Do you identify with your work? I do, a lot of the time. Ask me who I am and the word "writer" will pop up early in my answer, even though that's only one of many things I am. I'm also a wife, a daughter, a stepmother, a sister, and someone with an adventurous nature who recently pulled up stakes and moved all the way across the country. I'm good at cooking and yoga. I'm bad at horseback riding but I love it so I do it anyway.
But when I think about my identity, how I mark my place in the world, I think of my profession first. I bet you do, too. Being work-focused can be good: It motivates you to do your best, to try new things, to take risks in pursuit of greater goals, to find creative solutions to problems, and to dig in and do what's needed when challenges come along.
Identifying with your work, though, is a very bad idea. If you, like me, have been confusing yourself with your job, it's time for a subtle but essential attitude shift. Here's how to get started:
1. Remember that your work will end someday.
I come by it honestly-I was raised by work-identified parents. My father was a psychiatrist and my mother was an actress and a friend of theirs once remarked that they were both indistinguishable from their professions. My mother reacted to life's ups and downs with full-blown drama. My father would listen patiently, ask probing questions, and talk things through very calmly. They loved each other, but no one was surprised that the marriage didn't last.
When they split, my mother knew she needed a more stable income. So she left her career in theater (she was working on the production end by then) and took a job at a large advertising agency, first as a secretary, later as office manage. She found the job satisfying enough-she'd always nursed an inner interior decorator-but when the time came she retired without regret and lived many happy years traveling and enjoying life with my stepfather, until advancing age caught up with them. They now live, still happily together, in a nursing home.
My father also remarried, and he lived to be 95. Through his elder years, he clung on to the last dregs of his profession with fierce determination. During his final weeks, patients still wanted their sessions and asked to come to the hospital to be treated by him. Even more absurd, he wanted to do it. It might actually have happened if hospital staff hadn't intervened.
I don't know who I would be if I couldn't write anymore, or even if I couldn't earn my living by writing anymore. It's a question all of us should be able to answer because it could happen to any of us, and quicker than we might expect.
Unless we attempt to die in the traces as my father did, our jobs will end someday. Our professions could be rendered irrelevant by technology, as so many already have. (Phone repair, anyone?) Accident or illness could make us unable to do our jobs, or the need to care for a family member might force us to stop doing them. When that happens, how will we know our own worth? Who will we be?
2. Take stock of your relationships.
Single or married, parent or childless, you have relationships in your life that help define who you are just as much as your work does. I don't know who I'd be if I weren't a writer, but I also don't know who I'd be if I weren't married to Bill, or who he'd be if he weren't married to me. Your work makes an impact on the world, but so do the large and small ways you've touched other people's lives.
Are you putting as much of yourself as you can into those relationships? How do you nourish other people, and how do they nourish you? If your answers to those questions are unsatisfactory (as they sometimes are for everyone) what will you do to change them?
3. Find your own center.
Work and relationships are important, but both those elements of your life are ever-changing. And neither one completely defines who you are. There's a you that goes way beyond your job, your professional skills, your family, and your friends. It's made up of your own unique view of the world, what you're good at, what you're bad at, what you do to engage with the community around you, what you do for fun, what you believe in, and what and who you love, whether or not they love you back.
This is your true center, the place you can always return even if everything else in your life fails or falls apart. This is how you remain who you are, through broken marriages, busted companies, and professional failure. Come back to this core often, even if things are going well. It will always be there when you need it. Even if everything else goes away.