“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
- Patrick Rothhfuss
We are facing a world-reality where the concept of work has mutated into something almost unrecognizable.
Many of us are in a state of flux. We have lost work or been forced into redundancy, with no hopeful prospects on the horizon. Or the way we work has been altered drastically. We might be working from home, with children, spouses or noisy animals. For many of my colleagues and I, we are being asked to design and develop online delivery of lessons for our students or create take-home resources. We are balancing the knowledge that many of our students will not have access to the digital resources required to continue studying from home.
I am extremely lucky to have been able to spend the last 6 months or so curating a work-life balance that doesn’t rely on only one income stream or individual factor of my professional identity. After spending many years simply burning myself out at the hands of a deeply rooted belief that my value came from how much I could produce or deliver in a work capacity, from how much I strived to achieve greater and greater success, I knew things had to change.
I scaled back on my ‘office’ time and moved to part-time work in order to put more focus on the different areas that I enjoy but had only dabbled in previously. The more I was able to introduce fluidity into my professional identity, the more comfortable, confident and reassured I felt as a person overall. My work streams feed different aspects of my identity and it’s wonderful to be able to switch from one to another anytime I feel a sense of overwhelm.
Like right now.
What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?
It’s the benchmark question we’re all interrogated with as children. In our younger years, we might become twinkled eyed over notions of becoming a vet or a doctor or a princess or a monster-tamer (as my adorable niece once assured me was her purpose in life).
As children, the notion of identity is wide open. Our imaginations know no bounds for what we might ‘be’. During our developmental years and adult years, our ideas become tangled with the concept of what we ‘do’.
Our culture is obsessed with achievement. The question of ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ has morphed into ‘what do you do?’.
Without the concept of what we ‘do’ it’s easy to begin to feel like a failure.
In times when what you ‘do’ has been stripped away from you, such as now, with many businesses, organizations and services parring back on delivery and capacity to employ people, the blow can be doubly impactful.
It is no surprise our identity suffers.
Learning to Love (And Live) A New Normal
You’ve probably seen several of the memes floating around, sharing anecdotes about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined from the plague, or that Newton discovered gravity under similar circumstances (I’m a teeny bit doubtful on that last one). The truth is, yes now might be the time where you put aside what you were doing, give something new your all, and finally devote yourself to that project you never had ‘time for’.
Or you might not.
Now might simply be the time where you ask yourself:
- “Do I believe I’m worth more than the work I do?”
The answers to this question might surprise or delight you. They will certainly provide a light of hope for what this time in your life might begin to look like.
When I sat down and asked myself this question the answer was a resounding no. So I had to ask myself some other questions:
- What do I want my answer to be?
- How does that look tangibly in real-life?
- What is one thing I can do today to make that answer my reality?
I think that the last question is the most important. What is one thing you can do, to help you build a robust sense of identity that doesn’t rely on one thing? On work alone? It doesn’t have to be the roar of writing a novel, learning a new language, or committing to a lengthy (sometimes demanding) online course. Especially at a time when overwhelm and uncertainty is raging wildly in our minds.
It can simply be a peaceful whisper of enjoying the sun while you do the gardening or surprising your partner by making buttery-perfect crepes (after almost 5 years together, it’s always nice to surprise my love with a tucked away gift I haven’t utilized previously in our living together).
The most valuable thing we have in times of crisis — to listen to and to offer to one another — is our heart. Our kindness for the self and each other.
My own work brings deep satisfaction to my life and I will be the first person in any group to tell you that work is one of the most wonderful ways to add value to your identity.
Your resume, career, or job are only one part of everything you have to bring to the table of this life you are baking. Making the shift from identity being wrapped up in what we do for work to who we are in life is perhaps one of the most difficult, given all of our prior cultural conditioning, but it could be the only one that will help us find the best versions of ourselves.
In and outside of work.