Picture a woman. Nicest person ever. She’d do anything for you. Her husband’s not the nicest, especially when he’s drinking. She moves out. She moves back in. “It’s my childhood,” she says. “I’m working on it. But I just can’t believe I deserve anything better.” Does she?

Picture a man. Not the nicest person ever. He stole from hundreds of people. He promised to send them products and took their money without delivering. He ended up in jail–for something unrelated–and died there in his mid-50s. Did he get what he deserved?

Picture a woman. Don’t know if she was the nicest or not. Don’t know if her husband was, either, but she needed something else. She found it online. The online lover became a real-life one, complete with a gambling problem. The new lover cleaned out the woman’s bank accounts, maxed out the woman’s credit cards, and left her broke and divorced and emotionally shattered.  She sued, but the legal system couldn’t touch the lover. Did the woman deserve that?  How about the lover? The husband?

Picture a man. He can be a nice guy, sometimes. He works hard for his boss. He’s put in charge of the business. As soon as he’s got access to bank accounts, he funnels the business’s money into his new drug habit. His former boss finds out, declines to prosecute, and helps pay for counseling instead. Did the man get what he deserved? How about the boss?

Picture a woman. Maybe the nicest person ever, maybe not. She goes to night school, works hard for good grades, gets a scholarship to graduate school. In graduate school, she meets a husband. They fall madly in love and have healthy beautiful children and live in peace and joy. Did she get what she deserved?

If I tell you she had a faithful, handsome, humorous, gentle fiancee who supported her through college and coached her through grad school entrance exams, but that she broke up with him immediately after receiving her acceptance letter, does that change your answer?

“Deserving” is a slippery moral concept. What’s more, “deserving” invites an invisible audience to pass judgment upon you. Those TV ads that show a big scoop of chocolate ice cream and promise that you “deserve” it? Says who?

Here’s the takeaway:

In order to accept that you “deserve” something (good or bad), you must also accept the value that somebody else has placed upon you.

Once or twice in my life, that has worked out very well.

I was a hot mess through grad school. In my final year, one of our deans intuited that I was a mess and made me his personal project.  He encouraged me to write a paper, which he arranged for publication. He met with me for career advising. And he took me to a lunch, during which he laid out, so kindly and encouragingly, that I had a bright career ahead but I needed to be able to network. That meant meeting people and putting myself out there. In an “I can do this!” sort of way.

I spent the lunch choking back tears, fully persuaded that I didn’t deserve such a career, didn’t deserve his interest (let alone the interest of any networking target), didn’t even deserve the shells-and-cheese congealing on a plate in front of me.

But eventually, reluctantly, I accepted his assessment.  It was time to step up. If only for economic reasons. A failure to engage with my new life would mean a waste of all the choices I’d made before and a hella lot of student loan money.

Stepping up was stinky rotten hard. It felt fake every time. But I did it, again and again. And, in time, I came to believe that I had some worth. Maybe even “deserved” success.

Dean Paul R. Joseph died within a year of that lunch, from a sudden-onset brain tumor. He was 7 years older than I am today.

If I was a judging type, I’d be mighty inclined to say that he did not deserve that.

For myself, whether or not I’ve “deserved” the long-term effects of his interest and encouragement, my future flowed from that lunch. And the futures of my children did, as well.

My friend who wonders what you are worth, I challenge you, today, to think about your own story. Are you writing it yourself? Or are you letting others write it, based on what they think, or once thought, that you “deserve”?

You decide what you’re worth. You set your own value. You say what’s worth fighting for. You may not ever get what you “deserve.”  Or you might.  But, either way, you’re likely to secure a large part of whatever you’ve decided is worth the battle.

Featured image (c) 2014 Heaton Companies.