, that’s my problem. Not anyone else’s.

If I get something wrong, it’s automatically my fault -it would never occur to me to blame it on someone giving me incomplete instructions, or expecting too much, or changing their mind, even if that might be true. I assume that I should know how to do whatever gets thrown at me- and if I need to ask for help, take a course or god forbid quit, I’ve failed.

This attitude makes for a lot of vile self-talk, a lot of all-nighters and missed sleep and a lot of wasted effort. But it makes for fast learning.

When I started working as a freelance writer, still in my teens, with no real relevant training, and little guidance from anyone, I was under the misguided impression that I would be able to just write.

That’s what writers do, right? They sit down at a desk in the morning and write. Then they drink coffee. Then they go and do cool things with their writer buddies. And no one interferes with that because they’re writing.

In reality, writing ended up being a tiny part of it. There were a million other things I suddenly had to learn how to do, fast, and well enough for no one to guess I was doing them for the first time.

Sending invoices. Keeping records for taxes. Pitching. Writing contracts. Understanding copyright and data protection laws. Interviewing and being interviewed. Communicating solely by email. Communicating with engineers, a skill in itself. Understanding cryptic briefs. Decoding style guides.

Hardest of all: managing my own psychology, as I stumbled through uncertainty, doubt, confusion, and the background staccato of impostor syndrome.

But I learned fast. Painfully, yet fast, for the simple reason that I assumed I should be able to do it all.

This is the critical difference between school and the so-called real world.

In school, no one really expects you to know anything. When you start working, everyone seems to assume you can handle basically whatever they throw at you. If you can’t, what are they paying you for?

There are two ways to look at this.

You can expect everything to be explained to you. You can expect to get everything somehow graded and returned to you with a neat score on it. You can expect instructions and directions and no judgement if you still misunderstand. You can expect credit and a clear pay off for what you do.

Or you can assume that you’ll have to figure out most stuff yourself, you won’t have any idea how you’ve done or what the metrics are, you won’t get credit, there’s no obvious payoff for anything.

The first leads to endless frustration, a victim mentality, and an endless sense of defeat. The latter is exhausting, but leads to rapid learning — as well as learning how to learn.

You can wait a lifetime for external validation that you’re doing okay.

You can find it in money, in relationships, in fancy houses or cars, in awards and accolades, in numbers and words.

But that doesn’t mean anything. It melts away as soon as there’s another goal to aim for, which is always.

It’s like the scene at the end of Notting Hill (which I adore in spite of myself), when Anna stands in front of William and asks him to love her, and all her fame and riches and awards mean nothing. His answer suddenly matters more.

There’s always another reason for someone else to be hard on us. There’s never a moment to be satisfied.

Yet I’ve found so much value in moving the scorecard internally and deciding on my own metrics. As much as I appreciate feedback as a means of improving, it has little to do with how I feel.

Sometimes a piece of my work does really well by other people’s standards, but not by my own, so it’s a failure. Sometimes a piece of work doesn’t do so well or isn’t well received, but I did it in a way that meets my own standards, so it’s a success. It’s the process that matters.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by 337,320+ people.

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