You Have to Find the Value in Your Work

I think a lot about where confidence comes from, and why sometimes I’m absolutely full of confidence about the work I’m doing (creative work, Day Job work, and everything else) while other times everything I’m working toward feels meaningless.

It’s amazing how quickly these two mindsets can switch back and forth in the same week, or even the same day, even when nothing’s really changed.  I’m still the same person, I still have the same job, I’m still working on the same novel, and I’m still trying to get my writing out there in the same ways.  Big successes usually deliver equally large boosts of confidence, while rejections usually set me back more than I care to admit.  But most of the time, though, there’s no reason at all for my change in attitude: it just happens.

I carry around a pin with the phrase Attitude is Everything—yeah, I know it’s from the book of the same name, but I won’t discuss it here since I haven’t read it.  What I’ve learned, though, is that most of what we experience depends on both our personalities and on how we see the world.  Our perspectives aren’t a matter of saying “I’m choosing to be happy today” or “I’m choosing to be depressed today,” since keeping the attitude you want is more complicated than choosing cupcake flavors at the bakery.  Our personalities have been with us for a long time, which means that our responses to the world are deeply ingrained.  This in turn means that our attitudes at any given time depend on a lot of things we can’t control.

I also think a lot about jobs I’ve had where I was able to keep a positive attitude and maintain my confidence most or all of the time.  Usually this was because I had a fair amount of work to do (but not too much), coworkers and a boss who liked having me around, and I earned a paycheck that was decent enough for the work I did.  More often than not, at the end of the day I was able to look back on what I’d accomplished and think, “Man, you did well today—you made something worthwhile.”

I used to get this feeling a lot when I was teaching.  I also got it when I stopped invasive milfoil from entering the lake where I used to check boats (twice!), whenever I finished painting a room that came out looking great, and at any number of other jobs when I felt really rewarded by my work.

I’ve also gotten this feeling a lot with my writing, when I’ve put the finishing touches on a piece or even just drafted a great paragraph.  In my personal work I also feel rewarded when I check things off in my schedule book as proof that I’ve accomplished something that day.

My best feeling, though, comes when I’ve been able to share my writing with people in ways that made them think, laugh, or want to talk about something similar they’ve felt before.  When this happens, I feel the same sense of value I do when I’ve done something great at a Day Job.

I also feel the polar opposite at times, especially when my writing isn’t going well or I’ve been turned down for something or people haven’t been interested in my work, making me feel like what I do has no value, which is the opposite of how I’d like to feel.

Creative work is hard because the moments where you honestly realize that your work has value can be few and far between—especially when you’re just starting out and have to develop your craft, your reputation, and your audience.  When you’re working a job that offers constant rewards (e.g., more rooms to paint or more invasive milfoil to find), it’s easy to get that uplifting valued feeling every day so that even when you experience setbacks you still know intrinsically that your work is important.

(On a side note, this is why I’ve often felt at my lowest on weekends, or during times when I had nothing productive to do.  I’d lose touch with that rewarding feeling that comes from doing something of value, and without that boost I’d start to feel dejected.)

I’m not going to lie—money’s also a big factor.  When you get paid for doing a job, it’s not only a material reward, it’s actual proof that what you did was valuable to at least one other person—the person doing the paying.  And that’s another reason why earning money feels good.

We live in a world where we (usually) equate making a lot of money with people who are worthy of our respect: people like doctors, professors, skilled craftsmen, successful business owners, and people working in complicated STEM fields.  On the flip side, society tends to (wrongly, and in an overgeneralized manner) look down on people who don’t make a lot of money: people like housekeepers, fast-food workers, data entry clerks, and farm workers.

Not everyone who does creative work wants to make money off of it, but not having a paycheck to go with your hard work can make it seem like the world lumps you into that second category with the people who aren’t worth anything.

The same thing happens when you don’t have like-minded people to share your work with.  The road out there can be a lonely one.

I don’t have a cut and fast answer for how to deal with this problem, since hopeful clichés like “You just have to keep going!” rarely (i.e., never) help us when we’ve reached a low point.  Maybe some sounder advice is to find more ways of sharing your work with people who care about it so you can place yourself in a position to remember how the work you do can touch people.  (I won’t lie—that’s part of the reason I keep this blog.)

Or—and this is a big one—maybe one reason to hang on to certain Day Jobs is that they can provide that added boost of rewarding value that you can carry over into your creative life.  When you really nail something at your Day Job it feels good to say, “Man, I rocked this today!” and take that same momentum home when it’s time to work on something that doesn’t yield immediate gratification.

Plus, you know, getting that Day Job paycheck is pretty kick-ass too, both because it helps you pay for stuff, and because it provides that regular boost of confidence.

 

A Final Thought

We can’t rely on superficial Day Job confidence boosts forever, though—eventually they’ll get old and leave us chasing cheap rewards that have long lost their meaning.  While Day Job-related confidence boosts can do a lot to improve your life outlook, you have to carry that outlook into your creative work or whatever else you want to do that holds real value, because Day Jobs wouldn’t be Day Jobs if they weren’t helping us achieve these greater things in some indirect way.

You have to hang on to the things that remind you that your work has value, and if you can do that in a way that’s not damaging or self-destructive, you should go for it.

Eventually, though, when the time comes, you’re going to have to pull that feeling entirely from the work itself.  And that’ll be the best feeling of all.


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