On Work, Self-Worth and Being a Statistical Outlier

Wednesday, September 28, 2011
For me, self-worth has always been an elusive and tricky thing.

As a teen, I had no interest in scholastic pursuits. In fact, my academic record was so poor I barely graduated from high school - so no self-worth there.

But my complete and utter lack of accomplishment in school didn't mean that I was incapable of working hard. In fact, working hard - and being recognized for it - was the cornerstone of my identity.

When I was on active duty, I made Chief (E-7) in nine years. And was disappointed that I wasn't selected the first time I was eligible for promotion. After I joined the reserves, I was selected to Senior Chief (E-8) the first time I went before the board. There's an excellent chance I would have been selected to Master Chief (E-9) equally quickly had I chosen to continue.

My civilian career path has been equally ambitious. Over the course of ten years, I managed to select jobs (and excel at them) at a rate that allowed me to increase my salary by 500%*.

And the whole time, I was always THE BEST. The best Petty Officer, the best Chief, the best technician, the best technical instructor, the best Systems Engineer. A statistical outlier, rated as "4.0" or "far exceeds expectations" or whatever the highest performance mark was. In my confusion and occasional despair, I hung my self-worth, my identity, my entire life on that single thing.

That's a slender reed to bear such a heavy weight.


I've written before about my personal journey and the work it took to become the person I want to be, so I won't repeat that maudlin narrative again. But a funny thing happened on my way to a balanced life - being a statistical outlier in my professional endeavors stopped being so damned important. Once I was able to maintain meaningful, long-term relationships with someone other than The Mechanicky Gal, once I was able to conduct myself in a way that demonstrated my effort to become the person I wanted to be, being THE BEST started to lose its attraction. I no longer wanted to sacrifice the time and energy it takes to maintain that outlier position, so I stopped. No more 60+ hour weeks, no more saying "yes" to every request, no matter how ridiculous, no more placing my professional performance ahead of my personal relationships.

Don't get me wrong - I perform the work for which I'm paid. I maintain my professional credentials and keep abreast of new technology and standards. I meet my commitments to my company, my team, my boss. I just no longer have a need to define myself entirely by my professional success.

Last year when I got my performance review for fiscal year 2010 I received a mark of "meets expectations" for the first time ever. And I didn't feel bad about it. Only one member of our team was eligible to receive the highest mark, "exceeds expectations," and the gentleman who received it totally earned it. Last year, he was the statistical outlier, working his ass off to achieve that status. I didn't, so I got the mark I had earned.

Even ten years ago, I would have been devastated by my failure to be THE BEST. I would have sought out additional responsibilities to bolster my position and increased my workload to unmanageable proportions in order to earn that "exceeds expectations" mark. Now? I thanked my boss for the small raise he was able to secure on my behalf, and went into fiscal year 2011 satisfied that I gave good value for my salary.

My 2011 performance review is coming up in October. I fully expect to be "meeting expectations" once again. And once again, I expect to be fully satisfied with my professional accomplishments, knowing that my self-worth isn't entirely dependent on my professional success.

It's a good feeling.


________
*Part of this is because I started out making bupkis, and part is because I work in sales, the most overpaid category of work on the planet. Welcome to my golden handcuffs.

4 comments:

Phiala said...

Yeah.

I gave up on perfection a few years ago. I'm in a field (science) where to be a superstar you have to work 80-hour weeks, and I have other things I'd like to do with my time. So I don't publish as much as some, and don't have the recognition, and I'm okay with that. (Mostly.)

I too increased my salary by some ridiculous percentage (>500%), but only if you count grad school. PhD students make, yeah, basically nothing.

But on the other hand, I just wrote up my annual accomplishments, and... let's just say that if I don't rate "Outstanding" there's something seriously wrong with the system. I knew I'd worked remarkably hard this year, but seeing it all on paper... wow. (Lost a scientist with whom I worked closely, couldn't replace him. You guess where his workload went.)

Janiece said...

Yeah, the advantage to working below the poverty line is that every subsequent increase - to say, a living wage - seems huge.

filelalaine said...

I get the “what are the causes of my overachievement?” question a lot. Oftentimes, barring other neurological or psychological defects which would necessitate a more thorough diagnosis, the underlying impetus is an unhealthy self-esteem. And more often than not, said poor self-esteem originates from the conditional love demonstrated by a parent or a person of importance in childhood, which made the person overachieve (the good-girl/good-boy syndrome) to earn their love. Even when, later in life, that is no longer the case, i.e. that person is long gone and the approval seeking is no longer necessary, the dysfunctional behavior continues because it has become part of the behavior-repertoire i.e. a habit that somehow got maintained by the positive reinforcement generated by the natural consequences of the behavior (praise for a job well done, raises, etc.).

Far from being unusual, overachievement is however NOT a characteristic of a self- actualized individual. And admitting to it IS the first step to demonstrate independence from it.

There is nothing wrong with “meeting expectations” and everything right with the foresight to prioritize your personal and professional lives. In short, congratulations Janiece, you have matured!

Janiece said...

In short, congratulations Janiece, you have matured!

filelalaine, you have NO IDEA.