Brief thought exercise: how closely do you connect your self-worth to your job?

Been thinking about this for a few years now in various forms: essentially, how do you view work in the grand scheme of your overall life? We clearly spend a lot of time there, even if there’s no real science around it — by some measure it could be about 1/3 of your adult life (this can obviously vary by where you live). We know it’s been shown to be tied to feelings of self-worth and self-esteem, which is only logical because, well, you spend a lot of time there. But there are dangerous aspects to connecting too much of your self back to work: first of all, a majority of managers aren’t very good, so you might be putting your self-worth in the hands of someone that isn’t really equipped to be handling it, and the science/culture around performance reviews isn’t exactly stellar (neither is the role of truly “organic” feedback in the workplace).

You take all this together and it’s an interesting picture: if you wrap up a lot of your personal definition in your work, that’s obviously a high-risk, high-reward situation. You could get chopped down at certain levels, but you could also do well, advance, make more money, etc. If you don’t tie up your self-esteem with work, you might be somewhat detached at work — or seem less passionate to managers — which can lead to you squandering time and not being given extra responsibility. It’s kind of an odd circle that keeps flowing.

Personally, when I was younger, I used to think jobs were very important. If I saw others getting more opportunity than me, I’d be mad/sad/some other emotion I can’t define. When you see your friends getting married and getting plum job assignments and travel opportunities and you’re single and most cubicle-jockeying, it can be hard. I probably had a bad attitude around that time, too, which only worsens the problem in terms of manager perception / ability to rise up. As I got older, I tried to tie jobs cognitively to a sense of wanting to do well — achievement, in other words — but also realizing that there are a million and five side factors that go into advancement and all that, and that ultimately, at base level, work is pretty much a means to an end. Unless you do something you’re amazingly passionate about or something that helps to save/define other areas, it’s a job that you do, try to do well, and then go home to the rest of your life. Cliche alert: very few people, in their final days, wish for more work. They wish for more family time, or time with people they loved from work, but not often workdays themselves.

That part, I think, is important.

I just started a new gig and my goal is to be the best I can and excel there, but I also want to contextually remember that it’s a means to an end and it’s not my definition of self-worth.

What do you all think? Do you find yourselves tying up work and self-esteem?

Ted Bauer


  1. I think for men more than woman in general, that your job is a large part of your identity. Not to be sexist, I just think its a cultural thing. When you talk about a job your passionate about being a part of your identity versus a job you just use as a means to end, you may be talking about a calling versus a career or something to that effect. I believe most people go through phases in their life where at one point their careers are a center point and at others its a distraction from what they really care about. I struggled a lot with this when I tried to make my career a key part of who I am only to find myself feeling disillusioned in the end. I probably will never call what I do a calling or passion anymore, but I would say it has been a significant factor in shaping who I am.

    • I largely agree with this from a gender standpoint, sure — men are more conditioned to believe it’s important to be successful at work, I’d suppose.

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