This is part one of a two-part series exploring the sometimes complicated relationships between career, identity, values and self-worth.
It is estimated that the average working person will spend approximately 80,000 hours of their life on their career – 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, for 40 years. With so much time spent at work, it’s no wonder then, that many of us begin to associate who we are – our identity – with our jobs.
Beyond the vast amount of time we spend working, our jobs can become our identity in other interesting, if not questionable ways. Consider this, from a very young age we are conditioned to chase superiority. “We learn that valedictorians get better scholarships, CEOs get higher wages, and top entertainers get better deals and more magazine covers” (1). These ideas are reinforced through mass media, marketing and advertising (clever marketers will make us think that unless we have their product, we’ll never be superior).
Being better than others at whatever we do, we’re taught, is just about the most important thing we can do.
It’s not all about conditioning though, we’re hardwired to be the best. For our early human ancestors the biggest, fastest and strongest were the ones who survived – our DNA tells us that it’s better to be superior.
So, we go about the task of comparing ourselves against others to get a sense of who’s superior to whom. One way we do this is by assigning value (however arbitrary) to what we know about a person – usually superficially.
Our career, job and/or title then become a proxy for determining if we’re superior or inferior to others.
In simpler terms, he who has more worth wins. Size, speed and strength it seems, has been replaced by title, wealth and possessions.
Think about the last time you met someone new. How long was it before you engaged in that gentle dance of exchanging pleasantries and then the inevitable, ‘what do you do?’ question arises.
With just a little bit of information, we size up the competition, doing little calculations to figure the competence, power, influence, success, lifestyle and so on, of this person we just met.
Can we really gauge who someone is by knowing what their job is? No, but we try, and thus what you ‘do’ has become a kind of social currency, along with other meaningless measures like the kind of clothes you wear, what kind of car you drive, how big your house is and where you live.
Given all of these factors, it’s no stretch to see why we would adopt our career as our identity. There may also be less obvious things that persuade us to perceive ‘who we are’ as ‘what we do’. In some cases, it’s just easier.
Understanding what you stand for, what type of person you want to be or what you look for in friends can be a scary, overwhelming and potentially fruitless endeavor.
It’s far easier to adopt your career as your identity – it’s all there predefined for you – your job spells out what you should care about, who you should try to be like or hang around with, what you should aspire to. As an added bonus, it all fits nicely into this social construct that tells us “you are what you do”.
In other cases, we use our career to define who we are more deliberately because we’re afraid of what the world might think of us if we show up as ourselves. We become actors in our own lives (a topic I recently wrote about on This Fearless Life), assuming the role of Nurse, Lawyer, Programmer, Consultant or whatever it is that you ‘do’.
Adopting our career as our identity allows us to hide what we’re not comfortable sharing with the outside world.
We don’t have to risk declaring who we are, we don’t have to be vulnerable – exposing our real thoughts, feelings and beliefs to scrutiny or worse, ridicule. So we play it safe, or so we think. What then, are the impacts of adopting your career as your identity? Most importantly, I think, is the potential for creating difficult internal conflict that can have far-reaching impacts.
When we assume a role as defined by our career and adopt that role as our identity we risk suppressing who we are.
We conform to some standard that is not our own and as a result, may become resentful, irritable and/or angry. It’s also exhausting – living a double life, or at least one that doesn’t feel genuine takes lots of energy.
Okay, bear with me here as I jump through some tricky logic. If we go back to the idea of measuring our worth by comparing ourselves to others and our use of career as a proxy for worth as well as identity, then our career, identity and sense of self-worth all become intertwined into a confusing mess (did you get that?!).
Suddenly, we’re viewing our own self-worth through the lens of our job – a measure that at best will be disappointing (there’s always someone on a higher rung, a bigger title, a higher salary, a ‘hotter’ industry) and at worst damaging to self-esteem and even depression inducing.
We have very little control over what happens in our job and maybe only slightly more with our career. By defining our self-worth through our job and career, we are evaluating ourselves using something that we can’t influence much.
Our job and career are things that are apart from who we are, things that don’t reflect what we really think, feel or believe – if we took the time to understand what those things were.
Certainly, job and career can be part how we view ourselves, but they aren’t the only lens. I know, ‘thoughts, feelings and beliefs’ – could I get any more hippy-dippy? Cue big eye-roll. That’s exactly how I felt about those touchy-feely ideas for a long time.
I mean, how can anyone really know what they think, feel or believe anyway – and to what end?
My tune changed when I figured out that partially, I was unhappy with my career (and subsequently, in my life) because I was ignoring these things – the values that I had established (albeit somewhat unknowingly) earlier in my life. This tumult isn’t surprising, I hadn’t ever articulated my values.
I had never defined what was important to me – not what I thought was important or was taught was important – I’m talking about the things that really mattered to me.
I suppose I had some idea of what mattered, but nothing deliberate or consciously thought out. As a result of this ignorance of my values, I was flying blind, or at least obstructed. I began to recognize these little internal conflicts happening more and more frequently, as well as starting to materialize in my behavior.
The more I disregarded my values, the more difficult things became.
Without intending to, I began to evaluate what I valued and how I was reflecting my values in the life I was living. Phew. Heavy stuff.
Now, all this is not to say that there isn’t a scenario where adopting your career as your identity can be beneficial, even necessary. We can see this in some of the most successful people on the planet.
Success happens when identity, values and career are in harmony.
One reflects the other with near congruence. There are no internal conflicts only clear purpose, energy, meaning and fulfillment. This is what many of us strive for but never achieve because our values are in conflict with our career and/or identity.
Take solace though, there are ways to clarify your values and begin integrating values-based thinking into your life.
Next week, I’ll continue with part two of this series, exploring how defining your values can put you on track to living a more meaningful and fulfilling life, become more successful at work and boost your perception of your self-worth.
(1) Raghunathan, Raj. If You’re so Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? N.p.: Penguin, 2016. Print.