Going beyond work as identity

I have four nieces and two children and all of them are involved in some early stage of the process known as Real Life: college, jobs, first apartments, etc. Because of my very particular set of skills (channeling Liam Neeson in Taken, here), I have occasionally been involved in helping them: I review and edit applications and early drafts of essays and cover letters, I dispense life and work advice when asked. I love my nieces and especially my kids more than I can say; helping them succeed makes me happy.

For my nieces who have entered the working world, their experiences, and especially their first reactions to stress and ambiguity in the work environment, bring back cringe-worthy memories from my own early working days. I well remember my first couple of jobs out of college; I was living in New York City at the time, which is a wonderful place in which to spend your crazy, more risk-taking years. I worked hard, often for many hours at a stretch, and I played hard. I also vividly remember thinking that I didn’t really know how to do anything and no one was going to guide me, I remember feeling devastated about the few times I was yelled at because I felt it was completely unjust and also, I hate hate hate being yelled at. Looking back on those times, I think it is highly likely that my boss or whoever it was who yelled was probably just having a bad day.

During those years, I had terrific moments of feeling young and limitless and I had an equal number of moments of feeling like absolute shit, like I was clueless about where I was going or what I was supposed to be doing with my life. I had absolutely no idea how much work was supposed to be a part of my identity, because I had no idea what form or shape my career was going to take and what “work fulfillment” even meant.  (I also had no idea what was going to happen to me personally–where I would end up living, whether I would stay single or get married, etc.)

Then, in my thirties, I settled into “communications” as what I do, and after that, for the next two decades, work became rather a LARGE part of my identity—my job informed how I defined myself, what made me feel good about myself, how others viewed me, etc. It wasn’t the ONLY part of my identity; I was also growing into other parts of my identity, like spouse and parent—but it was undeniably BIG.

And then, starting around my late forties, a different phase of real life happened. In the work environment, I was ascending the ladder to upper management. (Insert Scooby-Doo sound effect: RUH ROH) My husband and I were working more, traveling more, and feeling the stress of a ton more responsibility than we used to have. Digital technology advances sped up work processes and deadlines into a relentless blur. It was hard to tell what was truly urgent, versus what was a competitive fire drill. And on the personal side, there was also more stress: bad things like illness and divorce, happening to family and friends.

So with all that was going on, I found myself facing the same question I had faced in my twenties: how much is work a part of my identity? How much is it a part of who I am? This oh-so-familiar existential question manifested in peculiar ways. In one of my leadership positions, I was really struggling with burnout and a whole bunch of other issues and I remember feeling like I had to STAY in the job, come hell or high water, because I had internalized the dismal stats of how few women of color held leadership positions. I confessed this to my coach at the time and he said, gently, “I believe what you are describing to me is the burden of representation, based on your gender and ethnicity…and I am here to tell you that the burden in no way obligates you to remain in a terrible situation, at potentially great harm to yourself.” (That is, by far, one of the most valuable insights I’ve ever received from another person.)

So during that period, I resolved the question of work-as-identity in one fell swoop: I stopped working. I took a sabbatical, and then I started taking on a few consulting assignments here and there, then I made an ill-fated attempt to go back to a full-time job, and now, I’m freelancing again. (Consulting 2.0 is going a lot better than Consulting 1.0, but that’s a different topic for a different day.) And my recent insight: the moment I stopped caring about how much my job defined me is when I started feeling happiest about who I am, about all the parts of me that make up my identity, personal AND professional.

I guess one might see this as the shedding of ambition, or the loss of the dreams I used to think mattered so, so much, like saving our planet, fighting for equality, writing award-winning novels or selling a screenplay starring Keanu Reeves. (Okay, that last one was pure fantasy, I’ll admit, and anyway, Ali Wong just did it!)

But I am not sure it’s as much about the loss of ambition and dreams as it is about all of the other parts of my life that have come to matter as much or more than a paid gig. Believe me: I am deeply appreciative of how much a paid gig enables and supports those other parts: I can be a generous and present parent, aunt, daughter, and friend because I earn enough money to not have to work full-time, and because my husband DOES have a full-time paid gig that gives us important things like healthcare benefits. But what I am trying to say is, it feels like it matters more to me, these days, how I am doing as a human being—in my morality, in my compassion, in my listening and learning, and in my not-always-successful attempts to control my rages and frustrations—than whether it matters what someone thought of how I did on a particular work assignment, other than that they felt supported and understood.

I, unfortunately, can’t gift this insight to my young family members and friends who are struggling with the first iteration of this existential crisis. The only thing I can tell them is that it is perfectly normal to feel disoriented and confused, and that it will all get better with time and experience. You’re not supposed to know everything in your twenties and sometimes, that will suck! But I am super-grateful that I arrived at this insight at my age, during these times, because let me tell you, any peace of mind, about anything, is hard to come by these days.

And, of course, not caring as much about work as your identity actually seems to not affect your work performance one bit; if anything, it makes you more able to take risks, and more regularly find and hit your baseline as to what constitutes good work. My friend called this “indifference to outcome,” and it is a surprisingly effective approach to so many things in life beyond work.