How to Disconnect Your Self Worth from Your Work Achievements

Try giving back instead.

In a thought-provoking article on Quartz, writer Emily Esfahani Smith outlines what has become something of a contemporary crisis: Our ideas about success are seriously warped.

Smith, author of The Power of Meaning, writes about the consequences of having narrow (and predictable) notions of success, where quantitative achievements — like how much money you make — take precedence over qualitative measures — like being happy, for instance.

And in a digital age where seemingly everything can be quantified (how many steps you walked, how many likes you received) our notions of success — and correspondingly, self-worth — change too. As Smith puts it: Why do we think “a woman with 200 Instagram followers must be less valuable than a woman with two million?” She argues that instead of focusing on quantitative measures, specifically work achievements, success should be defined by our lasting and meaningful contributions to society — like raising children, mentoring students or getting more involved in your community.

Image courtesy of Unsplash

But success today is often synonymous with a flashy job title, a high salary or how busy you seem. Science suggests that we actually think of busy people as higher status, because their lack of time makes them seem in-demand.

The “busy-brag” phenomenon speaks volumes to the idea that our current definition of success is built on outdated ideas like “working yourself to the grave,” but ultimately, it’s unlikely you’ll be remembered for your email savvy or that time you got a raise. Our legacies are more likely to be about making meaningful contributions to others, something entrepreneur Lux Narayan describes in this TED talk. Narayan (and a team of engineers) analyzed 2,000 obituaries and found that most people — famous or otherwise — were remembered for making “a positive dent in the fabric of life.”

Smith points to a famous 1970s study that echoes this sentiment. In the study, researchers compared 40 men over 10 years. One of the subjects, John Barnes, was a career-driven and acclaimed biologist. But, as Smith writes, “in the middle of his life, he considered himself a failure.” But most of this failure, Barnes noted, was a “spiritual emptiness” that came from his need to be recognized for his achievements.

When the researchers circled back a few years after, they found that Barnes was less focused on standard notions of success and was instead spending more time with his family and mentoring graduate students.

Smith uses Barnes’ story as an example of how we can reframe success, even if we’ve been steeped in one version — like pursuing fame or money — for our whole lives. Most of us, Smith continues, will have unrealized dreams. The choice is how we choose to “respond to that disappointment.” We can, Smith writes, choose to consider ourselves failures if we don’t live up to our lofty expectations — or, we can “embrace a different definition of success” and focus on giving back to those around us.

Read more on Quartz.