Rationale, not feelings, as your guide to good work

I’ve had a couple of weird weeks work-wise.

By most measures, they have been successful. We’ve had a publication go live, we won an award, we delivered successful training, collaborations were formed (I use ‘we’ here specifically because all were genuine team efforts). These successes were culminations of hard work over many months and years.

But it was almost like, the more success that came my way, the less confident I felt about myself, the work and the more negative I felt. You might have heard the term ‘imposter syndrome’ – the nagging persistent thoughts that one will be exposed as an incompetent fraud, despite clear evidence to the contrary. The more successes we had, the more of a fraud I felt. It was strange. As congratulations were coming my way, my brain was unable to process them.

That experience is quite common. I see it a lot in the academic setting. I frequently meet people doing amazing work who struggle to accept any compliments or congratulations about that work. They seem unable to celebrate the wins.

There are many things driving this response. Some of them are admirable. People can be humble and recognise that opportunity and luck and being surrounded by supportive others have been instrumental in their success and therefore don’t wish to hog the attention. They may be quick to point out the fact it was a ‘team effort’ and be reluctant to be seen as though they are claiming the adulation for themselves.

But some people (seemingly me included) struggle to celebrate their successes. Whatever the reasons (personality, upbringing, mental health issues), they struggle to find joy or pride or happiness in their success. It is almost like the success brings them more pain, if anything. At least in that period of time just after a project where the congratulations might be coming in.

I do suspect that for a number of people, there is a point where they are able to look back and feel a sense of pride at what has been achieved. They might not have been able to celebrate it at the time because:

  • perhaps they felt the work wasn’t finished
  • there were aspects of the work they wanted to do differently
  • they were mentally exhausted from doing the work
  • they felt the work had been misunderstood

I think this might be the case for me. It can be a while before I can look back at work and feel satisfied and content with what was achieved. This paper took a shit-tonne of work and I remember being totally neutral about it at the time, almost dismissive. But now when I look back at it, years later, I am super proud of what we achieved.

This might be worth reminding yourself of when you are in the closing stages of an important project. The inability to feel positive emotions about the work at the time could be mistaken as a sign the work isn’t worth finishing or not worth celebrating.

You may need, at these times, to focus instead on the rationale for the work – the logic of why it was done in the first place. If that logic and rationale is still sound, there is reason to celebrate its completion and release. Just be mindful that the emotional rewards for the work might not present themselves for a significant period of time.

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