My friend, a highly-paid financial professional, often complains about her job. She doesnt like the long hours, the difficult people, the office politics, and so forth. Usually, I just sit and listen to her, because it feels like shes more interested in a sympathetic ear than anything else. But one day, I couldnt help but suggest that, if she really dislikes her job so much, she consider what she really wants in a career and possibly even make a change.
She looked at me incredulously. Im focused on surviving right now, she said. I dont have time to think about what I really want.
Im surprised at how many times Ive heard professionals with incomes well into the six figures worry about their survival in the event of a career change. Generally, I suspect most of them could handle at least a few months of their current expenses even with no income at all. Some, for various reasons, are genuinely living from paycheck to paycheckthey may have student loans they need to repay, or maybe they just racked up large expenses leading the high-powered professional life. But even they, if they had to, could probably reduce their expenses enough to eat and have a place to live if they had to live on a reduced income for a while.
Why, then, do highly-paid professionals often phrase their concerns about career change in terms of their survival? Actually, I think their use of that word is appropriate, because it speaks to deeper truths about the way we see our careers. When we say but if I change careers, I wont survive, were not actually concerned about the survival of our physical bodies. Were not worried that were going to starve or have nowhere warm to sleep. Were worried about the survival of the identities weve created for ourselves in our minds.
Its no secret that, in our society, we tend to closely identify with our occupations. When someone asks what you do or what you are, Ill bet you usually respond with your job descriptionIm a lawyer, Im an engineer, and so forth. Often, when a person loses their job or retires, youll hear them say they feel like theyve lost part of themselves, or that they arent sure what theyre good for anymore. The way we tend to perceive our careers, its as if theyre limbs or organs of our bodies, and removing them would endanger our lives.
We can also get attached to others seeing us in certain ways based on our jobs, and to the prestige and material things those jobs bestow on us. If we have high-paying careers, for instance, we start seeing wealthy as part of our identities. If we have demanding jobs, we identify with being hard-driving and no-nonsense. If we have jobs with exposure to the public, we identify with being glamorous or high-profile. And so on.
This way of thinking about our careers is common, but its also problematic. When we feel like our careers are who we are, we naturally become consumed with fear of losing, or performing badly in, our jobs. We wake up in the early hours of the morning worrying that we made a mistake on a project. Were afraid of change and innovation in doing our jobs, because rocking the boat presents a risk we cant afford to take. If you totally identify with your career, of course, this way of thinking is perfectly logicalif you are your career, losing or changing that career would mean your annihilation.
While money isnt everything, its interesting that the people who are most financially successful in our society seem to be those who are least closely identified with their careers. These are the entrepreneurs and business owners, whose incomes are based on the profits and losses of their businesses rather than steady salaries. Owning a business requires you to be willing to take the risk that the business will fail. If you tend to completely identify with the occupation youre in, youll perceive yourself as a failure if your business fails, and thus youll probably be afraid to start one in the first place.
What, then, do you do if you want to make a career change, but your current job feels so embedded in your identity that youre afraid to take the next step? The answer is to understand that you are not your career, and that you dont need to completely identify with your career to lead a fulfilling life, but Im not going to simply tell you that. I want you to experience that fact firsthand, on a physical level.
What Ill recommend may sound a little metaphysical, but bear with me a moment and see if it gets results. Find a place where you can sit alone in silence with your eyes closed. Once youve done this, focus your attention on your hands, and allow yourself to feel the sensations arising in them. Perhaps you feel a warmth, a tingling, a prickly sensation, or something else. When youve done this for a little while, gradually bring your attention up your arms, across your torso, up your neck and into your head, and then down into your legs and feet. Notice how each part of your body feels when you place your full attention on it.
After doing this exercise a few times, youll likely experience feelings of peace and aliveness in your body, as if your body were suffused with an inner glow. When youre feeling this sensation, youre experiencing what you are at the most basic levelwhat we might call energy, consciousness or life. This is the energy of which you, and all other life forms in the universe, are composed. Youve been made of this energy for as long as youve existed. No matter what happens in your lifeno matter what job you do, what you accomplish, who you love, and what you ownyou will always be, at the deepest level, this energy.
We start identifying with our circumstances in the worldour jobs, relationships, cars, and so forthwhen we lose touch with this energy. Life starts to seem pointless when we forget what we really are, and we grasp for things in the world to give it meaning. Thankfully, the energy that we are is always there for us to reconnect with, and to give us peace when our lives seem busy or stressful. When youre truly connected with your life energy, you understand at a deep level that no career change can ever threaten your survival, and you find the fear of the unknown that restricted you fading away.