I’ve wanted to write this post for a long time, but I’ve struggled with it. Perhaps that’s because I’m one of those people to whom this is addressed; I’ve had to work long and hard at valuing myself for more than just my capabilities, and I’ve often found myself surrounded by people who have only valued me for them.
Over the years, I managed to avoid defining myself by many things that often impact a young woman’s sense of self-worth. I’ve never felt like my merit was determined by my looks, dress size, fashion sense, or relationship status. If I’m being excruciatingly honest, it’s probably because I never felt like I’ve measured up in any of those areas. Simply put: I never put stock in beauty, because I never thought I could qualify as beautiful.
In some ways, this was a blessing in disguise. It’s really good to know that what makes you matter as a human isn’t tied to what your face looks like when you’ve struggled with acne as intensely as I have. But in other ways, eschewing what I deemed “superficial” benchmarks meant that I was even more susceptible to defining my value by things like being smart and successful. Brains over beauty, I suppose. To me, this was both a more achievable and admirable goal.
It took me a very long time to realize that defining yourself by your achievements is just as dangerous as defining yourself by your looks. Both will eventually let you down.
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to fall into the achievement trap. People may admire or be envious of beauty, but they outwardly encourage intelligence. If you’re an introverted, precocious, nerdy kid like I was, people praise you for being clever. You ace your exams, your teachers enjoy instructing you, and your parents proudly tack up your awards on the refrigerator door. Eventually, colleges and employers compete for you, too.
While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, the standards for being “high achieving” are less malleable. Honor rolls, GPAs, SAT scores, scholarship amounts, promotions, salaries, etc. . . . there are hundreds of ways that you can easily boil your value down to just a handful of numbers. And while people may call you shallow if you’re appearance-focused, they’ll often support your achievement-focused habits that are just as bad, like being a workaholic or constantly checking your emails while at the dinner table. (🙋Guilty as charged.)
It’s great to have dreams and aspirations, and it’s incredibly important to challenge yourself. Hard work often does pay off, and I’m certainly not discouraging it. But there’s a difference in valuing yourself for giving something your all, and valuing yourself because you’re netting a six-figure salary.
There will come a time in your life when you will let yourself down. Maybe you’ll gain 10 pounds or sprout a few more gray hairs. Perhaps you’ll struggle with a work project or a relationship. Regardless, if you’ve spent your entire life measuring yourself by your achievements, (or coping with your shortcomings in one area by compensating for them in another), you will inevitably find yourself lacking in these moments.
Here’s the thing: you are more than your achievements.
Your value and your worth aren’t determined by what you bring to the conference table. You matter, simply because you are a fellow human being.
It’s time to stop measuring yourself by what you’ve accomplished, by where you thought you’d be at this point, and by what your peers and those influencers you stalk on social media seem to have magically figured out.
I’m going to say it again: you are more than your achievements.
But it’s one thing to say this; it’s another to believe it. There are some days that I’m not convinced, either. After a lifetime of “measuring up,” it’s incredibly difficult to abandon that kind of comparison.
For me, at least, the best way to change my mind about something has always been to put forth an irrefutable argument. Reason with me, and I’m all yours. So here’s my rationale as to why you need to accept that your achievements don’t define you:
- Unless you’re the President, when you die, people are not going to talk about what you did for a living – Short of any major or historic accomplishments, your career path and the depth of your bank account aren’t going to come up in your eulogy. So don’t put all your stock in fleeting accomplishments. Invest in relationships. They have much longer-lasting, significant returns.
- Who gets to decide what an “achievement” is, anyway? – When did we decide that there was a one-size-fits-all guide to success? What if someone doesn’t want to work on Wall Street, they want to be a stay-at-home mom? What if I care more about traveling than I do about owning a fancy house or car? Who gets to tell me that quitting my corporate job to become a barista in a cat cafe means I’m no longer an “accomplished” individual? Define your terms, and don’t let external forces define them for you.
- Sometimes failing gracefully is a huge part of being “successful” – You know what’s an achievement? Falling flat on your face and responding with grace, humility, and determination. Getting right back up, taking what you learned from your tumble, and working to do it differently next time.
- You’re missing the bigger picture – When you get bogged down in your checklists and five-year plans, it’s easy to forget why you had them in the first place. Why did you get so focused on achieving things; what was your initial motivation? Did you want financial security to provide for your family? Did you want to make a difference in the world? Take a few steps back and recall what set you on this path in the first place, and then think about whether or not you’ve gotten lost along the way. Is a six-figure job the best thing for your family if you never get to see them because you’re always at the office?
- This isn’t a winning battle – Surprise! You’re never going to feel like you matter if you only ever measure your worth by your achievements. Instead of being able to appreciate a job well done, you’ll constantly be seeking the next challenge and checkmark. It’s OK to push yourself, and it’s great to be ambitious. But it’s also really important to acknowledge your progress along the way. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for frustration and failure every time, and that’s just dumb!
- You don’t have to save the world – For those of us who are results-driven, it’s so very, very easy to fall into this trap. We focus on our achievements because we believe that we have the power to save the world. We do – in some ways. We can choose to respond to anger with kindness; we can be compassionate about things that won’t ever affect us, but impact others deeply. We can put our phones down and actually respond to our barista when he asks, “Hello, how are you today?” by inquiring as to his well-being, too. But choosing to make a difference in the world doesn’t mean that we have to be Jesus Christ himself, and I don’t mean that sacrilegiously. Let up on the achievement-based merit tests . . . you don’t have to be a billionaire or a cancer-curer in order to do good things.
- You had it figured out when you were five – Sometimes I think the kids should run the world. Remember when you were five years old and you thought that a good day involved story time, a snack, and a hug from your mom? Turns out that’s not too far off. Don’t get so wrapped up in “adulting,” achieving, and overthinking. Stick to the simple truth you understood as a kid, about what really matters at the end of the day.
Fellow overachievers, I hope this helps you know that you amount to so much more than your to-do list and the awards on your office wall! Third time’s the charm, so say it with me . . .
You are more than your achievements.