As I plow through middle age, I look back at a track of bone-headed mistakes, hard-won triumphs, alienated relationships, accidental victories, and treasured partnerships. With that hindsight, what might I tell my younger self about success and contentment in professional life?

My friend Andy Pratt recently put this question to a ton of designers, including me: what advice would you give your younger self about “soft skills”—the non-technical stuff we need for success in our craft. I confess the question paralyzed me, because there’s so much that kid didn’t know. I started jotting things down. And more things. And more. The list was long, but one bit of advice easily floated to the top. This was my answer to Andy, the advice I wished I could beam back to my young self:

You are not your work. Your immense value as a human being is completely unrelated to the worth of the things you make. The success or failure of a project, the presence or absence of attention, the silence or applause of an audience… all of these things are useful commentary on your work—but your work is outside of you. Apply that feedback to the things you make, not to your self-worth. Success doesn’t make you a better person, and failure doesn’t make you a worse one. There is no rest or satisfaction in thinking you will finally be happy if only your work is a success.

Conflating what I push into the world with my own sense of self has easily been my biggest recurring self-sabotage. It’s an easy mistake to make; like so many, I pour a huge amount of effort and care into my creations—designs, talks, books, essays—and it sometimes feels impossible to separate them from myself. Regular Pastry Box readers know I’m not the only one who struggles to be kind to myself when things don’t pan out as I’d hoped. It remains a daily challenge to stoke my enthusiasm for the stuff I make while also maintaining healthy emotional distance from its reception. I wish I had realized the importance of that separation sooner.

As I thought about what else I’d tell young Josh Clark, the list kept growing. Some items were practical, others unabashedly self-helpy, but all were very personal—tuned to my own foibles, strengths, and experiences. Even more than most advice, of course, this means your mileage may vary with this list. But on the off chance that you’re tuned the same way I am (and was), I herewith share the rest of my list with you:

The list barely scratches the surface. There’s much more I’d tell young Josh, not that I’d expect him to listen. That headstrong young man was supremely confident in his exceptionalism and in the path he was sure he’d follow. He hadn’t yet made any big mistakes, and he somehow assumed that pattern would continue. In the end, there are things you simply have to learn yourself, through your own hard falls and soaring successes.

The worst, of course, is when you repeat the same hard fall over and over again. The good news is that I’ve accumulated these little rules to help avoid those falls. Maybe I’ll actually follow them this time.

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