How To Stop Equating Success With Self-Worth In 8 Not-Easy Steps!

How do you do your best without getting really hung up on the results? How do you let go of expectations and just enjoy the process? How do you stop tying your self-esteem to your success? None of it's easy but you can do it. Here's how ...
Last summer, I did something big and exciting and potentially life/career-changing.

I re-homed all my ghostwriting clients, re-directed all my copywriting clients, and committed to creating the course I’d be wanting to write for two years. I completely re-worked my business model and jumped into the somewhat terrifying abyss of being truly self-supporting. No retainer clients to base my budget around, no big corporate client kicking me enough to cover my rent.

I put almost everything into creating and launching Put Your Money Where Your Happy Is. Wonderfully, it has panned out!

But what if it hadn’t? What if I put most of my proverbial eggs in that basket and I was met with shrugs and eyerolls and thanks-but-no-thanks?

Because that happens at some point. To all of us. It might not be an ecourse. It might be the school you’re applying to, the house you’re trying to buy, the marathon you’re training for, or even IVF treatments. At some point, we’ll all attempt a Big Thing and the response or results with be out of our hands.

When you attempt a Big Thing, how do you let got of your expectations? How do you resist the urge to tie your well-being and value to the results?

1. Really, actually try

I don’t know about you guys, but sometimes I confuse ‘not being Homer Simpson-level lazy’ with ‘really, actually trying.’ If we’re really honest with ourselves, we know what really, actually trying looks like.

It looks like doing all the assigned reading and the suggested reading and attending all the tutoring sessions.

It looks like giving ourselves enough time to do the work we need to do – instead of procrastinating and self-sabotaging with all-nighters and extension requests.

It looks like re-reading everything three times, Googling terms we don’t recognize, reading reviews, and getting second opinions.

2. Focus on the skills you’ve learned

No matter the results of your Big Thing, you learned some important, valuable, nearly-universally-applicable skills. That might not be much comfort in the face of less-than-ideal results but no one can take those skills away from you. You can spend the money you earn from sales, you can age out of the thighs you got from marathon-ing but you’ll never lose the skills you learned from undertaking your Big Thing.

If you don’t get into the school you applied to, you still learned how to

  • ask for letters of recommendation without wanting to die
  • write a personal essay
  • navigate a complicated application process with lots of deadlines and moving parts

If your online product launch doesn’t go well, you still learned how to

  • host a webinar
  • write sales emails
  • use a new sales platform
  • record slideshows and use screencasting software

If your one-person show is poorly attended, you still learned how to

  • write press releases
  • design and print flyers
  • use sound equipment
  • perform to the front row (because all the other rows are empty)

3. Plan a celebration regardless of the outcome

If there is a specific date associated with your Big Thing – a launch date, a submission deadline, an exit interview – plan a celebration for that night. Weeks (or months!) before your Big Thing, get something on the calendar to commemorate it.

Maybe it’s a weekend away with your honey. Maybe it’s a reservation at the fancy restaurant you’ve been wanting to try. Maybe it’s just a massage and a pedi. No matter what shape it takes, make plans to honor the blood, sweat, and ugly crying you’ve put into this. Celebrate the hard work before you know the outcome.

If you’re really serious, plan two mini celebrations: one for finishing the project and one for the results. Celebrate putting your house on the market – in addition to celebrating when it sells. Celebrate the fact that you sent off a cover letter, resume, and portfolio that you’re really proud of. (Celebrate again when you get the job offer.)

You get the idea! Make celebration a two-part process: Once for the effort and once for the results.

4. Plan to do something totally different after you finish your Big Thing

When we undertake something huge, our life frequently blurs into a montage of the same activity for months on end. You’re in the lab every night for five months. You’re running further and longer any time you’ve got a few free hours. You’re writing until the wee hours of the night, every night.

Once you finish your Big Thing, can you carve out some time to do something completely different? If your Big Thing was computer-based, you could get excited about exploring your city’s hiking trails.  If you’ve been training for a CrossFit competition, you could commit to re-reading all the Harry Potter books. If you spent the last five months getting your house ready to put on the market, you could dust off your DSLR and learn how to take amazing photos.

You get the idea. Give that one, over-taxed corner of your life and brain a break. It’ll still be there when we come back!

5. Disconnect after you finish your Big Thing (as much as possible)

You know how, the moment after you do your Big Thing, you start checking your email? As though that realtor/HR person/admissions person is going to reply to you in 30 seconds?

I know it is increeeeeedibly tempting to live in your inbox and on social media after you do your Big Thing. You want to see exactly how many people bought it, liked it, shared it. You’re pretty sure your application was so compelling the admissions councilor is going to accept you, via email, in five minutes.

Refreshing social media and constantly checking our phones is a recipe for anxiety. Put your phone on ‘do not disturb,’ block yourself from your email using this plugin, or just give your phone or laptop to a friend for the day!

6. Be honest about the steps you DIDN’T take to make your Big Thing successful

I worked, uh,  pretty hard earning my M.A. I attended class 95% of the time, I did 95% of the readings. Did I meet up with other students to discuss research? I did not. Did I do all the suggested reading? I did not.

When I launched Put Your Money Where Your Happy Is last month, there was a laundry list of things I didn’t do that might have made it more successful. I didn’t use Facebook ads; I didn’t create a three-part video series; I didn’t gather video testimonials from my beta testers. There are all sorts of valid (and invalid) reasons why I didn’t do these things but just acknowledging them gives me a weird sense of peace. If I didn’t get quite the result I wanted, I know when and where I can put my efforts next time.

7. Read up about what other people have done/been through

Even if your Big Thing is a success, into every life some failure and rejection must fall. Knowing that we’re not alone can be oddly, macabre-ly comforting.

I know you know this, but everyone you admire has failed at some point. Share on X Oprah Winfrey got fired. The Beatles were rejected by record labels. There is an entire website devoted to the rejection letters received for books that went on to become best-sellers.

Here, Denise Duffield-Thomas writes about how her now-million-dollar ecourse started at $27 and sold 56 copies. Here I interviewed seven of your favorite bloggers about their own professional failures – including a $40,000 mistake and workshops that never ran because not enough people signed up.

8. Remember all the things you’re good at that have NOTHING to do with this

Another thing to file under the heading of ‘I Know You Know This But I’m Telling You Anyway:’ You are not your Big Thing.

You can take work seriously without taking it personally. Share on X

You are are your degree.
You are not your sales figures.
You are not your finishing time.
You are not your social media numbers.
You are not the size of your jeans.
You are not your address or zip code.
You are not your alma mater.
You are not your job title.
You are not your relationship status.
You are not your passport stamps.

You are a little bit of all of those things, but you’re also a friend, a child, a parent, a pet owner, a human in the world who is worthy of love and respect no matter what.

I’d love to hear from you guys! When you’re finishing a Big Thing – either personally or professionally – how to you stay out of your head?

P.S. What you’re REALLY seeing when you see ‘success’ + You can be your business’s ‘Why’ 

photos by brian jimenez and meg nielson// cc

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  1. Manisha

    When I finished my Ph.D my husband and I took off for a road trip to the North Shore. I was seeking disruption of my usual routine and all related stress. Lake Superior helped out by freezing over just outside of Duluth and we had our skates with us. It was surreal and beautiful and exactly what I needed!

    I’m starting some big things in 2017. Everything you have written is very helpful. Thank you.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      That sounds perfect! <3

  2. Maggie

    I always struggle with the celebration part… my projects almost always turn out really well, but I have a hard time taking a moment to soak it in. I’m usually just on to the next one! Would love a future blog post on this.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Hi Maggie! I wrote here about actually taking a moment to enjoy our happiness.

      • Maggie

        Just what I needed to read. Thanks!

  3. Roselie

    Great timing! Almost everything you ‘ve written will be very useful to me. Thank you!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So happy to hear it, Roselie!

  4. Shannon

    When I finished my masters degree, my husband and I traveled around Europe for three weeks. (I went to grad school in England, so it was a lot easier to get there!)

    Unfortunately, the one Big Thing you can’t take a break from at all is becoming a parent! The birth is just the beginning…

  5. Kate

    I’m preparing to apply for a huge job in the new year, so I really needed to see this. Thanks so much for writing, Sarah!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Best of luck, Kate!

  6. James Amos

    Fantastic post, especially the “actually try” and “you are not your results” parts. Great stuff, and thank you.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      So glad it resonated with you, James! <3

  7. Ashley

    Sarah! I’ve been reading your blog for 8 years and this post encapsulates why I keep checking your blog week after week. Love to you.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Oh thanks! I love to hear from long-time readers! <3

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