Why We Must Stop Allowing Our Career to Define Our Identity

Career Development

Photo Courtesy of Zoltan Tombor for Kinfolk

As previously seen on Wit & Delight

We know it yet we forget it—that what we do from 9 am – 5 pm five days a week doesn’t define who we actually are as a person. We’re so much more than the back-to-back meetings and the spreadsheets and whoever it is we appear to be on paper. Today, in the spirit of our August theme, we’re sharing a post contributor Kathryn M. wrote in 2017, on a topic that’s as apt as ever today. We hope you’ll bring this mindset with you into the forthcoming workweek (and, for now, we hope you’ll enjoy the heck out of your Sunday, too).

I have a confession to make: I used to envy the people who knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up. You know, the ones who said from age seven that they wanted to be a doctor, nurse, teacher, firefighter, etc., and then they grew up to be those exact professionals.

Why the envy? Well, I’m guessing it’s because my “calling” per se has never been as clear-cut.

See, if two decades ago you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, chances are the words “astronaut” or “actress” would have instantly spilled from my mouth. Fast forward ten years and I would have given you a completely different answer: a lawyer.

While this desire landed me an internship on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., somewhere along the road of college and graduation, I switched gears (again) and ended up moving to New York City once I entered the “real world” to pursue a short-lived career in fashion. And yet, here I am, two years later on the west coast, diving head-first into the deep waters of freelance writing.

Simply put: I  have yet to figure out what I want to “do” with my life.

But after years of carrying around the invisible burden to just pick a path and stick with it—because let’s face it, that’s what society tells us to do—I have finally realized two things: 1) This huge question mark hovering over my career is totally OK because I AM NOT MY JOB. Aka, my self-worth should never be associated with my job title. (Neither should yours!) And 2) Our society desperately needs to undergo a major mindset transformation.

There’s no denying “being busy” has become somewhat of a status symbol here in the American culture. And unfortunately, so have job titles. Thanks to decades of placing such emphasis on these labels, we, as individuals, have started to slip down the dangerous slope of defining who we are by what we do from 9 to 5. Our work becomes much more than a job—it quickly morphs into our identity.

Think about it: When you first meet someone, chances are after finding out what his or her name is, you then ask what they do for a living, right? None of us mean any harm by this question, it’s just typically how new conversation flows.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I am all for being work-focused, as this keeps us motivated to do our best and pursue new goals and challenges. (Hello, girl power!) The problem, though, is that when we define ourselves by our jobs and titles, we slowly start to lose touch with our sense of self and ultimately put ourselves in emotional jeopardy.

The problem, though, is that when we define ourselves by our jobs and titles, we slowly start to lose touch with our sense of self and ultimately put ourselves in emotional jeopardy.

I should know, as I was on the fast track of doing this to myself.

Thankfully, the lightbulb went off and I was able to recognize the fact that self-love is worth so much more value than the numbers on a paycheck or the title under an email signature. And suddenly—OK, more like after a lot of self-reflection—the pressures of immediately finding my “dream job” subsided, along with the thoughts of self-doubt that had once upon a time crept inside my head.

Once I began looking within to cultivate my own unique view of the world, I was essentially able to redefine the meaning of success. And over time, I finally became ready to veer off the path society had carved for me and start living my own life, according to my own terms.

So, if you, too, are feeling stuck in this career/identity trap, remember that your job is what you do, not who you are. Which is why I encourage you to take some time and ask yourself the following:

  • Who are you? (Not what you do for a living, but who are you as a person? What are your interests? What do you value? What do you love, what do you not love, etc.?)
  • Furthermore, how do you want to spend your days here on earth? What differences do you want to make?

As soon as you go through this self-examination process and understand your own personal answers, I guarantee you’ll start to feel a new sense of rejuvenation seeping in. Because when you think about it, the last thing you’ll be pondering on your deathbed is whether or not you should have spent more time at the office. 

So, isn’t it time to start living, outside of work?

BY Kathryn - August 18, 2019

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August 19, 2019 4:50 am

Now, I can see the real light…

August 19, 2019 1:47 pm

I kind of got over this hurdle by realizing that what I want to “do” with my life is….lots of different things! I want to try out different jobs and careers in different industries. Even if I don’t find something that fits right away, at least I have that experience and I know myself better now!

maura king
August 23, 2019 3:04 pm

I am looking at this from a different age– well established in a career and successful– then all of a sudden many years have gone by and yes probably have let my career define my identity—


August 25, 2019 5:49 am

I definitely suffer from the same thing, when everyone keeps identify me as what my job title is, I feel like it’s not me, and they shouldn’t do it because it’s annoying. But we cannot change what they think, so better be mine. Thanks for sharing!

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