Spending time away from working in a traditional corporate setting has allowed me to debunk a few myths I used to believe when I was immersed in that space:
My salary = the value I bring (my worth)
Steady paycheck = security
A poor performance review rating = failure
Salary = Worth
I was raised in a community where people spoke about how much money others were making, where my elders expressed admiration for people who made high salaries. This environment shaped my belief that my worth is tied to how much money I make.
Subconsciously, I evaluated myself and others based on income, even though consciously I value people in giver professions – such as nurses and teachers, more than those in professions that typically command higher incomes.
When I left my corporate job and was making zero dollars, it was difficult to feel like the same person as when I’m making a good income. As I began to set fees for my services as a consultant and coach, it was hard not to equate my value to the fees I charged.
A close friend of mine recently told me that he feels he is not creating much value at his six figure salaried job because of the dysfunction of the company. He is not the only person I know who spends a lot of time doing work that doesn’t create much meaningful value. At the same time, many people who create value – like caregivers, poets, artists, and social entrepreneurs, make little to no money. Salary does not equal value; net worth does not equal self-worth.
Yet, why do so many of us think more or less of ourselves based on our salaries?
Paycheck from Top Company = Security for My Future
As I evaluated my career options upon graduating from college (and again from graduate school), I automatically favored well paid jobs from top ranking companies on Fortune’s “Best places to work” list. My decision to join companies like Disney, Starbucks and Boston Consulting Group was a no-brainer. These were the jobs that people wanted; the jobs that would secure my future.
I clearly remember the moment when I got an offer from one of these companies, and was considering whether or not to join the team. The recruiter said, “Jennie, we do not knock on many doors. When we knock, you answer.”
After joining these top firms, I trusted that these types of companies would take care of and develop me as long as I put in my best work and delivered on the expectations. I counted my blessings for the opportunity. I admired my coworkers who maintained long tenure and found success in working their way up the company.
A steady paycheck from a top company created an illusion that led me to believe I have secured my career and financial future. But in reality, my position can be jeopardized at any moment. And if I am not growing my skills, I fall behind in my market value.
Luckily, life circumstances have forced job changes on me. Unfortunately, for some of my coworkers who hold on to this illusion for too long, they experience negative consequences.
Some are let go in their late 40’s and 50’s, and realize they are unable to find a comparable position. Some have worked for the same company for so long, they are too afraid to leave the nest because they don’t know what it’s like to work anywhere else. Some realize late in their career that the career they have chosen does not fulfill them, and no longer have the energy to pursue their dreams. For all these people, their loyalty is the trap that limits their growth potential.
The best strategy for creating security in my career and financial future is to consistently grow my skills, regardless of what my job is, who my boss is, what company I work for, or how much I’m getting paid. Paradoxically, the safest strategy in this new era is actually to focus on developing skills that are valuable in the marketplace, and not focus on what pleases my employer.
A steady paycheck does not always equal safety. A steady paycheck can be the illusion that distracts you from seeing the looming danger. Always focus your attention on developing skills that fulfill you and grow your value in the marketplace. Don’t let a steady paycheck from a good company fool you into feeling safe and complacent. And certainly, don’t blindly follow what your employer recommends as your next best step in your career. Instead, invest in thinking critically about what fulfills you.
Poor Performance Rating = Failure; High Performance Rating = Success
I received my first poor performance rating about 10 years into my career. As a straight A student and a top performer at all my jobs prior, the poor rating was devastating to my ego. I felt so ashamed that I couldn’t admit to myself and other people that I failed.
To protect my ego, I told myself that the job was not a right fit for me anyway. I consciously told myself this story, even though subconsciously I felt like a failure. I pushed out the thoughts of being a failure, and pushed on to pursue my next dream job.
Four years and two jobs later, I received my second poor performance rating. This time, the reminder of past failure came gushing in. Since this was the second time, I couldn’t fight the thoughts of “I’m not good enough; I’m a failure” anymore. Any other story I told myself just felt like an excuse for my incompetence.
I carried the identity of “not enough” for the next two years, even though during this time, I worked for myself as an independent consultant and coach. No one gave me a performance review; no one told me I’m not good enough. In this new reality, I am solely responsible for determining whether I am a success or a failure. Yet, I continued to let the past haunt me and allowed my inner voice to tell me I’m not good enough.
The shift to quieting my harsh inner voice and believing in my ability to be successful finally happened after two years of working for myself. I wasn’t thriving as being my own boss, and I had to ask myself why. I realized that in all of my past jobs, I thrived only when I had a boss who believed in me more than I believed in myself. Whenever I had a manager who was skeptical about my abilities, I faltered. I had given my employers too much power to define how I feel about me. It was time to stop this story.
When I finally decided to stop allowing others to define me, I had to ask myself how I will define my own success and failure. I decided that my success as Jennie is not determined by whether I reach an outcome – and certainly not whether I meet a boss or a client’s expectation – my success is determined by my ability to live according to my values.
Armed with my new belief, I now define success as anytime I take a step to gain wisdom and courage, regardless of the outcome. I am successful every time I practice writing, regardless of the quality of my writing. I am successful every time I say “Yes” to a new challenge, regardless of how I perform on the challenge. The standard for success and failure is based on whether I take actions that are in alignment with my values and integrity, not whether I achieve an outcome or impress someone I regard as an authoritative figure.
In retrospect, I see the absurdity of ever letting my performance review define me in the first place. The first critical performance review feedback was centered on my finance skills, while the second was on my storytelling abilities. Was I a failure because I couldn’t figure out a financial model, or because I couldn’t tell a compelling story? How much do my financial modeling abilities and my storytelling abilities determine who I am? These standards don’t determine who I am at all!
In addition, if I had awoken out of the absurd story earlier, I would have been more likely to address the critical feedback I received on my performance review. With confidence and belief in myself, I would be more effective in improving my finance and storytelling skills. Self-doubts about not being good enough had handicapped my potential. My story was my own worst enemy.
For those of you who may be carrying similar illusions, I hope this sharing of my experiences generates some helpful insights for you.
Where have you been holding on to stories that prevent you from growing in your own life?
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