Your Work is Not Your Worth

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve equated my Worth with my Work. 

This probably started the first time a teacher put a shiny gold star at the top of one of my spelling tests and the nascent over-achiever in me roared, “More like that!!” 

I know that I am more than the work I produce, but so much of my life has been spent trying to prove my worth through external acts that I’ve developed a pretty strong “work = worth” feedback loop. At times this elates me, but more often than not… It devastates me, holds me hostage to a feeling that I’m never doing enough, and creates a lot of anxiety in my life.  

I’ve written about my struggle with separating my self from my achievements before. And I’d love to say that writing posts like that completely solved my problem, but…

Those things we struggle with deeply, the well-established soul clutter, it doesn’t go away because we write one blog post about it. 

I’ve been to therapy, I’ve done mindset work, I’ve paid for coaching, and yet… 

The challenge of trying NOT to judge myself by my accomplishments still often looms large. 

Oh, how I wish the “You’re not good enough” voices in my head could be decluttered as easily as a bunch of ill-fitting sweaters tossed into a donation bag!

But that is not the case. 

And in fact, that might not even be helpful. 

Because you see, the things we struggle with are opportunities to practice becoming the people we want to be. 

So let me tell you what happened a few weeks ago…

I’m currently in a program run by my mentor and friend Leo Babauta of Zen Habits

One afternoon, Leo asked us to practice connecting to our Basic Goodness. 

Basic Goodness is like your essence. It’s the original and true state of all beings. It’s how you were when you were two years old. I imagine it like a big pool of compassion, joy, play, and creativity. It’s at the root of everything we experience. 

Even my fear, doubt, and worry stem from Basic Goodness. For example, my worry that people won’t like my social media posts stems from the Basic Goodness of wanting to connect with others. If I didn’t have that Basic Goodness, then I couldn’t have that worry. 

In other words, even the “Badness” stems from the Goodness. 

Super clear, I know. 

Leo’s Basic Goodness lesson impacted me deeply. I could feel this Goodness pulsing beneath my being and yet… I could still also feel my familiar struggle: never feeling good enough. How could these two things exist? Why couldn’t one just obliterate the other? I was tired of judging my Worth by my Work. I knew it wasn’t healthy and yet… I couldn’t seem to stop doing it for any consistent length of time.  

That night I wrote this line in my journal:

 “Until I learn to separate my Worth from my Work, every job I have will feel hard and I will always feel like I’m on the brink of failure.” 

Then I drew two boxes: 

I sighed… It was so easy on paper, but how could I ever draw a clear delineation between them in my mind? 

I turned out the lights and went to bed with that thought. 

The next morning I got up to walk my dog Rudy, still turning the troublesome Worth/Work boxes around in my mind. 

As we walked, I remembered Leo’s lesson on Basic Goodness. 

Then a thought struck me…

Perhaps Basic Goodness and my Worth are one and the same. 

How could they not be? Basic Goodness is ALL, and my Worth is most definitely ALL, as well. 


They’re the same. 

And then the boxes cracked wide open. 

Because I could suddenly see the glaring flaw in my 2-box design…

My Worth and my Work are nowhere near the same size. 

My Worth is immense, infinite, and all-encompassing. My Work cannot even begin to come close to it. 

My Worth is like the ocean and my Work is like a teacup full of water. 

My Worth envelops all and here I was trying to put it into a little box **of equal freaking size** to my Work. 

That’s kind of like saying that your Love for your spouse and the Valentine’s Day card you gave them last February are equally valuable. No sir. 

At this point in the walk I was really glad it was early and few people were around because tears of relief started trickling down my face.

My Worth/Work boxes were destroyed. I didn’t need to try to do some sort of mental gymnastics to draw a line between them anymore. They were not even in the same arena. 

And yet… my metaphor-loving mind wanted a new way to conceptualize my understanding. 

Was my Worth an ocean and my Work a wave? Kind of, but no. 

Was my Worth the Earth and my Work a tree? Getting closer…

A tree. 

I looked around at the trees lining the sidewalk in my Ohio neighborhood. It was early March, and most of them were still bare from winter. 

I thought about how these trees stood throughout the winter, unadorned, and how in a few weeks Spring would add new leaf buds to their branches. The leaves would mature throughout Summer and then in Autumn they would fall off and new ones would appear next Spring. The simple passage of seasons. 

The leaves come and they go. But the tree stays. 

I had my metaphor. 

My Worth is the tree. My Work is the leaves. The leaves are not permanent and they are not the entirety of the tree, but very importantly… they are imbued with the tree’s essence. 

You see, my Worth and my Work are not separate entities that live in different boxes. They are part of the same organism, in relationship to and in support of each other, but at a vastly different scale.  

The leaf can’t exist without the tree, just like my Work could not exist without my Worth. It must spring from somewhere, just like a leaf must form on a branch.

I fell immediately in love with this metaphor. It explained so much and it aligned Work and Worth in a healthier order. Insead of expecting my Work (aka leaves) to prove my Worth (aka tree), I could start with my Worth (tree) and let it support my Work (leaves). 

In other words… The Worth-to-Work corridor could become a one-way street that started with Worth and ended with Work, not the other way around. This felt very relieving to me. 

Except for one little problem…

That isn’t the way trees and leaves actually interact. 

Because photosynthesis. 

The tree doesn’t just feed the leaf. The leaf feeds the tree, too, giving it the nutrients it needs to survive. 

In other words, the leaf and the tree feed each other symbiotically. 

Ugh… I felt like I was back at ground zero.  

Because the thought of letting my Work feed my Worth in any way felt dangerously close to the “Work = Worth” dilemma that I’d been trying to avoid by making those damn boxes in the first place. 

I’d spent so many years agonizing over my achievements and my work, trying to accumulate enough of them to show that I was good enough. And here I thought I’d finally hit upon a metaphor that would crack the puzzle wide open and now I was back to the beginning. 

I was tempted to give up metaphorizing. Perhaps it was a waste of time and I should just go back to normal thoughts like what I needed to do that day.  

But then I realized an important factor I hadn’t considered in my metaphor…

The outside observer. 

The person walking by the tree with her dog, observing the leaves and branches or the lack thereof. 

And the biggest piece of the puzzle clicked into place…

The trees and the leaves don’t give a good goddamn if someone walking by likes them or not. 

The Worth-to-Work corridor is not a one-way street. 

It’s an internal feedback loop that exists entirely within ourselves. 

The tree produces the leaf, the leaf feeds the tree, the leaf eventually falls aways, new leaves come, the cycle continues, the tree stays there steadily throughout decades of seasons. 

And none of this depends upon anybody giving the tree approval. 

I could walk by and say, “Hey, nice leaves!’ 

The tree doesn’t care. 

I could say, “Dammit, leaves! You’re messing up my landscaping!”

The tree does. not. care. 

Because what I or anyone else thinks of the leaves won’t stop that tree from producing leaves. That’s what the trees do. Season after season after season. 

That’s how our Worth really operates. 

It’s steady. It is the trunk, the roots grounding into the soil, the sturdy branches reaching toward the sky. It is what holds us to the earth and reaches us toward the heavens. It’s the core of all of us. It is our Basic Goodness. 

From this place, we produce leaves. Work. Memos. Emails. Blog posts. Lesson plans. Budget reports. Dinner menus. Soccer schedules. Well-balanced meals. Holiday gatherings. Coffee dates with friends. Board game nights. 

Like the leaves on the tree, there are many types of Work. And they change and fall away and grow anew as the seasons of our life change. 

And if this Work is imbued with our Worth, it is inherently good. It photosynthesizes. It creates energy that feeds our Worth in the same way the leaf feeds the tree. 

But let us never, never think that any of this is dependent upon the approval of an outside observer. 

That our Worth could be determined or affected by someone giving our Work a thumbs up or thumbs down or A+ or failing grade. 

We are trees. And trees do not care if people like their leaves. 

So where does this leave us? (Pun totally intended!)

When I walk Rudy nowadays, I try to remember to look at the trees. To remember that I am like them: sturdy, strong, grounded into the earth. 

And when the spring comes to Ohio, I will look at their leaves – watching that tree’s good work flourish on previously winter-bared branches. 

And in the height of summer, when the leaves form a canopy of shade above my head, I’ll marvel at how the leaves and the tree are feeding each other in such a beautiful way. 

And in Autumn, I’ll watch the leaves turn colors and fall down to the ground and crunch beneath my feet and start doing new work, nourishing the soil and protecting the tree throughout Winter, completing an essential loop that allows new leaves to grow again in the spring. 

If we ever think we aren’t part of nature, we are fooling ourselves. 

The answer to all of our most troubling questions can be found by looking around at the natural order of things. 

Because it is the order of us, too. 

We are each a Worthy tree producing good leaves of Work – a feedback loop that exists entirely within ourselves. We do not need the approval of others to know that what we are doing is what we’re meant to do. We do not need acceptance to keep doing our good Work. It is the only Work we can do. It is what we were made to do. It is for us, created by us, from the most important part of us… our Worth. Our steady deep roots reaching deep into the ground, our strong core, our beautiful branches. 

It is all within us. 

But sometimes… it helps to look without. So take your dog for a walk. Look at a tree. Feel better. And know that you’re exactly the way you’re meant to be. 

To knowing you’re always worthy, 

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