A few days ago, I was talking post-career schemes with my friend Cait Flanders, and we got onto the topic of self worth, which was also the topic of her and Carrie Smith‘s Budget and Cents podcast episode that came out yesterday.
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.
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.
And that’s what Cait and I talked about. How 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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
But back to that chat with Cait. She’s been at her blog a lot longer than I’ve been at this one, and she’s reached some great heights with hers, like getting huge traffic, media coverage around the continent, and a book deal. (She doesn’t brag about that stuff — that’s me bragging for her.) She knows what it’s like to see astronomically high traffic to the blog for several months, and then return to still high but less crazy levels. She knows what it’s like to base your self worth in part on how people respond to you on social media. And she’s gotten through that stuff as a grounded, humble human being, which I admire a ton.
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
Talking to Cait helped me realize 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!