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Ask HN: How to not base self worth on your own work?
71 points by keithy on May 1, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments
I'm a CS junior who is doing a lot of web development as of late.

I just realized that all my life I've been basing my self worth on how awesome my programming projects are. That means if my project sucks then I go into a slump, and if my project turned out to be great then I am elated. I also judge people by how good their projects are or where they work and it leads to me not having a good social life. It's not the healthiest mindset I know.

Basically I have pretty bad self esteem and I feel like I compensate for it by trying to do more and more projects.

Has anyone gone through something like this and have any advice on how to deal with it?

The answer to this question is relatively straightforward, and has been well developed by the psychology community.

Focus on process, not outcome.

Don't focus your mental energy on the awesomeness of your projects. (Even if they are awesome.) Focus your mental energy on the production of them -- the process.

Ultimately it is the process -- the way you are doing things -- that your life is made of. What you do is who you are. Your projects exist outside yourself. They're quite literally not you.

This is often discussed as "fixed mindset" vs "growth mindset."

See: [(https://sivers.org/mindset)]

Several of the studies supporting growth mindset have methodological flaws. For example:


This seems intuitive. Scott Adams expresses a similar idea as focussing on 'systems' rather than 'goals.' Failing to meet a goal leaves you with nothing if the goal is all you focus on, but what you learn from the system is more reusable.


One of my great epiphanies as an American expat is that Americans have a tendency to be extreme. They often have one thing that they use to define themselves. They are driven to be the best at their 'one thing'.

- People who go to church on Sunday feel the need to tell you about it on Monday.

- The guy at work who runs marathons, is running all the time. He never comes to lunch because he is doing a practice run.

- People who are fat. ...well, I am sorry, but if it was genetic then there would be 500lb people in Europe too.

- People who work, work and work and work. A lot of Americans fall under this category.

I think taking pride in your work is a good thing. Knowing when you could do better is a good thing. Building your sense of self around any one aspect of your personality is a bad thing.

Aim to be more well-rounded. Try to find lots of things you like doing. Moderate your activities. Live a less extreme life.

(I have obviously made some assumptions here. This post probably applies more to me than anyone else. :)

At least for the running example, running marathons is extreme. A lot of people run 6-10 mile distances, precisely because it doesn't take over your life. You might be surprised at how many people you know run and don't talk about it ;)

More broadly, I think you're falling into the trap of assuming the loudest/most prominent people represent the average. Just like there are a lot of people who run and also do other things, there are lots of people who are quietly religious.

I don't even get where being fat comes into this? There are a lot of factors that go into Americans being fatter on average than Europeans, but your list devolved into the typical one-dimensional "I hate North Americans because I moved to Europe and I'm so continental now" rant.

> Aim to be more well-rounded

Good advice for everyone, regardless of where they live.

I am fat. Does it count as "well rounded"?

sorry I just had to :)

I get your point but I wouldn't put this as a trait of american society. It's what the world is moving to because specialization is a core skill in today's world. If you want to become good at something, you have to spend lots of time on it. I think the core issue is 'impatience'. People want to get good very fast. By the time they are 30 and thus spend all their time on one thing. Previous generation was happy to wait till 50 to get the same level of specialization. But because of globalization, it only requires one society to work insanely and it puts the pressure on the rest of the world to follow suit. If you don't follow, you will be replaced. If you think you cannot be replaced, it's only because you have spent an insane amount of time on one thing compared to others....

I do think the quote below is less and less followed today:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

-Robert A. Heinlein

>>Aim to be more well-rounded.

Not sure if I agree. Being "well-rounded" will result in being mediocre at everything, i.e. jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none. If you want to excel at something, you need to specialize and focus on that thing, usually to the exclusion of a lot of other things. Einstein wasn't "well-rounded" but he no doubt lived a fulfilling life and had a lot of impact on the world. Not everyone can be Einstein, or even wants to be Einstein, but I think being very good at a few things would make them feel more satisfied with their lives than chasing after many different interests and goals. That's just my opinion though.

I also disagree with your characterization of Americans. If anything, people in this country are very good at noticing what they are not good at, and live their lives trying to plug those perceived holes, rather than focusing on developing themselves in what they are good at. This is mostly because the consumer culture emphasizes people's imperfections in order to sell them products and services. You walk down the magazine isle of a bookstore and are bombarded with messages: you're out of shape, you need to be better at sex, you need to learn how to talk to people better, you totally need to check out the latest and hottest JavaScript framework bro! That's where the obsession with well-roundedness comes from.

Now, here's the caveat: people who combine multiple disciplines tend to be very successful. There was a story discussed on HN recently about this where Elon Musk's ex-wife pointed that out. I agree with that. But even then, we're talking about two or three things at most. Steve Jobs is a good example: he understood technology and design, but he definitely could not be described as "well-rounded."

>> "Being "well-rounded" will result in being mediocre at everything"

Even if that's true you're making the assumption that being excellent at something will make the poster happy and improve his self-esteem. Maybe being average at lots of different things will make him happy.

> This is mostly because the consumer culture emphasizes people's imperfections in order to sell them products and services. You walk down the magazine isle of a bookstore and are bombarded with messages: you're out of shape, you need to be better at sex, you need to learn how to talk to people better, you totally need to check out the latest and hottest JavaScript framework bro!

I would file this under the 'extreme consumerism' department that America is quite famous for though.

"well-rounded" CAN mean being good at two or three things, it doesn't mean that everyone should attempt to be a polymath.

Also, the point of being "well-rounded" wasn't to excel at all activities, but by not totally subsuming yourself in one activity you might achieve a broader perspective about experiencing life.

Considering the question in the OP, it is funny you brought up Einstein, Musk, and Jobs in your reply.

I think people are fat for any number of reasons. First and formost being it's a natural instinct to take in as much macro nutrients as possible, as densly as possible. For most of the developed world, food isn't really scarce. That is where it starts.

Follow that by government subsidies that lean towards larger agribusiness which are ruled by companies that produce the most calorie dense foods at the cheapest prices. No, you cannot feed the world without GMO corn, soy, rice etc. Just the same, when you subsidize this it creates an artificial incentive to buy more of it. Pre-packaged Hamburger Helper, candy bars (the likes of "health" bars, granola etc are candy here too) rule the roost even for those that do cook at home.

The third being marketing. Americans are targeted by junk food ads far too much. Everything from placement on store shelves to stores that operate on junk food (convenience stores with gas stations)... leading towards most of the U.S. necessitating cars to drive just about everywhere, which feeds laziness.

The fourth being laziness and atrophy... By the time you get to an age where you start to care it may well be too late to make significant change. I didn't know a fraction of what I know about nutrition in my late teens and early 20's... Now, I have a broken metabolism and simply reducing calories alone doesn't work... it leads to a binge cycle. I avoid carbs because of what it does to my blood sugar, but even then trying to keep calories in relative check, getting enough each day and not going over is far more difficult at 40, than it would have been when I was younger. Compound this at a generational level, and it just feeds on itself.

I'm not making excuses here, it's just not as cut and dry as "you are fat, and you shouldn't be". Not to mention assumptions about health care... it's cheaper on the community for you to be fat and die at 60, than to live until 80+.

> - People who go to church on Sunday feel the need to tell you about it on Monday.

I grew up Catholic (fortunately, I was cured ;), but I never came across anyone with the 'need' to tell others about the fact that they went to church.

I think your source of self-worth should not be what you do. The projects that make you proud today will be embarrassing to your future self. Many illustrators I know hate even looking at their 6 months old drawings. Learning is 99% failing, so focusing only on your career successes is not a sustainable strategy toward well-being.

imho self-worth must come from why you do something. Search for the core values that define your actions. Persistence, empathy, discipline... whatever you define as the leading factors of your life. Then stick with them. As long as you are true to yourself, that is, you stick to your why, you'll find self-worth.

this is a really interesting way of looking at other people. Try to understand their core values and compare them with yours.

Accept that your values may change over the years. Coherence is a self-defeating value.

I love reading my 6 months old code and feel like a complete stranger wrote it.

Try doing the same with dreams. I find it is slightly disturbing if not downright scary how I can so easily forget such detailed accounts of my oniric life.

It makes me feel like a complete stranger too.

Work is work. You are a human being, not a machine.

That code you output? It's meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Cherish what makes you human, not what makes you a good worker.

Do things that you love outside of work. They will be just as meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but they will matter to you. Base your self estime on those.

Work is there for one reason and one reason only. To get you money to do the things you like and to give you the means to cherish the people you love.

Bake a cake, share it with someone. It's just as meaningless as outputting code, but you made two people happy. The code you make at work? The only thing it's making happy is the wallet of someone.

If you love to code above all else, do code. But try to only base your self estime on personal projects. Work is work, and your workplace shouldn't be tied to your self worth.

>That code you output? It's meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Cherish what makes you human, not what makes you a good worker. //

Isn't that just soul crushingly depressive. Surely everything you do is part of your character, how you work, what you work on, that's all part of who you are. You are not your work but I feel you've gone too far.

>Work is there for one reason and one reason only. To get you money to do the things you like and to give you the means to cherish the people you love. //

I disagree. Yes, you need to earn your keep, no that doesn't mean that work should be solely about the money (unless you're unfortunate enough to be unable to change your circumstances, eg through poverty).

Yes, it is soul crushingly depressive. That's why you should make sure that work doesn't affect your personal human character.

If you work on an awesome project at work, do cherish it. Let it flow all over your ego. You did an awesome job? Be proud of it. But remember that what you are actually loving from that awesome project isn't the project itself, or the client, or your boss, or the money, or your time spent working.

From my point of view, an awesome project can be defined as a project that made you grow, that made you learn. This is what you love, and this is what you seek without even being aware of it.

Growing and learning is the basis of our human existence.

Sadly, most work you do will be repetitive. Boring. Harsh. Some time, it will even go badly. Learn what you can from those project, grow as much as you can, then move on. A bad project shouldn't even touch your sense of self worth.

The only moment you should feel less from your work is when you know that you didn't do your best. All else is simply work. Work may go bad, but if you did you best, worked your hardest, don't put it against yourself.

Your value as an individual human being is miles away from how your last project went. To me, they are barely related.

> >That code you output? It's meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Cherish what makes you human, not what makes you a good worker. //

> Isn't that just soul crushingly depressive. Surely everything you do is part of your character, how you work, what you work on, that's all part of who you are.

For the code you output, you need to recognize and accept that almost everything you write won't run in production for very long, if at all. There are exceptions, but it's mostly true. So take pride in the production, and don't stake too much on the outcome.

I do agree that everything you do is a part of you. Just don't focus too much on one thing, or the wrong things.

First, realize that "all your life" is not really that long if you're 20 years old. You've got a long ways to go and you will absolutely change over time, usually without even noticing it. You're in college right now, don't sweat it like this is going to be your whole life.

Second, I would suggest getting some different kinds of hobbies. Do a bunch of different kinds of things. One benefit of this is that if you know ahead of time you won't be good at them so it's easier to not hang your self worth on them. You'll also meet different kinds of people who aren't just CS people doing projects you can judge them on. Doing lots of different things also makes you a more interesting person.

Third, in terms of your programming; find more joy in the process and the trees instead of investing everything in the forest of The Project. If something turns out worse than you thought but you learned a lot, great.

Imagine you could peg your mood to any index you like, that it was a free choice. Performance at work, social activities, personal relationships, physical prowess, heck the sodding FTSE 100.

If you had that free choice, what would you choose? I assume a weighted aggregate of some kind including some of the above?

The truth is you can peg it to anything you choose, and you do that by prioritising these things in your day to day life. If you spend 1 day a month doing exercise, you're implicitly weighting that lowly in your mind. If you spend 10-12 hours a day working, that's how you weight it in your "mood index".

Just my opinion of course.

This is so important to understand. You are in complete control of how satisfied you are with yourself.

My strategy is to pay attention to the present, for example if I had a 'bad' day at work and feel stress at home, I might think about how nice the pjs feel on my skin, or "Trees, wtf those are awesome!"

You are free to exist outside of societal and moral constructs that you perceive (in this case excelling at work). Once you know the source of your dissatisfaction, simply stop feeding it.

1. "That means if my project sucks then I go into a slump, and if my project turned out to be great then I am elated."

In my estimation, the only way to break this cycle, to really exit this emotional roller-coaster that you are riding is to:

Let go of the results and focus on the quality of your effort.

For example, check yourself against this question:

"Am I giving 100% to the quality of my effort, in this moment?"

To elaborate: when you build your wall, are you focusing on the wall, or are you focusing on laying a single, individual brick, with the best quality, ability and focus that you can muster?

If you focus on the wall, then you are focusing on the end result. I recommend shifting your focus on laying each individual brick, which is a focus on effort, on process... a focus on execution.

2. "Basically I have pretty bad self esteem and I feel like I compensate for it by trying to do more and more projects."

Your self-worth should be based on your entire "package", if you will. It is complex, but it includes how you treat others, the light that you bring to the world, the light that you bring to your friendships and relationships, your helpfulness and respect toward your family, what you bring to your work... I'm fond of saying, "It's how you bring it." You want to be someone that "brings it." You want to be firing on all cylinders.

And so, this feeling of self-worth is tied to every single moment, not to results, which are ultimately ephemeral, and are only a small piece of the equation. Ultimately, results will fade, and may not always be what you expected anyway. But, if you focus on execution and process, you will be better-served to end the emotional roller-coaster of self-doubt, because you will know that you are bringing it, you will know that, "No matter what the results are, I delivered to the best of my ability. I strive to bring it in every moment, and I strive to better the process, and to serve and help those around me."

Judge yourself (and others) in this manner, and I think it will serve to change your life, to change your perspective.

Wishing you all the best.

> "Am I giving 100% to the quality of my effort, in this moment?"


Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao Te Ching (buy here: http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780061142666-0; full text here: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.h...) is one of my favorite books. It has some things to say on this subject:

   Express yourself completely,
   then keep quiet.
   Be like the forces of nature:
   when it blows, there is only wind;
   when it rains, there is only rain;
   when the clouds pass, the sun shines through...

   He who stands on tiptoe
   doesn't stand firm.
   He who rushes ahead
   doesn't go far.
   He who tries to shine
   dims his own light.
   He who defines himself
   can't know who he really is.
   He who has power over others
   can't empower himself.
   He who clings to his work
   will create nothing that endures.

   If you want to accord with the Tao,
   just do your job, then let go.

I really like this answer. Thank you for articulating it so well.

My one hesitation is that I think a lot of people get satisfied with trying their best within a crappy system. And sometimes you really need to be stubborn and say "no, this isn't good enough. We need to aim for a better end result.

It's not a healthy way to measure yourself, but it makes you desperate to try things that you wouldn't normally. And some of those things will work. And we all benefit from the discovery of a new "ceiling".

When you aren't doing work, stop thinking about work, stop talking about work. This may include time while you are physically at work. This is a hard lesson for many programmers. There is a time for thinking, but it's tempting to think all the time about some problem, or how great we did at Project X, or how badly we fucked up on Project Y. It is through our thoughts that we end up identifying with something, and if we are always consumed by our work then we identify 100% with our job. Our sense of self worth is then dependent upon something which is largely out of our control, is constantly changing, and inherently has its ups and downs.

People do all kinds of things like meditation to try to control their thinking, and these things are great and ultimately can be life-changing, but I don't think you have to go to great lengths to break the dysfunctional cycle you are in. Find a hobby. Talk about something else with your co-workers. Talk to other people at the company who don't program. Go to a meetup about something not related to programming, and talk about something other than your job for a while, or just watch and listen to other people. Go for a walk and look at the scenery. If thoughts about work come up, just notice them and come back to the present moment.

Maybe base your self-worth on whether you are doing something you love, or at least working towards it; rather than the end result of doing that thing. So regardless of how the projects turn out are you enjoying each day that you get to sit and code?

It's natural to focus on the end goal and constantly comparing yourself to others but this only leads to you being hard on yourself which leaves you focusing too much on things you cannot control which doesn't feel good and frustrating at best.

Plus definitely find other things outside of coding that give you a break and you can enjoy yourself out of that context. Sometimes just having fun is a great way of building self-worth. It also gives you a sense of perspective that will ultimately help you in your day-to-day work and when socialising.

I've been through the same thing. And in a sense, still am. Growing up, I was always a high achiever and always had to be "the best". And for a long time I was. After like 12 years of living this life I placed 2nd in a national chess competition and it devastated me. Who would have known I couldn't be the best at everything? I'm quite lucky to have gotten a wake up call so early on instead of ending up a delusional prick. I was never cocky but at one point, it will get to your head.

Of course many people can tell you how toxic this kind of mentality is, but it's not without benefits. Some people lack motivation and drive, but people with this mentality often have no shortage of that.

It's good you've identified this as something negative and are working to change that. That's step 1. It's not going to happen overnight but it is a long process. Also keep in mind that success means something different to everyone. You might think making 200k a year is somewhat successful, but someone else may be perfectly content and fulfilled volunteering to clean after the elderly/disabled. Having pride in your work is fine, but in the end, human connections have a MUCH more significant impact on your life. Just keep working on yourself (specifically: growth) and being someone people enjoy being around and you'll do great.

I had the benefit of working with Geoff Ralston. He likes to tell founders this: "Startups don't fail because they run out of money, startups fail because their founders give up." It sounds trite, but the insight is generally applicable. You do not fail when a project or string of projects is bad, you fail when you stop trying to succeed at the next one.

A few thoughts:

1) There is a dangerous trap for people who are pegged as "smart". The logic is this: You are smart, therefore you do well at things. If you are told this enough, you start to reverse it in your head: "You do well at things, therefore you are smart." If you take that as true, what happens when you do poorly at something? Does that mean you're not actually smart?

The key thing to remember is that everyone starts off bad at everything. Everyone. Everything. You get better by trying and learning. At this point in your life you should optimize for speed of learning. Know that you will have projects that are objectively bad and failed to meet their stated goals. Also know that if you never fail an attempt, you are not working at the edge of your ability, and you are not learning as fast as you could be.

2) Humans are social animals. You are stuck with this, so I encourage you to learn to live with it. You can think rationally about it all day long, but the chimp platform you're built on is always going to measure your self-worth by the strength of your social network and your place in its hierarchy. Go join a groups of people with like-interests. It will be very hard, and you will probably feel constantly nervous and awkward. You will be bad at socializing. But each time you try, you will get a little better. And you won't fail unless you give up.

> "Startups don't fail because they run out of money, startups fail because their founders give up."

I'm not really seeing any insight here. The physical economic limitations that the average start up faces is entirely unrelated to the zeal of its founders.

You have to embrace the suck. I felt the same way for a long time, but as long as you are learning on every project you'll get better. I used to be very self-conscious about my code...I guess I still am a little. I stopped trying to do more projects and focused on one or two. Keep doing revisions until it starts to look good and you feel good about it.

A few years out of college, I was working at a startup building UAVs. It was pretty awesome. We had to move for me to take this job and my wife switched schools for the move. After 2 years she wasn't happy and wanted to move back to her original school to finish her degree. In order to make the move happen I had to take a programming job that was horrible. I was doing .NET web sites and babysitting a SharePoint server. Horrible, but I did it for my wife. I thought I would have to explain the blip on the radar in the future. While I was at this job, I met a guy who was a consultant for a silicon valley startup. He talked me into joining their company. That was 7 years ago. By taking the crap job, I found a dream job.

Just code, learn, and keep your eyes open.

I find this same effect in myself, but I've managed to moderate it down by identifying things that give me a sense of satisfaction. I suspect these aren't terribly transferrable, but here are some things that work for me.

- Mentoring other people. Helping other people who are missing a skill that I have do something cool gives me that same kind of elation that I'd get from doing it myself. It doesn't necessarily take piles of time, but feeling useful is good for my feeling of self worth.

- Cooking/Working Out/Errands. It sounds silly, but getting a whole pile of stuff off of my to-do list, even if they're really easy, makes me really happy. Cooking is great because it's something I can do that people appreciate pretty much guaranteed, and which is a nice technical skill. Working out is great because I am both improving myself and learning new skills (for me, karate for the last 10+ years). Feeling like I'm making progress, clearing up loose ends, and doing things that are appreciated by others make me feel a higher sense of self worth.

You might be interested in the Christian perspective here. This particular question of where and how to attach meaning to your life is not a new one. Solomon pondered many questions along these lines in the book Ecclesiastes. You could read the whole book in an hour or so (and I heartily recommend it). His conclusion? Everything you do in your entire life is meaningless! [0]

You can come to that same conclusion via multiple world views, by the way. What makes the Christian perspective unique is that it claims that ultimately, you as an individual are significant for reasons entirely apart from what you do in the span of your years on this planet. [1]

Which isn't to say the search for meaning in this life is fruitless. At the end of the day we all want to point to something we did that mattered. But Christians believe (and Ecclesiastes ultimately concludes) that true meaning is judged on a timescale greater than we're used to considering. [2]

[0]: https://www.bible.com/bible/59/ecc.1.esv

[1]: https://www.bible.com/bible/59/ecc.3.11-15

[2]: https://www.bible.com/bible/59/ecc.12.11-14.esv

(BTW, I'm very interested in having a discussion group around these sorts of topics with fellow HNers, in the style of a Socratic Club. If you're interested, hit me up at the email in my profile.)


You are feeling disapointment and satisfaction, which are pretty normal feelings imo.

You need also to focus on what is between the start and the end of a project. People may fail but learn a lot and know even more than you because of this failure. Keep in mind that what make good stories are peripeties.

As others here have said, look for meaning in your life in other places, both in the way you do the work (process-orientation) and in your relationships.

But there is an important lesson you'll have to learn to make any of that work, which is nicely summed up in the considerably under-rated "Julian Comstock" by Robert Charles Wilson: "Just because nothing lasts doesn't mean that nothing matters."

Everything you do, everything you are, is transient. The work you are doing to day will be bitrotted away to nohthing in five or ten years. The relationships you have will grow and change, and just as surely they will die, or the people you have them with wil die, or you will die.

The appeal of religion is that it's a trick that allows people to live with this reality, but the cost is extremely high. The challenge for those of us unwilling to accept the epistemic and moral compromises religion entails is to find ways for our lives to be meaningful that don't require quite such massive self-deception or accepting even a tiny bit of moral authority based on things that "just made sense" to pre-modern high-status men who knew less about the world than the average intelligent high-school student today.

Looking inward--meditating and whatnot--doesn't help much on the transience issue, because everythat that you are will also pass away. It can help on some practical things, though, including developing an awareness of all the good things we have simply by being clever enough to be born in the right time and place.

Looking outward, to help others, to contribute to the world, to develop a braoder network of social connections that are not purely self-indulgence (although a life without self-indulgence is a life not worth living) can help, although it comes with all the frustrations of dealing with human beings. No good deed goes unpunished.

I'm not a natural helper or teacher of others, but I've found the greatest satisfactions in my life have come from mentoring and managing in ways that make people's lives a bit better. One of the things that makes that work is an awareness that if I help someone learn something, the good I've done will last. The potential positive effect of mentoring goes on pretty much indefinitely, long after I've been laid-off from my job or my project has been shelved or my girlfriend has dumped me or my marriage has ended or my friends have died or all the other things that really do happen to people in the course of a long, full and successful life.

It sounds like your life is clouded by judgement.. You are judging yourself harshly, you judge others. It sounds like black and white thinking. This is awesome but this sux. These type of issues run deep. You are probably trying to avoiding shame. I suggest you find help.. religion or therapy or someone that will listen and understands and accepts you... or look internally with meditation or mindfulness. anything that helps you accept things as they are.

when you do a project that "sux." remember steve job's very buddhist quote... the journey is the reward.

I broke my version of this cycle by doing things that I knew I would struggle at. I think it's emotionally valuable to be out of your comfort zone and "fail". Taking up another hobby is a good idea, but if it is just something else you have to excel at to enjoy, it could just be more of the same. I went out of my way to take foreign language courses in high school and college, despite -- or because -- I'm not good at it. I'm doing ceramics this year in part for the same reason.

Tangent, there are two books you may be interested in. Both are about how people view their jobs or work.

Working, by Studs Terkel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working:_People_Talk_About_Wha...

Terkel was a journalist in Chicago, who mastered the art of interviewing/listening to people, and then writing stories and books about it. You'd do well to read just about anything he wrote, over the years.

In Working he would interview someone about their work, to get a sense of how their work defined them and vice versa.

The one I always remember is a stone mason, I think it's the last chapter. He drove around the stone mason's town with him, and he was constantly pointing out what he'd built, walls and buildings, some of it quite old.

This used to depress me, because I build nothing that lasts, it's just code. But over time I've realized that I wasn't looking at the right products of my work. What I'm really building is a body of experience, and a person informed by my experience, and a foundation for growth for myself and my family. But it's taken me a long time to learn that.

The other book is very similar, Gig, about people's jobs and how they related to them. It's very good, but only Terkel is Terkel, so if you have to choose I'd read Terkel. But this is good too. http://www.amazon.com/Gig-Americans-Talk-About-Their/dp/0609...

I'll give a bit different view - my self worth ain't derived much from my professional career. Sure, I am (a bit) successful, equal or more than most peers at university. Yeah, compared to my first full time dev job (same platform as now), my salary jumped 20x over the years. I've worked for energetics, insurance, army, telco, car manufacturer, local government, retail sales, banks, and more banks (perm & contractor too). So what?

It's what I do outside of my work defines me much more. I am into travelling, adventures and mountain-based activities. All weekends possible I spend in alps trying not to kill myself, but not too hard. During week it's workouts in gym, interval runs, climbing indoors, biking etc. Not really marathon-style fit, but quite OK.

When I meet somebody new, I ask 1 question about their work, and don't go deeper (unless it's super amazing, which in 99% is not). I do care who hey are as a person, what drives them and what they do in their free time, where they travelled etc. If they cannot talk about anything but work, I'll pass.

One of benefits is (apart from feeling great, being happy with myself and so on) - remove my work (for whatever reason), and I am still happy. Add it, I'll try to find some new professional challenges, but won't break my back and remove personal life just to prove something to somebody (pre-release exceptions happen :)). But all in all, we are all unique mix, and each of us has to find his/her own way to these things.

Want a different perspective? Take a backpack, and head for 2-4 weeks into some truly exotic destination that is without war, but also no 1st world coziness all over the place. Buy just return flight, and let things happen. If you have more time, spend more :)

I'm going to go against the grain here and say that your self-worth IS tied to your accomplishments. People will tell you "just be happy with who you are". This is in my honest experience completely bullshit. Doing great things or things that others value makes people feel good about themselves. That's just reality as I've observed it. However, doing great things does not necessarily mean programming or starting a business. I like bicycling and "doing great things" in that area means winning races, or garnering street cred on instagram and through other social avenues.

I think your problem is that you need to be smarter about the projects you do, or find something else to excel at rather than random open source programming.

The people who tell you that you should not tie your self-esteem to your accomplishments in my experience are just compensating for their own personal failings (this will be the majority of people you're surrounded by). They don't want you to be happy from succeeding at something because they're unhappy with things they've failed at.

Generic answer for humans: unconditional love.

Tactical suggestion for technical person with high standards: read biographies of overachieving polymaths and geniuses (e.g. Charles Pearce).

This will illustrate both the futility of inter-human comparisons and the critical importance of comparisons among all possible versions of you-the-single-human. To compare possible versions of a single human implies prototyping, which means "projects that suck" and "versions of you that suck". Thus, someone afraid of looking bad is ironically unlikely to seek/explore/reach their potential.

You are the project. What matters most are the side effects of projects upon you and other human beings, since these form a feedback loop which influence you and other human beings. There are projects/activities which require no technology, which can have profound side effects on humans.

I agree with this video a lot https://vimeo.com/85040589 . TLDR (or TLDW :-D): Ambitious people usually have pretty good taste and can tell what's good work and what's lame work. We feel very sad about our lame work, because we know it's not good work. It leads to a toxic spiral where it's painful to work because we know what we're going to produce is probably going to be lame. Hence the only way out is to force yourself to produce a large volume of work and eventually your work will reach or approximate your own taste.

I'm not sure if that's the only solution, or if it applies to everyone, but I definitely like the concept of a "taste-gap" and I'm experiencing it a lot.

I tried to write about some of this recently:


At the code level, I'd suggest taking pride in the individual smaller bits as well as the larger bits, and side projects can help too if you really feel the need, but I also like the suggestion about enjoying other hobbies too, and then do really good work on working hours. You can do really good and robust technical work on some uninteresting projects (though working in a more interesting problem domain might be good for you), too - it's mostly about changing the way your mental evaluation function works.

I had problems with this sort of thing while I was doing my PhD and working stupid hours every day. When it got really bad I decided to cut back to a normal working week and it seems to have helped (eventually). So if you're working all the time: try to work less.

Yes. It's a constant battle for me, but I have to keep reminding myself that my self worth isn't based on anyone else's perception of me. And it's especially not based on my work.

You eventually have to reach a place where you realize two things: you will suck at life sometimes and your worth isn't tied to those times. Failure is inevitable for most people, and the sooner you accept that failure or stumbling or some other fault (no matter how minor) will happen, the sooner you can realize they don't own you and don't define who you are.

I mean, honestly, the answer is right there in the word itself: self-worth. Your self-worth should be derived from people who value you for more than your work. It should be derived from someone valuing you not any sort of external criteria. It could be your wife/husband, your dog, your God, or whomever, but ultimately it boils down to you learning to value yourself beyond these things.

I used to put an intense amount of my self-worth into my work. A totally unhealthy amount. I felt good about myself because I was in my early 20's, writing books, being invited to speak at international conferences, working at the hottest startups, making a bunch of money. I was building my self image around this empire of dirt that I'd cobbled together based on how good of a programmer I am (and how well I could network). Then I tried to start a consultancy, which didn't work out great. I tried to build products there, that failed. I got fired from my next job. I felt like utter crap because I didn't understand why I was being personally punished and devalued. My work had betrayed me!

But it was at this point that I had to realize that anyone or anything that judged me by my work or my ability to work at the cool startup or my ability to be a part of some project wasn't judging me at all. They were judging my work, and I can't let my value and self image be tied up in that. For me, the first person I needed to teach that lesson to was myself.

And I did. And it wasn't fun. It's not fun to totally change your worldview, but oh my gosh, I feel so much better about life now. Not feeling like I live and die by the work I do frees me to do some of the best work I've done in my whole life. Sure, I'm not working at America's Next Great Startup and sure I'm not speaking at 2 conferences a month and sure I'm not signing up book deals all the time now, but holy crap I'm so much happier.

So, yes. People experience this exact thing. And it can crush you. But please don't let it. Find the worth within yourself and surround yourself with things and people that will support that.

What exactly is wrong with deriving your sense of self worth from your work? The problems of allowing your work to effect your mood seem obvious to me(lower productivity for one). There's no point in getting down on yourself when your work doesn't meet your goals/expectations. Just get back at it, or take a break! Personally, I feel like I came here (into the world) to work, and I'm glad about it. I don't expect everyone to be this way and I support others in realizing whatever it is that brings them self-worth. But me, I came to work!

When projects I have fail I am generally pretty proud to talk about them. Usually it means that I have some new weird subset of knowledge that very few other people have.

This is crazy cool. People, technical and non-technical, generally love to hear these personal stories. They eat it up.

Working on things so they become popular isn't a good way to approach the process of working on projects. Working on things because you think it is cool IS.

If something you work on fails just know you have THAT much more knowledge about whatever you were doing than the next person now.

I have experienced the same problems during my life.

I found that even though I intellectual understood the process vs. event based life I could not quite let go of celebrating events and being grumpy about past unfair events.

Then I read Simon Sineks "Start with why" and finally figured out my why (happiness) and integrated it into my way of making decisions.

Since then I have really found that my self worth has grown and become more balanced - because the decisions I make is right for me and since the ring true to my why I do not care (as much) what others think.

If you think you can learn from a book there is something in England called "books on prescription". Here's a list of the books they carry:


(That page makes strong claims for efficacy and I'm not sure they can justify the strength of those claim. Still, some people find these books useful.)

Not exactly an answer, but I appreciated this speech about explicitly acknowledging the worth of others as intrinsic, not contingent on performance: http://mathyawp.blogspot.com/2013/01/the-lesson-of-grace-in-...

Maybe base it on how much effort and progress you're making instead of the immediate result or the current level.

But to be honest, if your worth is not based on your work, then what could it be based it on? Your looks? Your hair style?

I can't really think of anything more significant.

your relationships? the difference you make to other people's lives? how kind, funny, generous, intelligent you are?

Relationships? Rather transient ..

Difference you make? Part of your work ..

"Kind, funny, generous, intelligent" are all nice to have, but not enough to get the amount of respect from other people that can satisfy your self esteem .. (at least for me)

Discipline, self control, vision, direction .. all seem more important to me.

As others have already said, life is the journey, not the checklist. It's just that other people can share the checklist way better than the journey, and maybe you doing the checklist benefits them in some way.

You have permission to enjoy life simply because you are alive. You do not need to be qualified. Anyone telling you otherwise is selling something.

Drink some whiskey, smoke some pot, dance

8 points, 21 minutes, 0 comments. We're all here hitting ctrl+F5 for a serious answer...

+1 to that

Volunteer someplace. Helping someone else will get you out of your accomplishment mindset.


1) Write down everything you've learned in the last 7 years regarding your chosen career. It'll show you how much you've grown as a CS student and programmer. Gives you perspective. You 5yrs ago probably couldn't be doing what you are today.

2) Get off the computer and do some activities that force you to learn and the emphasis is on personal improvement. I would recommend something that's not competitive but allows you to see continual improvement through practice and effort, like weightlifting. Stick with it.

3) You are't your work. your self worth as a human and a person isn't contingent on the level of awesomeness of your work. Some projects will be awesome, most will be average/ok, and some will be terrible. It's OK!

4) Rebuilding your self-esteem and changing your mind set will take time and focused work, but it's worth it.

I was in the same boat as you when I was doing my CS degree in undergrad. I was fortunate to be surrounded by a group of peers who were quite gifted at coding and made complex projects look incredibly easy and were quite humble about it. Conversely, I always felt like I was struggling compared to them because I ended up having to work harder at the same projects and usually didn't do as well. It was a self-esteem blow because I was measuring my self-worth as a CS student based on how well I compared to my classmates and the level of effort I put in (the more effort I put in, the less smart I had to be, or so the train of thought went).

Before you do anything else, stop, sit down, and write out everything you've learned in the past 10 years regarding web development. Seriously. What was the first web programming language you learned? First website you built? Second web programming language, second website etc. Did you get better each time? Was the next one better than the first either in terms of refined skills from previous experience or because you tried something new? I'll bet you it did. Also classes. Did you start with CS101 or thereabouts? Junior year you should be kicking around with algorithms 'n such depending on the school. That's a huge step forward in knowledge. Look at all you've learned and how you've grown over the years. You've progressed and gotten better with each website, language learned, and class completed. You are getting better. Focus on continuing to get better and learn rather than being judged solely by your product. This might be a poor analogy, but think of artists. An artist pours his soul into expression and sticks the pictures in a gallery for every passerby to come by and gander at. Some people think it's amazing and the artist captures part of the human experience. Other people think a cow could draw better with their tail while chewing cud. If the artist always listens to the people and bases their identity as an artist based on what people say or how they compare to other artists they will never push forward in their medium and seek to please others rather than grow. Focus on growth. Rather than looking at yourself as projects, look at yourself as a lifelong learner beginning a grand adventure. When you have conversations with people, ask them what they're learning and what about that interests them rather than judging their projects--you'll pick up some cool stuff this way. Ask them how they're incorporating what they're learning into their projects.

The second thing I will tell you to do is get away from the computer for a period of time. Don't stop working on projects, but set limits and go do something else. I highly recommend picking up an activity you know little to anything about and will require you to learn something new to get better. Doing this will give you some perspective that it's not about where you are now, it's about what you're learning as you grow. For me, it was weightlifting. You start out weak and with terrible form. Over time, you start seeing improvements as you get better bit by bit and your watch your lifts go from brand new rookie (45lb bar) to heavy (>200lbs) with sustained practice. Focus on the learning part of the process and iteratively getting better. The goal here is to build your self-efficacy in your ability to keep learning and growing and that your identity isn't tied up in being "wow". Pursuit of a learning activity outside your normal venues will give you something to draw on when you're down in other areas "this kinda sucks right now, but it's like <X>. I'm getting better even when it's meh." Go find something you can get iteratively better at (other than programming) and don't give up.

Third, to reiterate what a lot of other people have said, you aren't your work. Straight up. To paraphrase some of the best advice I've ever heard: A small percentage of projects/things/days will be amazing, you'll be at the top of the world and feel fantastic. Some percentage of projects/things/days will be terrible and you'll feel it. Something will feel off and you'll know it, and that's ok. Identify what's off and see if you can go about fixing it next time. It's OK, they happen. Finally, the majority of projects/things/days will be Ok. Not fantastic, not terrible and that's just fine too. Don't flog yourself if your projects don't turn out amazing. Not every project will be the bomb diggity now, or later on professionally and that's ok. Some websites will be amazing, some websites will be ok, and that's just fine. You're going to learn things by doing each one and we tend to learn a lot more from our failures than our successes.

I will say this, it's not easy to change your mind set. You can't snap your fingers and voila new mindset. It doesn't work that way, never has, never will. Rather, you need to be deliberate about it. The best way to go about doing this is to set short term goals that are specific, measurable, and attainable focused on learning. I.E. This week I will read 10 pages about <X> technology and implement a mini-test program for it. Keep doing this over and over. The emphasis here is on the process of learning rather than the outcome. The mini-test program could crap out, but you'll learn more by fixing it rather than getting it right the first time. Pursuing this will also expose you to the idea of building mastery through continual learning rather than building projects other people find awesome. Also keep a learning journal--it can be as easy as a text file with dates and record what you did, what worked, what didn't work, and what you learned going forward. Over time, this process will help reorient your way of thinking towards one of continual learning and building mastery rather than trying to always build an awesome project everyone praises. People are fickle, you can please some of the people some of the time, but you can't please all the people all the time. However, you have the power to make yourself better. Focus on that.

If you want more scientific information, go read up on implicit theories of intelligence and ability and goal orientation (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=implicit+theories...) and pay attention to a lot of the work by Caroline Dweck. She's the mother of implicit theory research. In psychology terms, so you know what you're looking at, you are expressing a performance goal orientation (measuring self compared to others, feel down when you don't think you add up). What you want to pay attention to is the discussion of a malleable or incremental theory of intelligence/ability.

I don't mean to be rude, but this is a bullshit perspective and a direct result of the very American imperative of "winner takes all", or "second best is nowhere", etc.

Dump the computer and travel outside the USA for a few months to a year, and you might catch a glimpse of life as it really is.

Life (in general, including professional life, BTW) is all about the connections you make with other people, not your kaggle/topcoder/etc ranking.

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