Psychology shows it’s a big mistake to base our self-worth on our professional achievements

Psychology shows its a big mistake to base our self worth on our professional achievementsWRITTEN BY Emily Esfahani Smith

May 24, 2017

This article has been re-shared from it’s original source, Quartz (


Contemporary society has some very wrong-headed ideas about what constitutes success. Popular thinking holds that a person who went to Harvard is smarter and better than someone who attended Ohio State; that a father who stays at home with his kids is contributing less to society than a man who works at a Fortune 500 company; that a woman with 200 Instagram followers must be less valuable than a woman with two million.

This notion of success isn’t just elitist and misguided; it actively hurts those who believe it. For my book, The Power of Meaning, I spoke to many people who defined their identity and self-worth by their educational and career achievements. When they succeeded, their lives felt meaningful, and they were happy. But when they failed or struggled, the only thing that gave their lives value was gone—and so they fell into despair, and became convinced they were worthless.

Writing my book taught me that being a successful person isn’t about career achievement or having the most toys. It’s about being a good, wise, and generous human being. Cultivating these qualities, my research showed, brings people a deep and enduring sense of fulfillment, which in turn helps them to face setbacks with resilience and meet death with peace. These are the criteria that we should be using to gauge our own success in life and the success of others, especially our children.

Redefining success

According to the great 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson, in order to lead a meaningful life, humans must master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development. In adolescence, for example, creating a sense of identity is the key developmental challenge. In young adulthood, the primary goal is to forge intimate bonds with others. And in adulthood, the most significant task is developing generativity—that is, cultivating the next generation, or helping other people to accomplish their goals and reach their potential.

In the book The Life Cycle Completed, Erikson tells a joke about a dying old man to make a profound point about generativity:

As he lay there with his eyes closed, his wife whispered to him, naming every member of the family who was there to wish him shalom. “And who,” he suddenly asked, sitting up abruptly, “who is minding the store?” This is expresses the spirit of adulthood which the Hindus call “the maintenance of the world.”