Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to describe yourself when someone asks you to? We're stumped. In our mind, we wonder, "How do I describe who I am?" At some point, in a clumsy attempt to tell this person about ourselves, we start talking about what we do, not who we are. But is that really the best way to describe ourselves? Are the tasks we do really who we are?
Somewhere along the way in life, we started conflating our job title as our identity.
It's understandable. I mean, we do spend 40 or more hours in our job. We sacrifice our personal time for it. Even during our off-time, for many of us, we're not really "off." Who else out there has answered an email on their phone while sitting at the beach on vacation? Many times, our job brings us satisfaction and excitement. It's thrilling to have had a good day at work.
While it's understandable why this happens, it's also unhealthy in a way. If you've ever been let go from a job, you'll understand what I mean. It's almost like something has been ripped out of you. It reminds me of the movie, Company Men, starring Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Costner, and Chris Cooper. Affleck's character walks into the office one morning, all happy about his golf game he had before work, and then he finds out that he's being laid off.
At first he can't believe the news. He was a valuable part of the company! He had a corner office! He was a rising star!
And then suddenly, he wasn't. Poof. Just like that, his identity evaporated into thin air.
He came home early that day and had to explain to his wife and family what happened. Then he went through the typical steps all of us go through when faced with being laid off: denial, anger, depression, and eventually, acceptance. After a day or two trying to come to terms with the situation, he picked himself up, sure he'd get another great job like his last one in no time. But he didn't.
He went through a prolonged period of unemployment. It was a mental battle for him. The once cocky and confident rising star, broke down one morning to his wife. Nearly in tears, he finally released what he was feeling, "I'm a 37 year-old, unemployed, loser!" Of course he wasn't a loser. He was a good man, with a good family. He was smart. He was talented. The only thing he wasn't, was being true to himself. It wasn't until that moment in his driveway with his wife, that his old identity finally melted away and a new one started taking form. He let his pride go and started working for his brother-in-law's home construction business. Of course he was terrible at it at first, but he got better with time. He also learned a valuable lesson in the process. He was NOT his job. He was so much more than that.
We all are.
Our job is where we work and what we do. With it comes with the added benefits of valuable experience, skills, and connections. But it is not us. We are separate from our job title. We are multi-dimensional beings with a past, a present, and a future. It's time we started acting like it.
Why Do We Do This?
It's pretty easy to attach yourself to your job title, but why? A lot of it has to do with the economic principle of "sunk costs." These are costs that have already been incurred and can't be recovered.
Think of it this way. When we decide on a career, oftentimes it comes with some initial investment on our part. It could be going to a college or university to get a specific degree. Possibly it's getting a particular certification or license. It may be entering into a field at an entry-level and working our way up. Whatever it is, we are committing either money or time or both.
Once we've made this commitment, we begin to identify as the profession to which we've committed to. The longer we stay in the profession, the tighter the bond between job and personal identity becomes. Eventually, they begin to merge and our job becomes an actual part of our identity.
Why Identifying with Your Job Title is Detrimental
Relying on our job title to be part of our identity, has several downsides.
1. It makes it more difficult to balance all of our personal roles.
For working parents, this is painfully obvious. The more we identify our job as an integral part of who we are, we tend to push other things to the side. We're more willing to skip attending little Johnny's game, we come home after dinner has been eaten and the kids are already in bed, or we make promises that we can't keep because of a demand at work. It feels like a constant internal battle between our identities as employee, spouse, and parent.
Tension between work and home will continue to grow and we become significantly more stressed because of it. Stress from work negatively impacts our relationships with family and friends as well. We lash out when we don't mean to. This, in turn, drives our support network away eventually. Being too reliant on work as our identity has an isolating effect. The people who would be there to support us in normal circumstance aren't there when we could really use it.
2. When we fail at work, we feel like we fail at life.
What happens in our job will inevitably spill over into the rest of our life. We all know this. When we have had a bad day at work, it truly impacts how the rest of our day will go outside the office. Now staple those single bad days together consecutively. How will we feel? Pretty lousy.
But here's the thing. It may not be that we're failing at work. It may, instead, be that we are simply in the wrong role. However, if we're too committed to our job title, we'll be unwilling to admit this. And so, we will continue to struggle until either we break down or are terminated. Neither are a particularly desirable options. But darn it! We can't admit that maybe the job title shouldn't be so important to us.
3. When we lose our job, we lose our identity.
We talked about this earlier, but for many of us, losing a job can create a genuine identity crisis. We've all heard the stories of people who retire and within a few months to a year, they pass away. Health and psychology are tightly tied together. These folks feel like they've lost their purpose and identity. When we go through this, it has a huge impact on how well we take care of ourselves and how healthy we feel.
When we're out of work, we feel vulnerable and helpless. This affects how we present ourselves to the world. From the casual observer, we look defeated. Now think about this from a hiring manager's perspective. Do we think they want to hire a defeated person or do they want to hire someone who looks and acts like a winner?
You're right. They will pick the latter person every time.
Keep this in mind: a winner isn't someone who sticks to something he or she knows isn't working. A winner is open to other possibilities and is willing to challenge any preconceived notion if they think it will get them a victory.
4. It limits our options when searching for a job.
If the only identity we have is the job title or field that we've always worked in, chances are pretty good that we won't be looking at other opportunities that we could be a great fit for. We're painting ourselves needlessly into a corner.
What if the job we're seeking isn't in high demand or worse, what if that job field is shrinking? On the bright side, we won't be running out of ink printing off all those job descriptions and resumes. On the downside, our phones won't be ringing off the hook either. Needless to say, this prolongs the job search.
The longer it takes to get our old identity back, the worse it becomes until at some pointw we have to make a choice, either: (Option A) give up or (Option B) create a better identity.
While there are many reasons why the United States has seen a significant decline in labor force participation in the last 15 years, one of them likely has to do with people choosing Option A. Out of frustration in not finding the job we identify with, we give up and drop out of the labor force altogether. "If all we've been was a widget maker, how can we do anything else?" That's the mindset we're all up against. We need to choose Option B instead.
How Do We Fix This?
We need to break the mindset that all we can do is what we have always done. Like I said before, we are multi-dimensional. We're not robots programmed to only do one thing. So rather than thinking about our job title think about:
1. The skills you've acquired that you can utilize in another capacity.
2. The types of tasks and projects that you enjoyed the most.
3. Your strengths that make you unique.
4. The network you've built which can assist you in learning about new opportunities.
5. The career ideas you've thought about, but never followed through on.
6. The things in life that make it meaningful for you.
7. What you hope to accomplish while you're on this planet.
Then search for work in the exact opposite direction than the we typically do. Rather than searching for a particular job title, search for jobs based on our skills, strengths, and interests. Be open to everything and be true to yourself.
These are your tools to fix the problem. Use them wisely and with care. Don't be a slave to your identity. Instead, make you're identity work for you.
About RockIt Career Consultation Services
At RockIt Career Consultation Services, our mission is to help you discover your true strengths and use these strengths to set your course to something more rewarding and exciting in your career.
We will guide you on what job or career best suits you and then help you market yourself through your resume, your networking strategies, your interview skills, and your negotiation to ensure that you are doing something you love and are maximizing your earning potential. Throughout, we will be there to keep you motivated and determined.
We'd love to help you launch your career and encourage you to learn more about the services we can provide you on your path to a more prosperous future. With our help, you will become the applicant every company wants to hire!