Your identity and your career

Perhaps it’s a good time to begin thinking of our legacies

Many of us tend to think of ourselves in terms of what we do. When asked, “Who are you?” we give answers such as, “I am a dental hygienist,” or “I’m a firefighter,” or “I do banking.” The work we do, which takes large amounts of our time and energy and that we are particularly proud of doing, can serve as the springboard for our identity or how we come to think of ourselves.

There is nothing inherently wrong in linking our self-concept to our work and careers. When we apply labels to ourselves we feel a kind of stability and having an identifiable place in society. However there can be a degree to which we perceive ourselves too closely to our career pursuits, such that we risk isolation and identity confusion should our work routines and conditions change in a way that is beyond our control.

The phenomenon I am trying to describe became glaringly obvious during the many years of recession layoffs. Millions of professional workers whose self-identification had for years been bound to their careers suddenly found themselves not only out of work but feeling severed from a specialist status they had long enjoyed due their inability to any longer find suitable work in their fields.

To compound this disruption, especially for those who held employment with the same firm or institution for years if not decades, came the loss of the day to day affinity with co-workers, many of whom became close friends. Often we find spending as much or more time with colleagues than with members of our own families not at all unusual. The undoing of these compatriot relationships was quite jarring.

So how do you know if you are dedicating too much of your identity with your career? If you’re fearful of a resulting void should your career dramatically change or dissolve from under you that is an indication you’re investing too much of your identity in what you do for work.

If those closest to you frequently remark that you are a workaholic, then it’s possible you are too hitched to your career. If your social network amounts primarily to those with whom you work on the job, then you’re truncating what could be a more expansive community.

You might ask, if we strip ourselves of our career identity what is left? Our careers are certainly major players in our lives. They deliver more than just a livelihood, and they consume so much time and energy that it can become natural to think we are what we do.

The challenge is to expand the vision of ourselves so that it comprises a 360-degree perspective, of which career is a part, albeit a big part. When we think of ourselves as primarily a teacher or an accountant or whatever we give short shrift to those other valuable elements, which together compose a full personality or identity. Our emotional, behavioral, intellectual, and spiritual attributes expressed during, but also beyond the workplace, contribute to making each of us a unique collage not easily summarized.

Perhaps now is a good time to begin thinking of our legacies. I am not trying to rush anyone into an early grave, but by imagining how we will be remembered allows us to get a clearer view of who we are.

We are made up of a vast number of qualities that hopefully make us interesting, trusted, and pleasant to be around. Basically we want to be thought of as exemplifying positive traits and contributing to making the world a better place. Reliance on just career accomplishments, as important as they are, can actually limit our notoriety and identity.

Establishing and cultivating an overall dignified reputation and legacy of merit just might leave us with
an identity with which we can be cont

Bill Ryan, founder of Ryan Career Services LLC, Concord, can be reached at 603-724-2289 or

Categories: Business Advice