How to Value Yourself

How to value yourself
This article first appeared in the
edition of The Ongoing.

Imagine for a second you could peg your happiness to whatever index you wanted. 

Like it was a free choice, without consequences.

You might choose something like how much money your business makes. Or how much free time you have. How many pounds you bench pressed last week. That email from your client critiquing your work. How much TV your kids watch. That asshole who cut you off in traffic. How many subscribers you have on your email list. The temperature outside. Hell, maybe even the stock market.

I'm guessing you'd probably end up choosing some kind of weighted average. A little of everything mixed together.

A margarita of self worth, if you will.

Here's the problem you have with how to value yourself: most of us don't peg our happiness to the things we should. Instead, we tie our sense of self worth and self esteem to things like our success at work. Or how productive we are. Or the expectations other people have of us. 

Eventually, our poor little margaritas become so weak and watered down they end up unrecognizable.

And all of us deserve a drink we enjoy.

Since I quit my job three years ago, I've been steadily working on finding a better relationship with productivity and success. It hasn't been easy. Detaching my self value from my work has been the single most important—and equally the single hardest—lesson I've learned.

But I've found that becoming less concerned about success or failure has been the key to getting more done—and more importantly, getting more meaningful work done.

The truth is, you can peg your happiness—and how you value yourself—to whatever you want. And it most certainly doesn't have to be your success, or your productivity, or your work.

Here's what I've learned about how to improve your self worth.

Lesson #1: It's not your fault

It's way too easy to forget that our level of self worth doesn't have to be determined by outside forces. We live in a culture that prioritizes productivity over everything else. We're primed us to attach our sense of self to our work—whether that's through society's unspoken hustle mentality to the rules of our bosses and teachers. Every Instagram story, every Slack update, every billable hour makes it feel like our productivity is a core part of our being.

When you're too attached to your work, it becomes an inextricable part of your identity. Psychologists dub the term "work-role centrality"--it means that work becomes central to your sense of self. 

People with high work-role centrality suffer more when they experience failure or setbacks in their work. Criticism becomes impossible to accept—having someone reject your work, or even just provide feedback, feels like a personal affront. Even worse, losing your job—or burning out—can leave you feeling like you've lost a massive chunk of your identity.

I've found, too, that freelancing makes managing work-role centrality 10x harder than employment ever was. The constant roller coaster ride of emotions takes a toll. One minute, you're on cloud nine after signing a new client or delivering a project, and the next, you're miserable because your invoice is overdue and you're eating ramen for the fifth day in a row. The lines between work and life get so blurry, it's hard to see where one ends and the other begins.

Letting external factors dictate how you're feeling isn't a healthy approach to running a sustainable freelance business—or a sustainable life, for that matter. But it doesn't have to be that way. 

Lesson #2: Productivity ≠ Busyness

Most people conflate productivity with efficiency. Getting things done. Checking lists.

We have this constant feeling of needing to do more, to produce more. 

But, the reality is that we often need to do less.

Yes, efficiency and being busy can be awesome. But how fast you get something done, or how many items you tick off your to-do list, aren't nearly as important as spending your precious time and energy on the right things.

That's why understanding your personal values is vital. Understanding what you truly value puts you in control of your definition of success. You get to redefine what it means to be productive—whether that means work or something else entirely.

If you choose to value happiness over busyness, then taking the afternoon off is equally as important as checking a few more items off your todo list. Spending time with your kids becomes equally as productive as squeezing in another hour of client work. Taking a quiet walk to clear your head is more valuable than continuing to pound it against the keyboard.

Real self worth comes from spending your time on what's most important to you. 

Lesson #3: Compare yourself to no-one

Comparison is the enemy of happiness. Like I mentioned earlier, it's easy to look at everyone else's margaritas and feel bad. Envious, in fact. The more we compare ourselves to other peoples' achievements, the less satisfied we are with our own lives.

But valuing yourself based on other peoples' scales is a foolproof way of ignoring the awesome things you're already doing. The only person you should be comparing yourself to is yourself—specifically, your past self.

It's the reason why everyone tells you to "focus on the process instead of the outcome." When we're focused on outcomes we haven't achieved yet, it's impossible to stop comparing ourselves to other people who have already achieved what we're trying to do. The freelancer making six figures. The digital product creator with a vast audience. We conveniently ignore the fact that those people started out in the exact same place, and have been mixing their margaritas for years.

By focusing on the process and only measuring our own progress, it frees us up to do our best work. Are you doing better than yesterday? Last week? Better than six months ago? Avoid judging yourself against other peoples' ideas of what's right, but rather on whether you're improving.

Stop comparing yourself with everyone else. Because ultimately, it's the process that your work—and your own margarita of self worth—are made of.

Lesson #4: Embrace the suckiness

Here's the hard truth. Failure's inevitable, and we all suck at life sometimes.

Some days will feel good—like you're on top of the world. Some days you'll feel like shit. Most days will fall somewhere in between. You can't control which days are which. 

It's human nature to feel regret that we didn't get more done today, or to feel ashamed that our work wasn't as good as it could be. But like most things, it all depends on how you look at it. The way you value yourself isn't controlled by that suckiness. It's controlled by our perception of the suckiness. 

Whether we succeed or fail, we all have a constant feedback loop around how we feel. Ideally, that loop should look something like this:

Try something →  Get feedback and results → Learn from feedback and results → Try something new.

The problem is, self-criticism throws a giant wrench in the works. Instead of listening to feedback, we blame ourselves for not getting it right the first time. Instead of learning, we judge ourselves against other people's standards. And instead of trying something new, we shut down entirely, breaking the chain. That's why we don't change.

The best projects I've done haven't been the ones with the most precise writing, or the most shares, or the highest number of readers. The best projects I've found are the ones where I've learned something new. Learning is 99% failure (and 1% blind luck), so choosing to value yourself by your successes just isn't a sustainable strategy of well-being.

So next time something goes wrong, instead of focusing on how you failed, think about what you've learned. Try to identify what's off, and see what you can do better next time. Is it because a client fired you? Because you're behind on a deadline? What can you learn to make next time suck a little less?

The goal is to build your ability to value learning and growth, so your identity stops being tied up in whether today sucked or not. The sooner we choose to value what we can learn from the suckiness instead of just blaming ourselves, the tastier our margaritas will become.

- - -

I don't write about this stuff because I've got it all figured out. In fact, self-judgment has been my #1 struggle over the past few years. Genuine personal development isn't easy—it takes years to figure out what works.

No, I write about it and share it because it helps me figure it out. 

Changing how you value yourself isn't easy. It takes deliberate work, and a lot of it. 

But luckily, we're the ones in charge of that work. 

Your self worth doesn't depend on your success, or other people's standards, or how productive you are.

You're the one who gets to choose how to value yourself. Not anyone else.

Because after all, what's the point of drinking a margarita if you don't like it?