The Common Pitfall of Conflating Self-Worth With Career Success: Fulfillment Failure

Photo: Well+Good Creative
As I write this, I’m staring at a pair of shoes that I’d been meaning to return to Nordstrom since March...of 2018. A few months ago, I thought I made progress when I printed the return label. But it’s just sitting in one of my many tote bags, along with other paperwork I need to deal with, like an RSVP card to a friend’s wedding in May. I’ve delayed mailing that because I'm grappling with what accepting the invite would mean for the big side-hustle deadline I have the following weekend.

This kind of failed adulting is what BuzzFeed writer Anne Helen Petersen dubbed “errand paralysis” in her widely-shared piece about millennial burnout. A lot of people have argued that if burnout is an epidemic, it’s likely more societal than generational. And I have to agree that our cultural, not generational, willingness to put work ahead of everything else in life can leave us feeling so spent that the simplest tasks (hi, UPS!) require more mental energy than many of us can muster. That is, it's hardly just millennials making work their top priority in life. Because so many of us put all our personal-fulfillment stock in our jobs, thus deemphasizing other aspects of life, we're very much subscribing to the dangerous notion of "you are what you do."

“All of the must-dos of life are being shoved aside because work feels urgent, and sometimes feels like it’s the only place that’s giving us validation. After all, there are no ‘likes’ or rewards for returning your Amazon packages, doing the laundry, or defrosting the chicken,” says Ann Shoket, author of The Big Life, a guidebook for ambitious millennial women. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with working hard to fulfill our larger goals, she adds. Rather, “the scary thing about burnout is when people feel they are only valuable when they’re working.”

“Too many people throw everything into their jobs and at the expense of other life experiences. Then if something happens, and their job is pulled away unexpectedly, they feel lost." —Beverly Flaxington, career coach and behavioral expert

We seem to have gotten the message of the importance of diversifying fulfillment sources when it comes our romantic lives. But—cue, Jerry Maguire—it’s like we cling to a “you complete me” attitude regarding our work. The truth is, feeling we need completion from any singular source—whether it’s a job or a partner or a hobby or anything—denies us of a fundamental truth: that we are already whole people. We are complete without our boss’ praise, without the ‘likes’ we might land after sharing accolades on LinkedIn, without the braggy talking points we take to our high school reunions. We’re complete people when we're jobless.

Conflating work with our self-worth is the job of the ego—a little voice fueled by insecurity that, when it arises, can pimp us out for situations where we overextend ourselves to the point of burnout. Brené Brown has said in an interview, “I call the ego my hustler. The ego says to me you have no inherent worth, you’ve got to hustle for it, baby. How fast are you going to run? How high are you going to jump? How many likes do you have?... That’s the hustle.” Of course, the hustler’s joke is always on us: Just when we think we’ve run fast enough or jumped high enough to feel our own value, the goal posts seem to move.

The issue is that it’s hard to see the full picture of life when we’ve been singularly focused on one piece of the puzzle: work. “Too many people throw everything into their jobs at the expense of other life experiences,” says Beverly Flaxington, a career coach and behavioral expert. “Then if something happens, and their job is pulled away unexpectedly, they feel lost. One person who was laid off told me, ‘I simply wander around my own apartment trying to figure out what to do—I’ve spent so little time here just being here that it feels uncomfortable to me.’” The solution starts with building an existence that can buoy you even when work isn’t there to be a life raft. “It’s okay to find some of your happiness in a job; it’s just not okay to wrap your whole entire sense of self-worth in your job,” she adds.

While working parents certainly aren’t immune from burnout, they do have a second job title—Mom or Dad—that may help some people keep things in perspective. “I think part of the nature of parenthood is that you wind up with multiple sources of meaning in your life,” says Laura Vanderkam, a productivity expert and author of I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time. “If I have a crappy day on the work front, I still have four cute kids. If the kids are terrible, at least I can look at my books and TED Talk and think I've not completely failed.”

Years ago, I attended a Thrive event (which has since morphed into Arianna Huffington’s current enterprise for tackling burnout and redefining success) where I heard Mika Brzezinski reflect on the day she was fired from CBS. She said she packed up her things, walked outside, and said to herself, “I’m so glad I didn’t forget to get married and have kids!” While some people took offense at her remarks, thinking that the implication was that marriage and motherhood trump ambition and work, I didn’t hear it that way at all. I sat in the audience and thought, “What would I do if lost my job tomorrow? Would I feel bereft or would I be able to remember that my value is so much bigger than the logo or title on my business card? Did I just need more...balance? And how would I get that?”

"Work-life balance is a sham. It’s all work all the time and all life all the time, but the point is you have to make room for life.” —Ann Shoket

“Look, work-life balance is a sham,” Shoket tells me. “It’s all work all the time and all life all the time, but the point is you have to make room for life.” But since we've been putting so much weight on the work part that we’re too burnt out for the rest of life, adjusting the scale to strike some semblance of balance is key. And setting healthy boundaries is a good start. Take, as an example, this reply from a happiness expert who declined my interview request for this piece: “Dear Margarita, I very much appreciate your thinking of me. However, I'm so swamped right now that I'm saying ‘no’ to just about everything!” In a way, that response was more valuable than any time she could’ve given me on phone, as it reminded me that ‘No’ is a complete and perfectly acceptable response to the demands put on us.

Another hack to diversify your happiness and fulfillment portfolio is to make a priority list that’s divided into three categories—career, relationships, self, Vanderkam suggests. “It's pretty hard to make a three-category list and leave one of the categories blank,” she says. And if you’re so out of touch with your non-career priorities or interests that you don’t even know what to put in columns two and three, it's time to enroll as a student of your personal happiness. "Make a mental note of what you like to read. Notice who you like to hang out with. Think back to what you liked to do as a kid. Ask friends and family members when you seem happiest.” Use this info to create a really long list of anything you might like to spend more time doing.

And since your smartphone is already permanently tethered to your hand, get in the practice of emailing yourself gratitude lists. It's a tip I picked up from Brené Brown, and it works. Because if the root of burnout is chasing the validation we think we need, stopping to recognize what we’ve already got may be the best way to put out the flames.

Not even dating is safe from burnout, and work apps are partially to blame. Plus the changing landscape of vacation policies makes it harder to really get OOO and recharge.

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