Stop Letting Someone or Something Define You
Be complete within yourself
Being defined by your work happens slowly over several years. One day, you realize that you’ve put yourself in a neat box with a tiny label. You hear yourself saying something like this when you meet people at parties:
- “I’m a designer at Facebook.”
- “I’m the lead singer in a band.”
- “I’m an engineer at Google.”
- “I’m a neurosurgeon.”
- “I’m a store manager at Starbucks.”
Without even realizing it, you’ve attached your identity to a profession — or even a specific job title at a particular company. It’s all too easy to limit how you think about your future because of some job title that you haven’t thought to question for years.
When I was climbing the ladder in Silicon Valley, I had tunnel vision. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Changing paths was viewed as career suicide. You were expected to keep climbing up, promotion after promotion, until you retired or died.
That identity mindset constrains your potential. It also makes you vulnerable. What happens when you’re suddenly fired? How do you feel about yourself when you are selected for a layoff? What is your future when you’re forced into early retirement?
It is worth taking some time to redefine who you are and what you do. Describe what you are great at doing, and what you love doing, without resorting to using your current job title and company name.
Now, how would you use that description to introduce yourself at the next party you attend?
“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” ― Lao Tzu
Being defined by others can also take place in longterm relationships. We let our happiness and self-worth become inextricably intertwined with the approval of someone else. When a relationship falters and fails, we plunge into sadness and darkness.
Whether at work or home, you can’t put your identity and value in the hands of another.
Don’t let others lift you up
“Don’t believe the hype. I don’t care how many number ones you have at the box office, I don’t care how much they say you’re great, don’t believe it. Just stay in your lane and do what you’re supposed to do.” — Tyler Perry
Robin Williams had millions of people around the world who loved his comedy. Heath Ledger found fame and fortune that many can only dream of achieving. Adoring fans couldn’t save Kurt Cobain.
Clinical depression doesn’t care about your success. Anxiety doesn’t vanish when you become wealthy.
Social media would have us all become dependent on likes, comments, and shares. Even those who are emotionally stable and full of confidence can get sucked into the game.
Success is fleeting. Fame is fickle.
I found out that lots of people want to spend time with you when you’re an executive. Many assume that you will be useful for favors at some point. However, you’d be surprised by how quickly these people vanish when you’re no longer a VP at some big company.
It’s dangerous to let others define your sense of worth. It’s risky to listen to how someone else judges your work. Some feedback will be amazing and useful. Some feedback will be useless and destructive.
The higher your fans lift you, the more visible you become. For every person who loves you and your work, there will be someone who hates you and despises your creation, even if they’ve never met you.
Do what you need to do because you want to do it for you.
Don’t let others tear you down
“Don’t get high off praises, and don’t get too low on critiques.” — Janelle Monae
You can’t rely on other people to lift you, but you also cannot allow them to tear you down. Once you put yourself and your work “out there,” you have to be prepared for the critics.
On rare occasions, an article I wrote will receive a decent amount of attention. Inevitably, someone comments that it’s the dumbest thing they’ve ever read. Sometimes, a person will message me just to tell me how stupid I am.
Someone will hate what you wrote, designed, or painted. There will be people who despise your beliefs and words. A few will cheer your every failure and mourn your every success.
Accept this truth now. Prepare yourself for this inevitable outcome. No one is loved by everyone. No work is universally admired. So why should you and yours be?
Ignore your haters, just as you shouldn’t get high on the accolades from your fans. You can’t let yourself become vulnerable.
Find a deeper purpose for what you do.
Find your center
One exercise that I recommend for my career clients is to deconstruct their job into its fundamental building blocks. Then, deconstruct those blocks into their essential elements. Eventually, you’ll have a handful of tasks and activities that you’re good at doing, enjoy doing, and are fulfilled by doing.
You can combine those elemental components in many different ways to create a path forward. Once you have identified the right path for you, stay the course. Isolate yourself from external rewards and destruction.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love, Cal Newport debunks the belief that “follow your passion” is good advice for a meaningful career. Instead, he recommends that you focus on mastery of the work you do and investing your “career capital” to earn control over your career path.
The people he interviewed were guided by an internal compass of mastery. The act of doing — and doing it better than yesterday — was what mattered the most.
Note that finding your center and path isn’t about a specific profession or job title. It isn’t about doing what people praise you for doing either. You can’t be burdened by their expectations or reactions.
They don’t have to live with the decisions you make. You do.
You are not your work
“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.” — Chuck Palahniuk
When you need to make a living, you must be creating something or doing something that people desire. Otherwise, you won’t get paid by a client or employer.
However, you can’t let their interpretation of your work’s worth define your self-worth.
You are not your profession or job title. You don’t belong to your employer, clients, or customers. You may create or do something, but you cannot let that thing define you.
An identity based on an occupation is too fragile. What you do for a living can change in an instant.
You are not your relationships
“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” — Aristotle
We are social animals. Unless you choose to be a “beast or a god,” you will have friends, family, and lovers in your life. It is natural and healthy.
However, these relationships cannot define you. Friends will inevitably let you down. Parents who are defined by their role are devastated by empty nest syndrome. People who make their marriage the center of their universe are destroyed by divorce.
“Being brave enough to be alone frees you up to invite people into your life because you want them and not because you need them.”― Mandy Hale
You need to be complete on your own (Sorry, Jerry Maguire). Relationships should enhance your life without creating dependency.
The adaptable survive
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin
Be fluid and flexible with what you are becoming and where you are going in your life. Be resilient and adaptable. Don’t let the inevitable surprises, failures, and setbacks shatter you.
No one cares about your wellbeing and future more than you do. Of course, you will have friendships and loving relationships. Those people will care about you, to varying degrees.
But, you can’t build your foundation on their support. People will come and go in your life. Enjoy your time together, but don’t let them define you.
Be powerful, whole, and complete within yourself.
Uncover what is true about you that will always be true about you — no matter what happens — and no matter what others say and do.
Larry Cornett is a Leadership Coach and Career Advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, a Great Dane, a chicken, and a stubborn old cat. He shares advice that helps you become an opportunity magnet, so the best things in life come to you! You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @cornett.