You are not your job

One of the many myths shaping modern life is this notion that what you do defines who you are.

In 2011, I landed a spot in a Silicon Valley incubator that set me on an unexpected path to understand the “pursuit of happiness.” Not because my startup resulted in a major success story. In fact, it was because the exact opposite happened.

My co-founders and I received funding to research the happiness economy and to start our company, Joyo. Joyo aimed to help people try on careers for fit and match job opportunities to a person’s strengths, interests, and values. From the beginning I knew that we had stumbled on something important but I didn’t understand the magnitude of it until I learned that 70 percent of the workforce is disengaged. We weren’t just talking about helping people do work they love. We were talking about the massive amount of human potential that is just being left on the table. This didn’t serve companies and certainly didn’t serve people.

As we built Joyo, I began to believe that maybe, just maybe, I was in a position to do something about this problem with work. It was a visceral, vibrant energy that gave me super powers I didn’t know I’d had. It was terrifying while also completely adrenaline inducing. I cared immensely about our work and was ready to risk it all for this thing, this purpose that was so much bigger than any one of us. Our early users were the driving source of my motivation. Their pain was real and I wanted more than anything to help them.

It was this blending of my identity with my startup and the fear of losing it all, however, that quickly led to burnout and unhealthy ways of working. I was pushing hard for Joyo to happen, but was running on empty in every imaginable way. I was not as effective as I could be. Nor was I happy for that matter and it wasn’t sustainable. The irony of our situation became increasingly apparent, of course: We couldn’t get the company up and off the ground without racing hard against limited resources. Yet we couldn’t properly build the company without embodying what we were trying to create. I had compromised my own health and happiness with work.

It was this blending of my identity with my startup and the fear of losing it all, however, that quickly led to burnout.

We tried hard to fight the odds, but we didn’t make it. In some ways this was a massive weight off my shoulders. In other ways it was devastating. I was not prepared for the grieving process that comes along with letting go of a startup.

I’ll never forget the morning I pulled my laptop into bed and resolved to begin my own job search. Ticking off boxes on job sites filters out your soul and your hope and generally makes you feel like crap. While it would have been easier to take the first job I could find, I made the deliberate decision to dive into the experience and study it in the context of my own life.

When it came down to the specifics of my job search, I applied the design thinking process to my own journey. This meant taking more of a discovery-oriented approach and doing lots of little experiments, instead of seeking an all-encompassing epiphany. For example, one of the big things I struggled with was that I really wanted to find a job that would allow me to show up as my “whole self.”

I have a hybrid background in various fields and repeatedly felt like I was being asked to tell a story about myself that was false or limited. I didn’t want to be recruited into an organization based on a partial story of who I am. I realized that what I was faced with was a communication challenge. While job descriptions are generally focused on what a role entails, it was my responsibility to also communicate how and why I work and what that meant for any given role.

I felt like I was being asked to tell a story about myself that was false or limited.

So I started to play around with alternative ways of telling my story and what I have to offer. I also spent a lot of time figuring out what my story is and who I am. I went on more coffee meetings than I can count. I also learned how to focus on what I can give others versus what I wanted from a job. Necessity forced me to get really creative with my own resources. I put my apartment on Airbnb and took on freelance projects.

Most importantly, I learned that when we ask ourselves what we want to do, we are also asking ourselves who we want to be. This perspective helped me arrive at the simple, yet powerful realization that I’d completely attached my identity to my startup. It took me several months to get there, but when I did it was a raw moment of truth.

Realizing how intertwined my work was with my identity meant seeing myself in the absence of external goals or achievements. It meant feeling the loss and still believing in it all, even though it was breaking my heart. It meant caring without attachment and accepting myself as enough. Only then, was I able to see what had been true all along. I am not my job. I am whole as is, and I am lacking nothing. With this perspective in hand, I began to understand that living from the inside out means that we can seek alignment with our external circumstances, but they don’t complete us.

When we ask ourselves what we want to do, we are also asking ourselves who we want to be.

What I had failed to understand was that Joyo was not an answer to my “purpose” or identity in life. It was simply one manifestation of what I believe in, how I aspire to live, and what I deem worthy of baring my soul for. But it wasn’t me, it was something I did. I now understand that purpose is something that will bubble up throughout the course of my life in many different ways. Sometimes it will be in ways that are barely noticeable: a thank you to the person cleaning the office, a willingness to listen, the ability to laugh, even when I’m tired. Other times it will manifest in ways that are more explicit: a conversation, a project, putting ideas on paper.

One of the many myths shaping modern life is this notion that what you do defines who you are. Deep down, none of us really want to be labeled by our jobs and most of us don’t actually believe that our jobs determine who we are as people. For many of us, however, work consumes the bulk of our time and it permeates all aspects of life. It’s the go-to conversation at social events. It’s how we determine our progress and whether or not we’re on track. It’s the context in which we ask ourselves the big questions about life. What do I want? Who do I want to be? Our jobs are no longer just an anchor for an income or our weekly routine. They’ve also become an anchor for our sense of identity and the orienting factor for how we relate to each other and experience life.

When it comes to our modern relationship with work, the true challenge lies in knowing where you’ve built your foundation. A life that attaches identity to work and defers happiness until later is one where you’ve built a foundation dependent on external factors and future circumstances. This is where building your own foundation and living from the inside out comes into play. It’s a state of being that requires recognizing your self as a whole person and finding joy and meaning no matter what’s on your paystub. This requires accepting the present as enough, which also means accepting ourselves as enough. The more we can see each other in all of our humanity, the more we can honor each other for what we really are and what life is actually about. We are people first. We are not our jobs.


This post originally appeared on 99u. Thank you to Sean Blanda for editing.