“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” - Confucius
When someone asks us ‘what do you do?’ we nearly always reply with our occupation. Work, for many of us, is much more than a job. It is the defining aspect of our life and thus of our identity. It plays a significant role in determining how we see ourselves and offers insights into what is important to us. Through our work we find financial security, identity, status, self worth and intellectual stimulation. For many of us it is through our job that we can define ourselves and work out our place in the world.
“Without my job I don’t know who I am," is a sentence that has been uttered on more than a handful of occasions from the comfort of my office chair. Indeed it can be one of the most challenging aspects I work on with clients who have lost or been forced into changing their jobs, over and above any financial worries. This loss provokes an identity crisis much greater than the loss of the job itself.
One of the things I have come to understand, however, is that our identity is multifaceted, fluid and dynamic. Identity is much more complex than we recognise at first glance. We do not just have one identity we have several. If we take the time to consider and reflect we might recognise that as well as our work we can also identify as a friend, a spouse, a sibling, a son or daughter, a parent, a member of a sports team or religious community. We may recognise that we feel and act differently in these roles and relationships than we do at work. The passive daughter becomes an assertive leader at work. Furthermore, our identities at work are not static. They move and change over time. I myself have been a shop assistant, a waitress, a student, a graduate, and a clinical psychologist. At each stage my ability to adapt to and develop my career identity have been crucial to my well being. Whilst we like to eliminate uncertainty in our lives at some level we have to manage uncertainty, especially in today's volatile and ever shifting job market. Today I identify myself as a therapist but tomorrow I may be faced with having to change jobs, and so what happens to my identity then?
How we see ourselves, narrate our lives and share our story, is central to the issue of our identity. When we tell ourselves “I am a people person, not a numbers person” or “I’m good at starting projects but not so great at seeing them through” they can become part of our belief system and we can use the as a platform on which to build our identity in the workplace. But if you have the unfortunate experience of an enforced job change you will need to examine those beliefs and that sense of identity to see how grounded in reality they are. You will be required to ask yourself how helpful these beliefs are and consider personal change. We can change our beliefs, behaviours and emotional experience at any time through experimentation, practice and conscious self discipline. In an age where career progression may lead us into new environments and sectors it is ever more important to challenge our sense of self and explore whether you can create a new experience of your identity by changing the beliefs you hold about yourself, other people and the world at large in order to develop and expand your career options. Ultimately it is you who defines who you are. You are only your job if you let it be so.