When you have a good day, who gets the credit? How about a bad day? What was the cause? Do you consider what happens in your life to be the result of external forces? Or does everything that happens to you come from within?
Recently I came across an article on Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings site about confidence and self-esteem. The article was more accurately a review of the book “Letters to a Young Artist” by Anna Deveare Smith. To make everything even more confusing, the article led to me yet another article about another book with an essay on self-respect. The latter book “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a collection of essays by Joan Didion.
Whew! All that to get to the following quote
Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.
— Joan Didion “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
The quote as well as the two reviews resonated with me. They recalled some of my early struggles trying to get a business started. I can see the same struggle occurring in some friends recently as well.
Think about the following question in regards to who is responsible for your life and the events you live. Do you have a good or bad day based on things that happen or is your day controlled by you? When I answered by accepted that everything that happens in and to my life is my responsibility I became happier, more confident, and my self-esteem increased greatly.
I thought I’d share some things from when I first started working for myself and talk about self-esteem and self-confidence in general. I’ll close with some thoughts about how powerful it can be to accept responsibility.
Going into Business
I always wanted to be in business for myself. The thought of working in an office for someone else never appealed to me. Both of my parents owned business. They were different businesses with different levels of success. My mom’s business was one that allowed her to work from home and set her own hours to an extent. In many ways it was similar to any freelance service based business.
Since my first job, I never felt I had certain skills that would lead me to rise within a corporate structure. Office politics are not my thing. I simply don’t want to play. I prefer to do my work as best as I can and if possible help others around me do their jobs as best as they can.
I’d watch as people who didn’t work as well or as hard as me get promoted because they knew the right people. I got to work harder without additional compensation. I’ve quit many a job with little to no notice because of this.
The first time I thought seriously about my own business was about 20 years ago. At that time I thought of offering writing and editing services. This was pre-internet in the sense that most people weren’t using it yet.
A book with tips on how to start a writing and editing business talked about printed documents and face-to-face meetings with me dressed in suit and tie. It talked about having regular office hours and all sorts of things I didn’t want to do. I was going into business in many respects not to do these things.
I never did start that business and looking back I can see that in addition to all the things I didn’t want to do, I lacked confidence in my ability to make the business a success, which was the real reason that business never opened its doors.
It was another decade before I again thought seriously about running my own business. I was a more confident person, though still unsure. Fortunately a friend was in a similar situation and together we decided to start a web design business.
Having someone to lean on made me feel more confident and I imagine it was the same for her. The business later failed, but the year or so we were in business showed me I could do this on my own. It gave me the last bit of confidence I needed and here I am some 10 or so years later.
A pivotal moment for me in all this self-confidence building occurred when I moved across the country. I moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a place to stay or the prospect of a job. Worst of all I didn’t have enough money to last more than a month and a half or two at best.
I had purposely thrown myself to the wolves so to speak. Something inside me always trusted I could find a way to survive and then succeed if I was thrown completely into the unknown. I didn’t really know, but I thought I would come through it ok. Part of moving without a safety net was to test myself and see if I could indeed survive and succeed.
My confidence before this test may not have been there, but it was there after. Each day I survived to see another, my confidence grew. My self-esteem grew. I forced myself into a situation that would force me to survive starting near zero. After that everything seems doable.
The main thing that led me to the more confident place was something that had always been difficult for me. For a long time I gave too much credit to external forces for the direction of my life. I could easily see how others caused my problems, but it was much harder to see my own contribution to those problems.
When I finally was able to step outside myself and see my contributions and more important take responsibility for them, every aspect of my life improved.
Accepting responsibility grants you greater control over your success or failure. It motivates you greatly when there’s no one else to blame. It’s that responsibility for both the good and bad that is now my favorite part of being in business.
It’s scary to fly without a safety net, but it’s also very empowering in so many ways beyond and including business.
Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence
You have to accept responsibility for everything that involves you even when it’s hard to see how you could possibly be responsible.
Understand that self-esteem and self-confidence can only arise internally. When you attempt to derive confidence from external sources, any confidence you gain is illusion. When you seek approval from others you’re asking them to give you confidence. It means you also give them the ability to take it away instantly.
When you try to gain confidence through others it leaves you at their mercy. It leaves you at the mercy of employers and clients, market forces and opinions.
When your esteem and confidence originate internally no one can take them away. You always have that reserve to draw from. Self-esteem and self-confidence derive from within and with them you understand the value you bring to others which is vital for running a business.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore the opinion of others. Their opinions can be important. You can learn from them to grow better. You can gain insight seeing things through another perspective. Opinions aren’t judgements about you, your work, or anything else. Don’t allow other people to set your value and decide what you’re worth. Only you can do that.
Yours is ultimately the only opinion that matters in regards to your career and your life. Listen to the suggestions of others, but know their suggestions aren’t any more valid than your own and that in the end it’s your responsibility to decide which to follow.
Your Life is a Result of Your Actions and Reactions
It can be a scary thing to completely accept responsibility and understand that what happens internally has a much greater impact on your life than what happens externally. External forces will always be there.
Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.
— John Lennon
Life throws stuff at you both good and bad. From most perspectives it’s not always equal amounts of good and bad from person to person and perhaps it truly isn’t. Still everyone experiences both good and bad. You might have a package left for you, but it’s left out in the rain and by the time you get to it, it’s ruined. You might just as easily come home to a package in good condition.
The point is the environment isn’t picking and choosing to give bad things to some people to give them bad lives. It’s our response to the external that drives our lives. It’s not whether you win or lose a client. It’s how you respond to the that event, regardless of the outcome, that determines your happiness.
For example say you work in an office, which you might very well do. One morning you wake up late. Maybe the alarm didn’t go off. Maybe you slept through it. You’re going to be late for work so you skip the usual shower and breakfast and race out the door.
Rushing to work you drive more erratic than usual. You almost get into an accident when someone cuts you off in traffic. You shake your fist and curse at the driver as you swerve wildly around his car. You arrive to work in an irritated mood and your responses to co-workers are snippy. They respond in kind. Most leave you alone for the day.
You make more mistakes than usual while working. Your curse that you got the difficult project. Two hours later you realize the instructions weren’t clear and you now have to start again from the beginning. Ugh.
And so on.
One irritation leads to another and when you reflect back on the day it was certainly a bad one. It’s easy to see all the things that happened to you. An alarm that didn’t work, crazy drivers, obnoxious co-workers, and poor instructions in your project. They all conspired to give you a bad day.
What’s much more difficult to accept is your own choices and how they more than anything led to you having a bad day. You didn’t have to rush to work or act snippy with co-workers. You could have and should have paid more attention to the instructions for your project.
The point is bad stuff happened, but it was really your reaction to what happened that determined your day. Your reaction to sleeping late fed back into the environment leading it to react in kind. You could have called work and let them know you’d be a little late and avoided much of what happened.
I realize this is an example about minor things, but hopefully it makes the point. Ultimately you’re responsible for everything that occurs in your life and when you accept that responsibility you can respond to the environment in positive ways leading you to have a better life. Whatever life throws at you can be turned into something positive or negative. The choice is yours.
Creative work doesn’t come with exact numbers and answers. There are ways we can measure success and failure, but even then it’s never absolute. There’s always a solution that could have worked better.
We aren’t handed a problem and then look up the solution in a design solutions book. The truth is even the simplest website arises from a complex system of decision-making.
It’s a difficult thing to accept you won’t know with certainty if you’ve come up with a good design until long after the project is out of your hands. To some degree all design is subjective and you just won’t know when it’s time to decide on a solution to implement.
You have to have confidence in your work and in yourself. You have to be able to make the determination that the work is above an acceptable level. You should accept there’s probably a better solution, but yours is also good.
The self-confidence and self-esteem to do that, starts with you. It starts with accepting responsibility for everything that touches you in some way or another. When you accept that every aspect of your life is something you can change for better or worse and when you take responsibility for making those changes, you gain self-esteem and self- confidence.
It may seem strange to say that if you get struck by lightening it’s still your responsibility, but it is. You couldn’t predict the strike in advance, of course, but you could pay attention to weather reports or look out the window to know there’s lightning in the area. You still chose to walk outside. Again there’s no way you could predict lightning striking you, but you still had to take certain actions to be in the location where the lightning struck.
I know I’ve been much happier and much more confident in myself since I accepted responsibility and saw the world in a new way.
Self-esteem is that which gives us a feeling of well-being, a feeling that everything’s going to be all right — that we can determine our own course and that we can travel that course. It’s not that we travel the course alone, but we need the feeling of agency — that if everything were to fall apart, we could find a way to put things back together again.
— Anna Deavere Smith “Letters to a Young Artist”
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