Skip to content

How to accomplish great things without a “performance-based identity”

The pursuit of excellence is a noble goal — but constantly having to prove your self-worth can derail your plans for success.
A group of ballet dancers standing on stage, ensuring success.
Monica Schipper / WireImage
Key Takeaways
  • A “performance-based identity” is characterized by how well we do something relative to others.
  • Three factors define a performance-based identity: a contingent self-worth, a looming fear of failure, and perfectionism.
  • A performance-based model can work, but it’s not sustainable and can negatively impact well-being, relationships, and one’s own potential.
Excerpted from THE FIRST RULE OF MASTERY: Stop Worrying about What People Think of You by Michael Gervais, PhD with Kevin Lake. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Copyright 2023 Michael Gervais. All rights reserved.

Rather than defining ourselves by what we do (professional identity) or where we do it (organizational identity), a performance-based identity is defined by how well we do something relative to others. When our identity is linked to performance, the quality of our performance defines who we are. We arrive at an understanding of who we are by comparing our performance results to others. I’m better than the vast majority of people in _____ (fill in the domain). We identify ourselves relationally. Developmental scientist and USC associate research professor Ben Houltberg, PhD, LMFT, who has extensively studied the motivations behind the pursuit of excellence, says a performance-based identity is defined by three factors: a contingent self-worth, a looming fear of failure, and perfectionism. 

We think that if we perform successfully, then we’ll feel good about ourselves. If I get that book published . . . If I can close that deal . . . If I get that promotion . . . If I get through that to-do list . . . If I make the honor roll . . . If I’m the top sales agent again this year. . . If I get nominated for an Academy Award . . . If I win our local club tournament . . . If I win Wimbledon . . . If my social post goes viral. . . . Our self-esteem becomes contingent on our performance and the outcome of the event. Achieving our performance objective provides only temporary relief, because just behind that performance lies the next one. Our self-esteem becomes the by-product of a series of “if-then” statements and we end up on a never-ending loop in pursuit of our self-worth. 

Subscribe for a weekly email

The pursuit of excellence and high performance is important. We learn about ourselves by doing difficult things and testing the boundaries of our perceived limits. But when the core motivation of pursuing excellence is proving our self-worth, mistakes, failures, opinions, and criticism are experienced as threats rather than learning opportunities. 

When our self-worth and value are based on the results of performance, it’s far easier to play it safe by not trying. If who we are is based on what we do, then the doing becomes one of the greatest threats we face. We avoid situations we think we might fail. We lose the freedom to test ourselves and see what we are made of. Perfectionism is not driven by a healthy striving for excellence as much as it is an effort to avoid the negative judgment of others and the shame of not measuring up to our identity. We long for acceptance and belonging but believe those needs can be met only if our performance meets or exceeds expectations. 

Try Big Think+ for your business
Engaging content on the skills that matter, taught by world-class experts.

People with high performance-based identities constantly ruminate and make assumptions about what other people think about them with little self-reflection. It’s an almost automatic response or reaction. The assumptions are so implicit and quick that we react without considering whether the thoughts might be a by-product of our fear and insecurity. 

Dr. Houltberg points out that identity does not operate just inside a person’s domain of expertise. “It’s a pattern of thinking that gets transferred to other areas.” It shows up in relationships. It plays out at work and in parenting. “If it’s not dealt with, it cascades throughout your life to the point that you always feel like your worth and identity are based on your performance.” 

People who develop a performance-based identity do tend to perform well by objective measures, but the identity is buttressed by external validation. The praise and opinions of others fuel the identity. A performance-based model can work, but it’s not sustainable. The exhaustive need to perform will tear at the seams of well-being, relationships, and one’s own potential. 

Performance is meant to be an expression of who we are, not a definition of who we are. When we define ourselves by performance, we build our identity on a house of sand.

An individual’s performance-based identity constitutes a core part of who they are to the point that if the identity were lost or destroyed, they would no longer feel completely themselves. 

Performance-based identity is not to be confused with self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a belief in one’s ability to perform a certain task. Performance-based identity is a belief about who you are based on the result of the task(s) performed. 

Part of the allure of a performance-based identity, unlike other work identities, is that it’s transferable. It can be carried across companies, and even across jobs, something that holds appeal in an era when we change careers and roles more frequently. 

Performance is meant to be an expression of who we are, not a definition of who we are. When we define ourselves by performance, we build our identity on a house of sand. How well we do at anything in life shifts and changes. Harnessing our sense of self to performance, and the approbation that comes with it, creates a petri dish for stress, anxiety, and depression.

Unlock potential in your business

Learn how Big Think+ can empower your people.
Request a Demo