You Are Not Your LDAP

Why Leaving Your Job Doesn’t Mean Losing Your Identity

hunter@google.com: From 2003-2013, it was a pretty powerful email address for me. I was the first “Hunter” to work at Google, so I got the six-letter name (the second Hunter went for retnuh@ — “hunter” backwards. Obviously he’s an engineer). And @google.com pretty much meant that any recipient would open the email whether they knew who I was or not — especially pleasurable since I joined Google from a lesser-known startup where you’re trying to convince the world you matter.

Often it wasn’t just an email address that drew attention. In the early Google years I had to be thoughtful about wearing logo gear outside of work. People would stop me on the street to tell me their Google search stories of triumph or failure, ask me about their website ranking, and, around the time of the IPO, make wild assumptions about my net worth.

When I started wearing YouTube clothing, the attention continued; it just shifted younger and to more aspiring rappers than webmasters. Everyone always had a favorite video to tell you about. And they assumed you knew it among the hundreds of millions of videos on the site.

The braggadocious email address and random interactions with strangers were cool, but the really sweet nectar came only as I started to take on more responsibility leading YouTube’s product team. The role connected me with notable technologists, investors, and media industry figures. YouTube founder Chad Hurley was also very generous with me, which resulted in invites to parties, meetings, and meals above my paygrade.

I started thinking about leaving YouTube in late 2010 once Chad announced that he was stepping down from the CEO role. I knew a phase of YouTube’s evolution was coming to a close and that it was likely best for both the company and myself that a different leader commit to the next part of the journey. But one of the things that kept me from making this change proactively was ego — the joy of being relevant because of my role. It certainly wasn’t just this feeling; I loved the team and the community, too, but in hindsight, there was definitely an insecurity that kept me from stepping away.

As the saying goes, “Man plans, God laughs,” and not too much later in the summer of 2011, a combination of things — some under my control, others not — caused me to leave my position. All of a sudden, the question I had asked myself — “Do I matter because of my job?” — was going to be answered. After taking the summer off, I came back to YouTube in a capacity of my own creation (thanks, Salar!), working in an area that had always been important to me: how YouTube is used as a platform for education, social change, and activism/free expression. This was the role I kept until I left Google roughly 15 months later (with another brief absence for paternity leave in 2012. Yippee!).

What happened once I vacated the throne? Did all of those folks who used to invite me to baseball games, dinner, and screenings disappear? The truth is that some did — most not because they were purely transactional relationships, but probably because we just didn’t have as much reason to spend time together. I’m sure there were some folks who now totally blew me off because I was no longer the gatekeeper to what they wanted, or had the fancy title that they could brag attended their event, but I emerged on the other side realizing that I had plenty to offer without the @google email address. And that confidence, plus some other serendipity, is what caused me to finally decide to leave and pursue…. [redacted for now :) ].

So why am I writing this now? Not nostalgia for Google — I continue to admire the company tremendously and care about many of the people but have no interest in returning. Rather, I want to acknowledge my own struggles with separating “where I work” from “why I matter” and self-worth.

Careers are sets of decisions where you have the chance to emerge from the chrysalis every so often and show the world, show yourself, how you’ve evolved. You are not your org chart, your department budget, or your title. Don’t let success at a company prevent you from pursuing scary and wonderful new opportunities to build. It took me a little longer than it should have, but from the other side, it’s pretty awesome.