You… are not your code. You are not your configs, your documentation, your blog posts, your conference talks, or your job.

You. Are. Not. Your. Work.

I say this as someone who spent many years of my life deriving personal value from the work I produced. It started in angst-y teenage writing – “No one understands me. These words are my true self.” – one of the dumbest of youthful ideas, possibly only surpassed by “I need to hurt to create.”

I took it into my career. “I am only good if I do a good job.” And I spent years feeling like crap about myself because my work was never as good as I felt it should be. I took other’s criticism “well”, but only because I absorbed it and later amplified it through my own lens. If something was wrong with my work, it was a personal flaw and I needed to fix it. Note taken.

This is bullshit. The sooner you internalize this and integrate it into your everyday, the better. Your job is a role you play, a hat you put on, a thing you do. The things you produce – code, writing, whatever, are at best a watered down reflection of your thoughts at the time – an artifact. (Worth noting: you are also not your thoughts. They are just things you temporarily have, but that’s a much bigger can of worms.)

Your value as a person is independent of all these things. You can produce garbage work and be an amazing person. You can produce amazing work and be a less than amazing person.

We grow up hearing “actions speak louder than words” and wrap that idea around our work reflecting who we are. I don’t think that’s the intent of the message, which has more to do with relationships and personal interaction than work.

As we develop in our craft and inherently pour more of what we view as our “selves” into our work, it becomes harder to keep those ideas separate. We learn to handle criticism from peers and managers, through code review, general feedback, or editing, by developing “thicker skin”, which in most cases just means walling ourselves off. This is the wrong metaphor and ineffective anyway. Thick skin won’t protect you from yourself. Very few of us are taught how to handle that criticism.

Turns out, rather than thick skin, you might be better off with a spam filter, something that can differentiate between commentary on your work and commentary on you. Something that can detect the intent, spirit, and context of feedback, internal or otherwise, and classify it accordingly. “These messages get delivered to the inbox to be considered for future analysis. These other, not-useful messages get delivered to the tire fire next to the empty field where my fucks grow.”

We (tech people) are generally terrible at these distinctions. Part of it is due to the visibility of our work among peers, part of it is rampant workaholism, part of it is the isolation inherent to “deep work”, part of it is that many of us belong to a generation of emotionally damaged latch-key kids. There are a multitude of reasons and they manifest themselves in a strange form of conflict aversion where we have massive reactions to criticisms of our work and don’t push back at all to actual personal attacks.

I haven’t mastered this. I struggle every day but I keep trying because I’ve felt the truth of it and the alternative is unsustainable (Like, literally, I would die.). When you’re able to have a clearer distinction between yourself and your work, and in turn, commentary on yourself or your work, things stop feeling so bad.

You don’t need a daemon to make you feel like a bad person for writing bad (whatever that actually means) code or not performing up to some standard (yours or others’) at work. Shut that shit down.

Be proud of your wins. Learn from the misses and then set them aside. If doing “good” work is actually important to you, you’ll be much better enabled if you can redirect all that emotional energy you’ve been spending criticizing yourself or dealing with others’ criticism by funneling it into being kind to yourself and seeking value elsewhere.

Photo by Daniil Kuželev on Unsplash