Let me ask you a hypothetical question: When you think about your job, would you rather be the best person in your city at what you do and have everyone think you are the worst, or be the worst and have everyone think you’re the best?
It’s an absurd scenario — and obviously, we’d all hope for somewhere in the middle — but I’ve been thinking about it for the better part of a week. I think most of us struggle with this when we’re honest with ourselves. We all want to be great, but how do we know we’re great if we don’t see that greatness reflected back at us in the opinions of others? Can we feel confident in our abilities without someone telling us how we’re doing?
When we were in school, many of us used our report cards to validate our success. Grades seemed to provide us (myself included) with a clear system to know how good we were at what we cared about. In our eyes, that concrete number represented our level of personal worth and success.
Now that we’re in the working world, many of us still need an external source of validation; so we judge ourselves based on our clients’ opinions. We look to their reactions to tell us if we are skilled or valuable or useful or kind. If they tell us we are good at our jobs, then we glow like a kid getting a gold star in elementary school. If they tell us we aren’t, we believe them, and we despair at their disapproval.
Looking for feedback from others because we want to improve is smart. If we wish to serve and understand people, we need to listen to them. But relying on validation from others in order to form our own sense of self-worth is something different. When we do that — when we look to everyone else to tell us whether or not we’re any good at what we do — we strip power from ourselves and place it into the hands of others. We allow other people to determine whether or not we are having a good day, a good year, or a good feeling about life in general.
If we want to take back control of our own self-worth, I believe there are two questions we must be able to answer for ourselves —
“How do I define success?”
“How do I think I’m doing?”
If you know your answers to these two questions, then you have a strong voice in the internal debate over your own value and esteem. Here’s an example from my own experience:
A few weeks ago I was seeing appointments when a dog struggling to breathe came into the clinic. I was the only veterinarian in the building and thus ended up in that terrible situation where I had both a critically ill patient and a full schedule of appointments. Things went about as well as they possibly could, until I walked in to see a dog who needed an annual examination and some vaccinations. As I entered the room, the dog’s owner said earnestly, “You know, doc, you’re too busy. I waited 20 minutes to be seen, and it’s because you all are trying to do to much.”
At this point, I was tired and stressed. Plus, now I had a voice in my head saying, “See? You’re a C-minus veterinarian. You’re too slow, and now he’s going to go to a new vet and probably tell all his friends that this place is chaotic and disorganized.” Ever heard that internal voice yourself?
Most days, this person’s comment and my subsequent negative self-talk would have sucked all motivation out of my morning. But on that day they didn’t. I heard his point and understood his frustration. I saw areas where I could improve (I should have had someone tell him when he came in there would be a wait, but it slipped my mind — we’re working on that at our clinic now). And although I started down the road of, “Woe is me, this guy is mad at me, so I must be a terrible veterinarian,” I then stopped myself. I made myself pause and answer my own two questions.
- How do I define success? Success for me is largely about helping animals and people in a meaningful way while creating a great atmosphere for my technicians to work in. It is not about me making every single person I encounter happy every moment of the day. (Tip: If that’s your definition of success, find a new definition.)
- How do I think I’m doing? Given these circumstances, and given all the veterinary situations I’ve seen involving beloved pets struggling to breathe, I’m doing pretty darn well here by being able to take care of this critically ill animal and tend to my regular patients. I may not be capable of creating extra time on the clock, but who is? I’m doing the best work that can be done in a very bad situation.
I made the choice to consider my own knowledge and beliefs about this difficult situation. I decided how to feel about myself and the work I was doing. I listened to my own voice — in addition to listening to my clients’ concerns — because I knew it was right.
We are taught that serving others means valuing their needs above our own, but when it comes to assessing how good a job you’re doing, this approach is critically flawed. Sometimes people will have needs that cannot be perfectly met and opinions that don’t show the whole picture.
Never stop listening or working to understand those around you, but never forget to listen to yourself as well. Ultimately, you’re the one who decides whether you are successful, valuable, and worthy of the great work you set out to accomplish.