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The Top Two Sources of Self-Worth

The Top Two Sources of Self-Worth
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From how we dress, to the way we measure our words, to the actions we take we are always measuring our thoughts, words and actions using a societal lens.

Per se, there is nothing wrong with the human need for love and belonging. But if all you do is measure your success in terms of what people think of you, you’re in for a lot of disappointment and insecurity. You will probably leave the planet after a long life without leaving even a trace of legacy.  The good news is, it is possible to feel deeply happy and successful without surrendering your life to the likes and opinions of others.  To understand how, let’s first meet Jim and Jenny. 

Jim went to a competitive school where you either had to be very popular yourself, or belong to a group headed by a popular student. An average student with no exceptional talent for sport or anything extracurricular, Jim realised early in life how important social perception was, and did everything in his power to portray himself correctly. After high school, Jim went to college and acquired a degree in economics and statistics because he was told it was a good course to pursue. Upon graduating, he applied for several jobs across industries and managed to join the young professionals programme in a prestigious and powerful government agency.  Over the next few years, he steadily worked his way through the ranks up to middle management.  He now has a lot of power over the people and organiszations his agency regulates, and is not shy of using it.  It is not easy to work with him because he always tries to find faults in applications that come to his desk for approval. If you manage to upset him, you can forget about getting your application approved, without which, you cannot continue business.

Jenny too started out in a similar school environment and pursued a similar career as Jim in the government.  However, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get Jenny upset about anything. No matter what the circumstances, Jenny always has a smile on her face, and rarely ever loses her temper.  Furthermore, she goes out of her way to help her constituents, and is forever thankful for the opportunity to serve.  Jenny has taken it upon herself to understand the pain points of her constituents, and even though it is not part of her job responsibilities, she is currently fighting a hard battle to facilitate a change in legislation that will make lives significantly better.  She has strong forces working against her, but she is unrattled.  She continues to strive, and without worrying about possible negative consequences to her personally, plans to keep going until she succeeds.   Strangely, even though she works long hours in a stressful job where the pay is ordinary, Jenny is genuinely happy and comfortable.  


The difference between the two is the source of their self-worth

Jim derives his self-worth from what others think of him, and from how much power he can wield over others.  The formal authority of his position is the main source of his self-esteem, and so he is ever ready to attack anyone who questions it.  In fact, you don’t even have to question it.  Often, Jim imagines injury when there is none.  He also has a difficult relationship with his spouse, and without knowing it, often pours out his personal frustrations on his constituents by being unnecessarily difficult with them.  

Jenny, on the other hand, derives her sense of self-worth from her personal values, and a values-based purpose. In other words, Jenny is a steward leader. A steward leader is motivated by genuine desire and persistence to create a collective better future.  Somewhere along the way, she realiszed that the whole point of living a life is to make a positive contribution to society, and that the joys of giving are far greater and longer-lasting than the temporary pleasures of receiving.  So, she has now made it her life’s purpose to facilitate the change of legislation she is working so hard on, and until she is able to achieve that, she goes out of her way to help her constituents in every way she can.  She considers her position and authority as a gift – a gift that must be used to help others, not to maximisze her own pleasure or net-worth.  Like Jim, Jenny too cares about what others think of her, but she does not allow that to run her life.  She makes decisions based on her values and purpose rather than through the societal lens.  As such, she is much more comfortable in her own skin, and does not allow criticism and opposition to hurt her personally. 

I have been studying human behaviour and leadership for almost three decades now, and I find most people, with varying degrees, are either a Jim or a Jenny.  I have also noticed that there is hardly any correlation between power/material success and true happiness. As such, I meet a lot of very unhappy Jim’s who are difficult with people for no rhyme or reason. Their frail ego easily gets hurt, and they become nasty to retrieve their self-esteem.  In fact, recent research confirms that power can damage the brain. One neuroscience study found that some brain functionality, like the ability of “mirroring” which enables empathy, gets anesthetiszed in powerful people.  Another study found people under the influence of power become more impulsive, less risk-aware, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. 

I also meet a lot of Jenny’s who are happy and content even without the trappings of material success.  It’s not that I don’t meet rich and successful Jenny’s –- there are plenty of them around too.  But their sense of well-being and success does not depend on money or authority.  Steward leaders like Jenny are so happy pursuing their purpose, and so entrenched in living their values that they don’t feel the need to compare themselves with others, or to use power indiscriminately, to feel good about themselves. 

The good news is, it is never too late to start reflecting on one’s values and purpose. We have developed the Steward Leadership Compass to help you start your steward leadership journey. Like Jenny, you can uncover your stewardship purpose and do well by doing good.   We all owe it to ourselves to do the same. 



Posted 31 January 2023

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