gearing up

Self Worth, Validation and Gold Stars in My Post-Career Life

I’m a huuuuge gold star seeker, as you may know, and not the kind that needs trophies or blue ribbons. I’m the kind that likes to know that my contribution was critical to a project’s success. That loves knowing how much a client values me. That relishes feeling awesome at my job, and occasionally getting rewarded for that. (And that secretly hopes my employers will be at least a little bit sad when I announce I’m leaving.)

And right now I get a lot of that at work.

Gaining self worth from external validation at work

And that’s deeply fulfilling.

That work fulfillment and validation is why I’m still doing my job more than a decade and a half after starting, despite the long hours, the seemingly endless travel and the stress. The truth is that I get a ton out of it that feeds my self worth.

When that all goes away, things are going to feel very different.

When there is no more external validation at work, what happens to our self worth?

When all the validation I get at work goes away, it’s not like my desire for gold stars will suddenly vanish. If I could get rid of that ambitious side of myself, I would have done it long ago, because it also makes me competitive, and that’s one of my least favorite qualities about myself. Competition ultimately being comparison, and comparison being the thief of joy and all that.

Instead, my desire for gold stars — and the self worth I base in part on them — will direct itself elsewhere, and that’s what I’m afraid of.

Self Worth, Validation and Gold Stars in My Post-Career Life // defining self worth without work, external validation from work, no more gold stars

The Value of External Validation

I’ve always disliked the inherent criticism that lurks within the phrase “external validation.” Yes, it’s unquestionably a bad thing to derive all of your self worth from what other people think of you. But basing some of your self worth on it is healthy and necessary.

Validation just means verifying that something is valid, and without that, we could easily assume grandiose things about ourselves and go into full-bore ego territory. I love how Todd Henry put it recently on his Accidental Creative podcast: Self-confidence is believing you can succeed. Ego is believing you cannot fail.

External validation (or invalidation) is necessary to keep us grounded about our abilities, our contributions and anything else we might otherwise develop either grandiose or overly self-deprecating notions about.

The Balance of External and Internal Validation

Work provides those who do it with many things: a paycheck, a way to learn new skills, built-in social interaction, and so much more. It also provides us with a mix of external and internal validation that can feed our self worth:

There are many sources of self worth boosts at work

In my case, I get every one of those things at work right now. I love knowing that I’ve helped teammates, clients and ultimately the people who benefit from our work. I love the feeling of accomplishment that comes from completing projects or overcoming obstacles. I love the relationships I have with long-time colleagues, and the mentoring I get to do with junior ones. I love knowing that my work matters, and that I’m making a difference. And yeah, I adore the gold stars, too.

Some of that, I get from the attitude I bring to my work, and from my own personal integrity. Some of it I get purely in an external way.

Ultimately, we derive self worth from things that are externally driven and self driven.

And just as it’s important to reflect in a real way about what you might miss about your work that you might not even realize you enjoy, it’s worthwhile to think about what you get out of work in a self worth sense that may be purely external to you, or at least may require external forces to bring it to life.

Looking to external sources for some of your self worth isn’t a bad thing as long as you keep things in balance.

The Self Worth Drivers That Disappear

If I look at the self worth I derive from work, in both the externally-driven and self-drive senses, it looks like this:

Sources of externally-driven and self-driven self worth that we can get at work

I will always have that integrity, the desire to do good in the world, my self confidence, my tenacity and my values. I’m thankful to know that. But I know that I’ll lose a lot of my opportunity to do great teamwork and to have those close work relationships, which is a little sad to me, though not sad enough to keep me working longer than necessary. And while I can still earn gold stars, feel good at what I’m doing and make a contribution through other means post-career, it will be harder to get those things.

And thinking hard about those gold stars, what I’m worried most about isn’t that I won’t get them anymore, it’s that I’ll look for them in the wrong places.


Finding Touch Points to Keep Things in Perspective

This blog has become a surprisingly huge and amazing part of my life. It’s connected me with dozens of people who I now consider real friends. It’s made our journey to early retirement so much more thrilling, not to mention better informed. I can no longer imagine not doing this.

I know that after we retire at the end of the year, this blog will become a bigger part of my life, not a smaller one. And other projects I’m putting in motion now will also be largely digital endeavors. It’s all exciting, but for me, the obvious question becomes:

Will I look to signs of digital validation for my gold stars?

I don’t want to base my self worth on how many hits and comments my posts get. Some of them get a lot of comments, while others — often my favorites — get far fewer. I don’t want my self worth to rise and fall like the stock market based on web traffic that week, or how many people liked my photo on Instagram.

And the weirdest thing of all is that I now have to care a bit more about all of that. The projects I’m starting to work on rely on being able to demonstrate that people are interested in what I have to say. (So please do feel very free to follow me on Twitter or Instagram, or to subscribe to get posts emailed to you! And keep coming back every Monday and Wednesday for new posts!) ;-) It’s a strange paradox to be focusing on not caring too much about that stuff once my other gold stars disappear while also knowing that I have to care.

Related post: Reconciling Our Online Selves and Real Life

I’ve realized that it’s okay to care about those things, but I don’t have to let them affect my self worth. I can create my own gold stars, based on my own goals. And some of those goals can be entirely intangible: Do I feel happy working on what I’m working on? If yes, then gold star. Am I proud of the writing I’m doing, and the ideas I’m putting out, regardless of how many comments they’re getting? Yes? Gold star.

Checking in with myself, listening to how I’m feeling — I have to learn to make those my gold stars. If my writing starts slipping, you guys will tell me, and I will always care about that. But I don’t have to base my self worth on the numbers. Instead, I can base them on my own enjoyment, my own happiness, my own sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Because ultimately that’s what this whole FIRE journey is about anyway, right?

Comparative Vs. Absolute Self Worth

Since we’re talking self worth, it’s only fair to mention the subject this blog is ostensibly about:


In general, I absolutely agree with the idea that we shouldn’t base our self worth on money, either how much we earn or how much we’ve accumulated. That kind of thinking is inherently based on a comparison to others, which money is a tantalizing marker of.

Basing some of our self worth on how much we have or how much we currently earn would lead us to believe we’re better than some people, which isn’t true at all. Luckier, heck yes. Harder working than some, maybe. But that’s not the point.

Nearly all the things that I try to base my self worth on are absolute, not comparative. Everyone I work with could be equally awesome at their job, draw as much pleasure from their work relationships, take a values-based approach to their work and be equally valued by our clients and employers, and that would be terrific news. There is nothing but abundance here — we can all have great self worth in an absolute sense.

But basing self worth on money is not an absolute measure, it’s entirely a comparative one, and those are the measures we should all resist. Our worth as humans should never rely on feeling better than anyone else. That’s a scarcity mentality, and it has no place in how worthy we are as humans.

I’m for sure not perfect at this because I do have that competitive streak that pops up sometimes, but as I’ve gotten older and reflected more, I’ve come to see the gold stars as less comparative than they used to be. I don’t need to do a better job than everyone else or be more valued than my colleagues. I just need to do good work and be valued, in an absolute sense. The same could be said for everyone I work with, and I’d still feel good so long as I knew my work and value were recognized, even if everyone else’s work and value were recognized, too.

But back to money.

There’s one area where I do think it’s fine, and even good, to base some of our self worth on money, and that’s the pride we feel at achieving big goals, because anyone who has reached some huge goal is right to be proud of their achievements. I’m proud that I went from a non-runner to a marathon finisher. I’m proud that I built up the writing discipline to post consistently on the blog for more than two years. I’m proud that I paid off my student debt, my car loan and my credit card debt. And I’m proud that, together with Mr. ONL, I saved enough to consider myself financially independent.

The difference is: the self worth I gain from becoming FI, just like reaching all those other goals, isn’t about being better than anyone else. It’s not about finishing my marathon faster than someone (trust me, I’m so slow plenty of grandmas beat me), it’s not about paying off more debt faster than someone else, and it’s not about having more money than somebody.

It’s about reaching goals I’d set out for myself. Which is a victory in the absolute sense of the word. And becoming FI in my 30s is something I’ll always be proud of, just as it should be for anyone else who has achieved FI at any age. That’s a nice piece of my self worth that won’t go away when our careers end.

Let’s talk worthiness!

There’s a lot in this post, and as always, I’d love to hear your take on all of it! Are there any parts of your self worth that will be harder to sustain after your career ends? Are there ways you think your self worth could actually improve post-work? Anyone else agree with my theory of absolute vs. comparative self worth… or disagree? What are some of the gold stars or self worth touch points you could set for yourself, with or without work, to avoid getting sucked into the digital and social media metrics that are hard to escape? Let’s dig into all of it in the comments!

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67 replies »

  1. Hmm… another thought-provoker! I’m not sure I experience quite the same relationship between work and self-worth, if we’re defining that term to mean my value as a human being. Maybe I’m just nitpicking at the term.

    It’s great to be told all those wonderful things in the workplace, and those comments are motivational in terms of working hard and being committed to a job or project. But I like to think my “self worth” is insulated from that. Am I worth less as a person if someone thinks the work I’m doing is crap? That thought doesn’t cross my mind much. Maybe I’m just an entitled millennial who’s been told I’m “special” a few too many times, but even my very worst work experiences and most negative feedback haven’t had me questioning self-worth at that level.

    I still value signs that what I’m doing is valuable to someone, of course. I loved it when a client was really pleased with an analysis or presentation. I love it when something I write online inspires discussion and web traffic. That’s a basic human desire for positive feedback, and it would be there regardless of whether I were still working a full-time job. If no one read my work, I would stop writing. If people mostly said “your content sucks,” that would sting a bit. It would be demotivating. Deflating my self-worth, though? I don’t know that it translates that far for me. If I can stand behind the work I’m doing (whatever it is) and feel fulfilled with how I’m spending my time, that’s ultimately what matters.

    • Will you please come visit again? I need more of your grounded wisdom in my life. :-)

      And your nitpicking of the word is super helpful, because maybe I’ve defined this incorrectly (as you often help me realize!). I know I’m a worthy human being, though I appreciate work continuing to help affirm that for me. I wonder if it’s more about purpose and usefulness, which are a big part of my self worth. I would feel like crap if I thought I wasn’t doing anyone else any good, work gives me an avenue for that, ergo work feeds my self worth. I think the gold stars are less important in that sense. But now I have more thinking to do!

      • Yes, we need a ski and hang-out weekend together! Scratch that — weekdays, post-retirement, so we don’t have to wait in lift lines.

        I get what you’re saying about a need for usefulness and purpose. I’d be unsatisfied long-term with beach-hopping and lounging with no projects or goals. The external validation isn’t as frequent with some of those goals (like running a marathon or acquiring a new skill), so I see the need for accepting more self-awarded gold stars. Others, though, like writing or volunteering or other side projects, might still have readers and clients providing occasional positive feedback. It’s not healthy to give those too much credence (just like you wouldn’t want to base your whole self-worth on a performance review at work), but I bet you’ll still find plenty of the external validators as well. :)

      • Let’s set a date. :-) I think you’re totally right about looking to self-awarded gold stars. And I also think once I leave the work world for the most part, I’ll probably relax about a lot of this stuff. Competitive work is not the best thing for strivers!

  2. Phew, I can identify with so much in this post! I used to thrive on validation, gold stars, and positive votes if you will. It started so long ago…being on student council in high school, on Homecoming Court, Prom Queen, Teacher’s Pet, and Most Friendly…then when I started working it was being Employee of the Month multiple times and then Employee of the Year, promotions, salary increases, oh the excitement…then the need to succeed at my own business was all consuming and after receiving kudos for that I was on such a high.

    Fortunately, somewhere along the line I woke up and realized that all of those gold stars weren’t what life was all about. There was no love and lasting joy there. Now I think I’m in a much better frame of mind. Sure I still get something from being appreciated at work and getting the pats on the back, but I no longer need it to know I’ve done my job well. While I’m still a few years from early retirement I believe that I’ll be fine with or without gold stars from others because I’m more in tune with my values and what really matters to me. And I truly believe you will be too. You have much to be proud of!

    • Oh man, those high school titles can really mess us up! Hahaha. I was voted most likely to succeed, and they really should have called it “most likely to feel the pressure of being expected to succeed and burning out young as a result.” Ha! But hey… at least it helped us discover FIRE, right? ;-)

      I love reading about your evolution, and that you’ve been able to separate the appreciation and pats on the back at work from your true self worth. That gives me something to aspire to!

  3. First time commenter, but I’ve been reading your journey for the last few weeks/months. Exciting for you guys. So many things to say on so many of your posts. But on this one, you’re going to struggle with self worth, validation, … when you guys punch out. And that’s OK. But it sure looks like you will work it all out. I’d say don’t overthink it. Let it come to you. Be flexible. You may find that the finality of the end goal that you’ve set (while motivating now), may not be the end all that you expect. We’ve been FI for a long time. Rather than a permanent end to work, the path we took has been a sabbatical every 5 years, whether we needed it or not (micro retirements spread around like pixie dust). Three months, then five months, then a year, then three months, then a year (which I really thought was permanent … but no). The point being that it’s awesome to both find challenge in work & play. Finding the balance is the tough part. One last thing, you’re employer would be crazy not to keep you both. I would be shocked if they aren’t able to find some path to keep you in the seat for a little while longer & you guys have the leverage to write the ticket. Executrix is not bad if you’re the one controlling the game. We’re based in Austin, have a cabin in Breck & an Airstream for in between. Maybe we’ll see you in the mountains after the great reveal!

    • Hey Casey — Thanks for saying hi! And I don’t think I’ve heard from anyone before who’s done the consistently on-again-off-again “retirement-ish” thing, so it’s nice to hear how it’s all unfolded for you. And I definitely expect to work after we pull the plug, I just hope it’s working for myself or for us, not for someone else. (I mean, I spend 20-40 hours a week on this blog because apparently I think this is fun! It’s definitely a job, albeit an unpaid one.) ;-) And sounds like you guys have a pretty sweet gig between your two places and your Airstream! Sounds awesome!

      • My experience is that we’re always working for “someone” … but I get what you mean. During the last gap year, I wrote every week on LinkedIn religiously. Great fun and kept me connected to my network which was a powerful way to maintain the “self validation” need. Although I agree with your other readers comments that self-worth value has nothing to do with work! You will soon see how non-permanent your current co-workers are in your next life. On the sabbatical topic, I did write a piece on that here that you may find interesting.

      • Thanks for sharing this! I think the self worth part of work for me is just feeling valued and appreciated, not having friendships at work or even collecting a paycheck. That’s central to my self worth overall — being useful in the world — so being recognized for being useful IS something I will miss. ;-)

  4. This post was awesome. It made me think about where I look for my own value, and accepting the balance and feedback from myself and others. Way to go, and thank you!

    • So glad you enjoyed it, Lindsay! Thanks! It’s been super useful for me to think this stuff through, and where I derive my sense that I’m a worthy person, so I hope it’s helpful to you, too!

  5. You might find that your competitive side begins to wane a bit after you quit your full-time job and begin pursuing a life of happiness. Right now, your entire life is wrapped up in your work (as mine was when I worked full-time as well), so it’s tough to consider what life will be like once that drain on your time is finally removed.

    For me, things are much different than I expected them to be. While I still enjoy blogging, I probably haven’t checked my stats in weeks. I no longer care how many Twitter followers I have, comments I get, pageviews I receive. Trust me – I thought that I would care, but with a lifestyle as active and fulfilling as we now have, those things have easily fallen off of my list of things I care too much about.

    As far as this topic is concerned, I have a bit of an advantage. I never derived self-worth from my job. In fact, I’ve always held an “Eh, it pays well I guess…” attitude towards what I did for a living for the past 13 years or so. You, however, genuinely seem to enjoy what you do (and especially the accolades), so it probably will be different for you.

    For me, those things didn’t drive me and, at least from a “professional” standpoint, they were easy for me to lose. But, I do think you’ll find a whole world of opportunities out there that you never knew existed before you quit your jobs. Your brains have been subconsciously ignoring those opportunities because your basic needs have been fulfilled for years with your work.

    Once that full-time job is out of the picture, your perspective on things tends to change – at least mine did. There’s a LOT out there to do and see…to derive satisfaction from…to achieve fulfillment in doing.

    In short, I don’t think you’ll have any problem with validation post-retirement. :)

    Now…I’m off to hike Angels Landing in Zion National Park. Hope I don’t die.

    • Hope you have a great hike Steve! I loved Angels Landing (and all of Zion), and can’t wait to go back!

    • I know you’ve said you’re going to scale back your blog, but I really hope you don’t become one of those FIers who disappears into the sunset not long after pulling the plug. Because I think it’s going to be so interesting to keep tracking how you feel, what you crave, etc., as you progress through your ER. Like right now I suspect you’re still decompressing to some extent, and so while it’s interesting to hear what you’re into now, it could certainly change as the months and the years pass. I can’t wait to document that progression for us, mainly just because I can’t wait to be living that progression! Hahaha. But I am 100% certain that you are right, that my perspective will shift a ton after leaving work! It’s like that post I wrote a while back, “How well do we really know our post-retirement selves?” I’m sure we’ll recognize them, but they’ll probably be fairly different people!

  6. Sending you a gold star for a great post, because they do feel good! I relate to a lot of what you wrote here, though my work experience has been very different. I think some of my desire to FIRE has been because I don’t get nearly enough validation from work. I get the occasional client/boss kudos, and then back to the grind for three months.

    But I have realized that I need both intellectual challenges post-work, and some validation. I have just started to explore how I will build these things into my post-work life. And started to think that maybe it is not “post-work” but post full-time employment, and post any expectation of getting paid. I have not been much of a goal-setter in the past, but I’ve started to think about what my personal goals will be, and how I will need to validate myself, since no one else will do it for me.

    One of the things I am considering is starting a blog, so great to hear how powerful that has been for you! I doubt that I could ever develop your readership, but I think for myself just having a place to work out my thoughts and have a “work product” would be enough, even if no one reads it.

    • Lucky Girl, I’ve also been thinking about starting a blog lately so I can relate. I share your feelings that even if there isn’t a lot of readership, I may benefit just from the process.

      In my case, there are ethical rules at work that might affect my ability to do this and I haven’t yet decided if it’s worth it to try to figure out the rules and/or possibly even need to get permission.

      • I don’t know your specific work rules, but if you blog anonymously or don’t discuss work (notice, I never get into specifics here or even share what fields we’re in), they shouldn’t have much purview over what you do. Unless you’re in the CIA, most employers can’t take away your free speech rights outside of work. ;-)

    • Awwww, thanks. :-) And let me make clear — the gold stars happen during the good times. There are DEFINITELY periods when I feel underappreciated and underutilized, so I was thinking more about the best case than the average state. But, I’m still thankful to get the good stuff I need from work much of the time, which I know makes me luckier than many! And as the months pass, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that I will 100% work in retirement, but it will be the things I want to do — so yeah, saying post-work no longer feels right for me either. I’ve started going with “post-career,” but even that might end up not being true if my next act includes work that somehow becomes its own career. Maybe post-traditional career? ?

      And as for the blog, I totally recommend doing it if you’re excited about the idea. It can easily become a HUGE time suck, and its own source of stress (more deadlines!), and in my case, it’s worth it to me. But I think it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself into, or at least set parameters for yourself so it doesn’t take over your life. (Example: no set posting schedule if more deadlines feels too stressful. In my case, the deadlines are what make me sit down and do the work, which is great, but it means I’m often writing until the wee hours because it’s my only time to get it done.) Let me know if you start your blog!

  7. Amazing post! I too thrive off verbal confirmation.

    I strongly agree with you that we need to validate ourselves and have the inner confidence to pursure our dreams in life.

    But, I definitely think no one can do anything alone. We all need a support group in life, that can be our family, friends, or volleyball team. I know that I wouldn’t be as confident or successful if I didn’t have my girlfriend supporting me.

  8. Oh man, what I’d give to have that kind of positive reinforcement at work. Yesterday I got scolded for not ordering the proper bundle on several patients with sepsis. I looked back at the charts and saw my orders – all there and all complete – so the tracking system was flawed, not my performance. I’m far from perfect, but I really wish that our administration would focus on positives sometimes, rather than just the (apparently false) negatives. Do they really want us to feel worse about our jobs than we already do? Could they have taken the time/made the effort to check their data before scolding us?

    Our patients hit us and curse at us and tell us we’re useless, administration doesn’t treat us much better, so most days I wonder why I even bother. My intentions are good and my work ethic is strong, but without a few gold stars I’m ready to peace out.

    • Ugh — I’m sorry that that’s your work reality! I had a job with that kind of bureaucratic culture, and I did not last long at it — but I know you might have more limited options in medicine.

      Does it help if I give you a gold star? I see your heart and your good intentions, and I feel crushed for you that you’re not seeing that reflected in your work! I really suspect that many of your patients appreciate you more than they say, even if they don’t realize it until later when it’s too late to tell you.

  9. Retirement has been tricky. I love gold stars (former teachers pet here). I find myself helping other people more just for the sake of helping. And that’s a good thing. I had a hard time figuring out what I really liked-it took over a year. I tried classes at the local community college, I did an art blog for a year, and I ended up abandoning my personal blog that I started 7 years ago. I finally settled on a new blog writing about philanthropy. But this time, I made it a not for profit blog. What I really find most interesting is the shift from making money to not focusing on making money. The blog came about when one of my friends kept telling me that I needed to share my “stuff” with other people. I’m not sure if I was talking about it to much or the conversations we were having had really helped her. LOL…I’m hoping the later :) So many ER bloggers has stopped blogging after they reach FI, what do you plan to write about once you have arrived?

    • I love hearing about your evolution, and the things you’ve tried with your newly found free time. I want to do those community college and art classes, too, and see what sticks. And I have a ton of posts I want to write but can’t write now because we can’t share the context that would make them make sense. So I’ll definitely go into ER with a backlog of ideas! And I see all of this as a journey — before FI AND after — and I’ll keep sharing that story. :-)

  10. Much of this resonated with me. I have let both my self worth and self identity be tied up in my work. I’m still a way from FI or retirement but have been trying to work on developing more of a balance between work and personal life and hoping that will naturally lead to more self worth outside of the work context. School and then work were often the only things I was good at and the only place I got compliments so it was easy to become the sole source of feeling good about myself. I think this is possibly pretty common especially among us Type A women (I think men also easily tie their self identity into work but maybe for different reasons as culturally it’s more expected of men to be successful in the work place whereas).

    In the meantime I dedicated too much of my time and energy to work, to the detriment of my health and a personal life, and even though I’ve been lucky enough to mostly have good things said about me at work, I’m not sure it was worth the sacrifices. Plus I’m a government worker so not as much room for financial reward based on merit, although I don’t do my job for the money anyway. But, it’s all a work in progress and I hope by the time I get to FI, I will have figured this out more and won’t be in danger of losing my sense of self worth when I quit.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post Mrs. ONL!

    I also love reading everybody comments – what a great community here amongst your readers – and I’m so impressed you respond to most of the comments!!

    • Read this after your other comment, and maybe you DO work in the CIA if you’re a government employee. Haha.

      Yeah, we have much in common on the type A/gold star seeking/good at school and work senses. And for those who don’t see themselves in that lens, I do think it’s hard to relate. So it’s nice to find others who can. :-)

      And thanks for the nice note! The community here is my favorite part of all of it, and if you do start a blog, I highly recommend responding to all comments! Then it becomes more of a conversation, which is SOOO much more fun than not engaging at that level. :-)

      • Haha. No, not the CIA or anything in the intelligence community but there are some ethics rules that apply to me – I just need to double check the rules to be safe about what’s okay and what isn’t. Whether I earn any money from it may also be a factor. My other hold up is coming up with a name!!

      • Okay, well clear those ethics before you get yourself in trouble! And as for a name, my two cents is to go with something that can stick with you well beyond FI. A lot of folks choose names that are all about getting there, but don’t fit afterward!

  11. It is definitely hard to not get sucked into measuring my blog success and worthiness based on how many comments or likes I get (which is basically zero!). But I feel really good about what I am writing, and it is a positive outlet for me, so as long as that continues, I think I will be on the right track. I’m sure you have written about your post-work plans before, but have you considered volunteering for causes you are passionate about? That could be another way to get your gold stars, while still contributing something genuinely valuable to an organization that needs it.

  12. Your not the only one in this predicament. Frankly this is why I like my job so much, its all about clearing that next hurdle. Without something throwing hurdles in my way I will need to figure out how to do it on my own. I suspect I’ll change the projects to be self projects rather then work projects. (Rebuild something, renovate something, save money on a trip, etc). I hope those challenges will give me that external motivation to go with the internal. Then its just up to my wife to say what a great job I did on the honey do list. ;)

    • That’s so interesting! I’ve never thought of work that way before, as the thing that puts obstacles in front of us so we can feel good about clearing them. I’m sure, though, if you start knocking off items on the home improvement list in quick succession, your wife will shower you with gold stars. :-)

  13. Such a thoughtful post, applicable to everyone whether we’re pursuing FIRE or not. I can’t think of a single person who doesn’t appreciate a gold star or an attaboy/attagirl! Even though I didn’t feel I got a lot of gold stars at my work (teaching), this past year of being at home with my kids instead of working has me missing the affirmation. There are rewards to parenting, but it’s different.

    I wonder if the feeling of being appreciated for good work is part of why my dad, at 71, can’t seem to extricate himself from his job. He enjoys his work, he’s very good at it, and he’s well-respected in his field. However, he’s ready in many ways to be done with it (and my mom is certainly ready for him to be retired!). Perhaps the gold-star aspects keep him there!

    Thanks for raising these questions​!

    • Thank you! I can totally see how you’d miss some parts of work while you’re home with your kids. And you mentioning your dad’s possible attachment to his work gold stars is making me wonder if it’s easier to give up those stars by retiring at an earlier age, and if you’re a person who needs them, maybe you get more attached to them with each passing year. I have no idea, but it’s an interesting thought, and I’m now feeling extra grateful to get to figure this out in my 30s/40s, instead of later in life!

  14. This is something I think about a lot, not just from the perspective of early retirement, but also as a blogger (I’ve been blogging in health for years, but only recently in PF). I often chastise myself for seeking external validation from my work in social media (as well as my professional career), because it reminds me that I care too much about what others think.

    This is probably one of my biggest personal struggles, so I’m not sure I have a good insight other than to focus on what’s important to you. It sounds like personal relationships and the quality of your contribution are important values, so as long as you continue to focus on those elements, you’ll find the validation you need.

    • It’s SO normal to look to external digital measures of our worth these days, so you’re for sure not alone. The thing I’ve found — and I have to remind myself of this sometimes — is that those likes and comments aren’t always a great measure. Like people can really like a post but not comment because some posts just elicit that more than others. But it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad post, or even an unloved one. That’s been a good reminder for me on the digital metrics! And yeah, totally agree that we all need to define what’s most important to us and base our validation on that!

  15. I’m actually finding it easier in this sabbatical year to have gold star moments than I did working. Gold star moments have become far more intrinsic than they were working. (I say did/were working as if I won’t go back to work, but I’m pretty sure I will for some time period.) I have gotten good at setting myself weekly goals around exercise, social time, etc. and you know what the gold star for those are? Feeling physically and mentally in a great place. Those are pretty sweet gold stars! I’m hopeful I’ll be able to leverage that knowledge to schedule work around exercise and social time, rather than the other way around.

    The last seven months have taught me that I enjoy deriving meaning from work, but the amount I’m paid for that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the meaning I get out of it. And that’s huge!

    • That’s great to hear! And the way you’re talking about all of your great realizations and insights makes me think that I’m using some words too interchangeably. Instead of self worth in every case here, I might sometimes be talking about meaning or fulfillment!

  16. Hmm. I derive a great deal of joy from work accomplishments, and from the money I earn, but neither of those define who I am or how happy I am. It used to. There’s an absolute minimum below which I would be incredibly unhappy with my salary and how that reflected on me because to some degree, it’s the feeling of “the laborer is worth their hire”. I should be paid at the higher end of the range for my profession, experience and knowledge. But being paid less would create an external resentment more than an internal/intrinsic one. I’m not sure if that makes sense. Let’s put it this way – it annoys me and reduces my sense of devotion to the job when I’m lowballed on salary. It can’t permanently affect my sense of worth or devotion to doing a good job, though. I had a negotiation in bad faith go down a while back and while it irked me for months, mostly due to the bad faith part of it and some due to the money I was losing, I eventually felt ready to walk past it and go back to my normal accepted levels of me-ness. If it had truly affected my sense of worth, I think I’d still be carrying that resentment that I was being undervalued and under appreciated.

    After getting past the toughest parts of being without money, and becoming pretty solidly middle class, I think my sense of worth is stronger based on my ability to step up and make things happen when I wanted and needed to. That’s embedded as much in my personal money adventures as it was in my career that I’m still tending.
    Cait and I are blogging contemporaries, I remember we used to talk and read each other way back when. I might feel a pang on occasion that my path and hers diverged because I enjoyed walking with her but I don’t begrudge her one iota of her journey and the masses of success she’s worked so hard for – I am proud of her and proud to still know her. And it was just like talking to the same Cait at FinCon last year as it was when we first started out together.
    I have no doubt that while you make blogging a bigger part of your life, you too will embrace the journey that’s solely yours and the obstacles and successes that come with it, rather than chasing the clicks and the comments. I would bet $5 I’ll never see a “10 ways to (whatever money)” here because you’re going to chase or build on your idea of value, not some elusive, ephemeral, ill-defined “success”.

    • Oh my god, NO! You will not see a “10 ways to save a nickel” post here! Hahahaha.

      It’s interesting that you went to money in terms of your self worth related to work. That never even occurred to me! So interesting how differently we can all see these things. I’m all about feeling valued and appreciated, and while money is good of course, it’s never been a primary or even secondary motivator. (Geez, typing that makes me feel ALL KINDS of privileged. Obviously I need and want money, it’s just never felt like that kind of marker, I guess.)

  17. Although I’m still young (haha just 20something), I don’t think I’ll ever stop working. I just can’t imagine what I’d do with myself. Sure, sitting on a beach is fun, but doing that every day can get stale. I hope to reach a point in my life where I work because it’s FUN, not because I have to.

    • Oh my gosh, I get bored on the beach in like 5 minutes. ;-) Early retirement does NOT have to mean no more work, it just means not having to care about money anymore.

  18. Many of these thoughts have been on my mind lately too. I like to think very little of my self worth is derived from what I do/ my career– but that’s only partially true. I have to admit that even once I FIRE, I’ll still have a lot of pride in saying I had a successful career in BigLaw, graduated from X prestigious law school, accomplished Y and Z during my time as a lawyer, etc. But maybe there’s a difference between being proud of one’s past, and letting that past define your worth as a human being. One of my theories about why so many of my colleagues work until they’re 65 or 70 (or later!!) is that their identity is so tied up in what they do. Their social circles have become entirely made up of other partners at law firms, or other similarly positioned and wealthy professionals, that they honestly can’t imagine what they’d talk about or do with their time if they weren’t going to the office every day and serving their clients. They haven’t had any time to develop hobbies or interests outside work because they’ve been billing 2000+ hours a year for decades. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get a taste of freedom, and many of these folks have never had that. I feel so grateful that I discovered the FIRE concept and community before I got more entrenched in that mindset. Anyway, a big part of FIRE preparation for me is going to be distancing myself from the need for external validation period– but I think you’re right that it’s good to be honest with yourself about what you really need, and figure out a way to satisfy those cravings even after retirement. Thank you for another awesome, thoughtful post!

    • So glad you enjoyed this! And I think you actually put it far better than I did — it’s not that I need to be doing the work I do now, but it does mean something to have done it, for an A-list company, after graduating from X fancy university, etc. I think that’s the achiever’s curse — we get so caught up in these signifiers of value and what they say about us! I’m sure going to try hard, like you’re doing, to separate myself from the need for external validation, but I think it’s totally fair to say it won’t be easy!

  19. We all look for confirmation of our actions: do they add value, does it impact the project, people organisations. That is part of the human nature. Some have this more than others: some are happy to be part of the tribe, others want to steer the tribe (we both are like that).

    As with investing, when all of the confirmation comes from one sources, we are diversified enough. So, the question to a sk yourself might be: what sources of starts can I get elsewhere. Is there a local organisation that I can help to the next level? Seeing great results there might be worth a star: either one that you give yourself or one that they give you.

    The blog seems to be a good source as well. Here si an idea: Like my wife once told me: it is not the quantity of interactions, it is the quality that counts (that one helped me overcome my failing feelings when I got home from a network event and only spoke to 4 people, rather than the whole room, like my extrovert friend). When you apply this to the blog: not the amount of visitors or amount of comments, rather the quality of comments.

    And when your book is out, and I like it, I will send you a gold star!

    • All great suggestions! I think I will find gold stars in those other sources, but I think the blog will loom larger in my mind once the career is gone. And I absolutely value quality in comments, and feel really lucky to have that here! So many wonderfully engaged people like you! :-)

  20. I’m a huge gold-star-seeker too! I get a lot of fulfillment from my contributions at work and my interactions with my coworkers.

    Are there ways you can connect “live” with people in your community? Or ways to engage your problem-solving skills? I recently started getting involved with a non-profit whose work I find very meaningful and noticed that I relish the feeling of making a contribution there too!

    • High fives for the gold star seekers! And YES, we already work with three local nonprofits in a regular capacity, and we’ll amp that up after we quit. So I definitely expect that to provide some pats on the head, along with blog stuff and other fun projects. :-)

  21. External validation should not be everything, because that is unhealthy, but it can be good. External validation can absolutely come from you having a positive impact on others. It’s not a perfect system. Some terrible people get validation even when it is unmerited. But making other people feel heard and respected by your work is a social good.

    • I truly admire those who are 100% intrinsically motivated (if there are such people), but that is not me, and I’ve long since accepted that about myself. I do get plenty of joy intrinsically from things I do, but I want to know that they benefit others, and that’s something we can’t assume — we have to hear directly from them that our actions actually help! ;-)

  22. Should you happen to get bored in retirement (ha!) and want a more permanent gold star, you could become a Mayo Clinic doctor. Mayo has various parking tags that signify where employees can park their cars. The doctors get gold star parking tags.

    • Hahahahaaha. Something tells me 10 more (EXPENSIVE) years of school, or whatever it takes to get to be a Mayo doc, is not in the cards. ;-)