Take an inventory of your top ten memories

There’s a saying, “You’re only as good as your last performance.” For example, an author might say, “You’re only as good as your last article.”

That’s all good until you experience a setback—or perhaps an unfortunate streak of them. If you buy too heavily into the statement, “You’re only as good as your last performance,” you may experience a tendency to thrash. While it can be a motivating experience, trying harder can also sometimes backfire.

As you try harder, your work may still not reflect that effort. Your work isn’t producing the results that it should be. Some factors will be in your control, others outside of it. You experience worry; you start to wonder if you’re developing a slump, or if you’ll ever be good again. (See also predictive processing theory and self-fulfilling prophecies.)

A short-term memory is brittle. A long-term appreciation for yourself and your work is flexible.

While your recent performances are important, it helps to develop a longer-term memory of your extensive body of work. In The Confident Mind, Dr. Nate Zinsser shares an exercise which he calls the Top Ten. Here are some excerpts of the prompt:

Think back to when you first started participating in your chosen field (from here on in I’ll use this term, chosen field, to refer to whatever it is that matters most to you and whatever it is that you desire to excel in—your chosen sport, profession, etc.). What did you enjoy about that activity? What made it cool, or fun, or interesting for you? It may be hard to put a finger on it but I’m sure there’s a feeling, a rather special feeling, back there in your memory. Center yourself on that feeling and just sit with it for a moment. What’s the “picture” that comes right along with that feeling, the still photo that pops up or the short video that plays in your mind as you feel it? Whatever it is, that’s the first deposit into your mental bank account, the seed money that will grow into a personal fortune.…

Let’s mine your past for some forgotten gems and deposit those valuable memories into your bank account. This is an exercise I call the Top Ten. As the title suggests, it’s about bringing the ten most-encouraging, most-energizing memories out of the dark recess of your mind and polishing up those jewels of thought so they radiate their brilliance back to you. Get out a blank piece of paper, put “My Top Ten” at the top of the page, and write out a list of ten accomplishments in your chosen field….

If you’re a “white-collar athlete,” one of the zillions of people who work daily to turn the wheels of the economy, compose a list of the projects you’ve completed, the clients you’ve served well, the contributions you’ve made to your organization’s success. If you’re a student, put down the papers you’ve gotten your best grades on, the compliments you’ve received from teachers, the exciting ideas or concepts you’ve learned.

Your list need not be awe-inspiring or jaw-dropping to serve as valuable deposits into your mental bank account. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t won a world championship or a Nobel Prize, or even your local tennis club’s annual Fourth of July tournament. Whatever you accomplished in your own life qualifies.

Here’s an example Zinsser shares:

This inventory of memories can also appear as a happiness folder, a confidence portfolio, or a brag sheet.

As you start mapping out your Top Ten, you’ll also start getting hints to what your strengths are. As Dr. Julie Gurner writes, when you’re good at the work, you experience better outcomes, you gain more positive and valuable feedback, and you feel better about your abilities; that’s how you develop confidence. She writes, “At first you’ll just feel really good about what you’re doing. Then, you’ll crave more.

“The confidence to take these leaps is how people scale.”

To be clear, no job title is permanent; you continue to earn it by doing the work. You do need to write in order to call yourself a writer. You need to make art to call yourself an artist. You need to be making one collection per season to call yourself a fashion designer. 

You are both only as good as your last performance, and your entire body of work. Oscillate between the two.

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