Is it okay to use your career or job as part of your identity?
So… what do you do?
When you meet someone in real, adult life where you discuss the difficulty entering the housing market, one of the first questions you encounter is ‘what do you do’. Well crafted and practised pitches are swapped. It becomes instantly apparent those playing the career game who identify who they are so heavily with what they are paid a salary to do.
It took being driven out to rural Cambodia in a tuk tuk with no shoes, phones or concept of time (a yoga retreat, not a kidnapping) for me to realise that was one of the first things I asked people I meet. Why? Because I want that question asked back because I use my job as a large part of my identity.
I had 6 days ahead of me with 29 other people so we started getting to know each other. I was waiting, excited to reel off my verbal resume I’ve practised to perfection which is usually received with ‘coooool’. After the initial introductions, no one asked. ‘That’s okay’, I thought, ‘I’ll be able to tell everyone later’. A few hours passed and I was eagerly waiting to jump into my spiel. Nothing.
Discussions were had over dinner that night about the cities that stole our hearts, how ready we were for a week of vegan food, good books read. No mention of what we ‘do back home’. A rich identity started to form as people got to know each other. But I felt like they didn’t know ‘the real me’.
People opened up as to why they were at the retreat, sharing deeply personal reasons including loss of identity, reconnecting with how to feel, healing from relationship breakdowns, burnout prevention or recovery and to reflect on hurting other people. People were there for real life shit that happened outside of whatever they are paid to do 9-5.
It dawned on me how reliant I am on my career to form part of my personal identity - and I started wondering if that is a positive thing. Is it a cultural trait? A personality trait? Or are we victims of the machine and missing out on forming a proper personal identity separate from what we get paid by another company to do. Does it matter what we get paid for, or does it matter what we believe in and do in the time we don’t get paid for? Can we blend the two?
Living in Melbourne, ‘what do you do’ is one of the first things you hear. Upon reflection, it sounds like ‘Hey what do you do so I know how to place you in the rungs of society and in terms of what I deem ‘successful’.
I spend 40 hours a week working for a brand I believe in and care about what I do - does that allow me to identify so heavily with my role? Or am I asking for trouble (and an eventual identity crisis) by putting such a prominent part of my identity in something fluid that I don’t have full control over.
This TED Talk by Shonda Rimes, TV Titan and producer behind Grey's Anatomy hit me smack in the face as she describes the inevitable consequence of 'falling out of love' with your job when your job is 'who you are'.
"When I am hard at work, when I am deep in it, there is no other feeling," she says. She has a name for this feeling: The hum. "The hum is a drug, the hum is music, the hum is God's whisper in her ear. But what happens when it stops?" Shonda asks (in a powerful spoken word performance) if she really is anything besides the hum, and how she re-shaped her identity to be more balanced.
For some, a job is a way to make an income to explore than things you’re passionate about away from the office. For these people, they work to live. Life is made up of experiences out of the office and they prefer to keep those parts of their life fairly separate.
Others (moi) are totally fine blending both work and home life. There is no distinct line between either and a challenging and exciting career is a large goal for me. For people like this, maybe more personal stock is invested in their career which is why more of their identity is aligned with ‘what they do’.
At this point, these thoughts raise more questions than answers. What I do know is I’m more aware about how quickly I jump to the ‘sooo, what do you do’ (is it really necessary at a friends BBQ?) and trying to ask ‘what are you interested in/reading/watching at the moment?’ instead.