You Aren’t What You Do

It’s a typical business networking event, an after hours meet-and-greet. “Susan” introduces herself to a friendly-faced woman who then says, “So, what do you do?” These are the words that almost always come out after you introduce yourself to someone new. In the modern world, we have a tendency to identify ourselves with how we make our living. Take Susan, who says she is an accountant, for example. Right away, we may decide that she likes the black and white of numbers, is not particularly socially adept or emotional, saves her money and is not spontaneous.

The truth is, though, is usually much more complex. Susan may be an accountant, but she could also be a daughter, a wife, a parent, a sister, a friend, a chocoholic, a tennis player, an animal lover, and a member of the Sierra Club. She could drive an ancient but functioning Volvo, love to buy expensive shoes on sale, dream of skydiving one day and may be terrified of technology. Perhaps, Susan secretly reads romance novels and sneaks cigarettes while publicly despising both, and adores her husband beyond reason.

As you can see, placing yourself in a box by identifying so closely with your career choices or to judge others by the same can be limiting and misleading. It can foreclose possible business opportunities as well as social ones as well, especially if someone has already closed their ears after hearing what you do having made their own quick judgment of you and your worth to them.

Then there is the additional danger of losing your sense of self should the job disappear. Anyone who has been fired or downsized or has retired can relate to the feelings of loss and confusion about who they are when they can no longer say “I am a blank” or “I work at blank.” This is especially true if the person oriented their whole lives to supporting their business life.

Immersion in the people and corollaries of their career choice such as getting an education in the field, joining a specific church, becoming a member of certain organizations (social, business and charitable) and socializing primarily with co-workers are all great when you share the same work environment. When you retire, resign or are downsized, though, such single-mindedness is the equivalent of putting all of your eggs in the same basket. It can be difficult to continue in these relationships when the common thread, the job, is gone.

When I work with clients who are struggling to define themselves or reinvent themselves, we often encounter the idea of choice. For many people, saying “I am a blank” feels limiting so I usually start with sharing with them the distinction between “I am an accountant” to “I am a person who works as an accountant.” I typically ask them to brainstorm an idea map stemming from the phrase “I am a person who…” and showing all of the different roles they choose to play, so they can visually see what a complex and interesting individual they are.

Once people are anchored in their own identity, it becomes much easier to weed through their needs, wants and desires so that they can re-orient their lives in a way that is fulfilling and purposeful. Of course, it’s even easier to do this when people have not wholly invested their identities with their career choices.

So what would it take to get you out of your box today? How much of yourself, including how you define yourself and what you do are enmeshed in your career and supporting your career? What steps would you have to take to “diversify” what your sense of self is so that you can spread your risk so that it is more acceptable to you? Are you ready to become “a person who…”?