Many high-achieving professionals in tech at some point in their career find that their work has become their identity. In certain years, this can be a really good thing. Having the drive and capacity to pour all your energy into a professional endeavor is what powers innovation from both startups and larger tech companies. Yet, the danger zone of this is when life feels imbalanced. This imbalance happens when your work is your only identity and when things aren’t going well, especially in times of transition or stress. As we approach the one-year mark of the pandemic, we’ve seen the additional stressors caused by isolation and co-sharing work/life spaces with roommates, partners, or children. This year has triggered many leaders in tech to seek some change from their existing patterns of behavior.
The first “work” that we encounter in life is being a student. We go to Kindergarten and happily receive gold stars for individual achievement, and as a class we add marbles to a reward jar for collective good behavior. Our identities start to be shaped by how well we succeed at the work of school. This outside-in reward system continues with grades, making the honor roll, and receiving awards through the school and university system. Our habits are formed and parts of our identity become tied to the external successes we collect.
There’s a wonderment in starting your first job and getting paid real money in exchange for a service you provide or a product you’ve made. This feels even more momentous when you go beyond babysitting or campus jobs and you get that first paycheck from a company. It’s an economic exchange of value—the company gives you money in return for a service. Yet in Silicon Valley, it feels more than that exchange. We put more value on what we do at work and who we are at work. We often talk about our teams being our family. We spend long hours working together and these interactions continue outside of work as our roommates, social circles, and vacation buddies are often our coworkers.
We are born into some identities. Each of us is somebody’s son or daughter. We all inherit a racial and socioeconomic identity. As we become adults, we choose our next identities and these are shaped by how we choose to spend our time. For many years I’ve spent hours in the ocean practicing my paddling and wave catching. As the hours and years add up, I’ve settled into my identity as a surfer, even though I’m still not very good at it. Hours spent doing activities cements these activities into our identity. There’s been periods of my life where I’ve worked 70–80 hour weeks at startups and design firms. The more I worked, the more that work became my identity. For CEOs and founders, their company is their baby. They are the public-facing brand of the company, tightening the loop between work and identity.
Having your work be your identity isn’t a bad thing. This drive can lead to huge professional and financial success. Yet frequently I hear leaders in tech wanting more balance, especially through the stress of this last pandemic year. There’s two particular triggers that I see repeatedly:
- Feelings of stress, overwhelm, constant busyness but never feeling that you’re making any progress
- A negative event. This could be negative feedback, not getting promoted fast enough, or being put on a performance plan and getting fired from a job.
In both of these triggers, leaders have had the hardest time recovering and stepping back into their own success when their work had been a sole part of their identity.
Three strategies to mitigate work being your sole identity and develop multifaceted identities outside of work:
1. Know what you want from this job
Your job is not your family. There is no unconditional love or support that continues over long periods of time. If you work in corporate, you work for a business whose main purpose is to make money or create some impact in the world. As long as you contribute to the business purpose, you have a job. There may be periods of vacation or health leaves, but these tend to be short-term with the understanding that it’s a temporary situation until you return to productive work. You create your own community with relationships & friendships that you form, however, you’re ultimately working for a business.
Within the context of this job, understand what you want to gain from it. In addition to the financial compensation, it could be:
- Understanding how to get to the initial MVP (minimum viable product) for a net new product or service
- Building the culture & process of a company
- Learning the skills to manage a team
- Finessing your leadership to inspire a team of other leaders
- Experiencing an IPO
- Building deep relationships with cross-functional partners
Keep your personal goals in mind. These will last beyond your stint with this one company and help to develop an identity that outlasts the job.
2. Develop identities outside of work
Creating a multi-faceted identity helps to buffer for stress or disappointments that arise from work. While it took four or five years for my patterns to shift, becoming a mom was my first step away from workaholism and spending countless hours in design work, with my identity tied to being a design leader and continually seeking to prove design’s value at each new job. Identities can come from:
- Parenting, whether to human babies or pets
- Circle of friends, loosely clustered around the activities you do together or conversations that form the heart of the friendship
- Communities formed around a variety of purposes from volunteering at the food bank to political causes to mentorship or learning circles
- Activities from physical or fantasy sports to crafts or other creative endeavors
- Fandoms, whether in gaming or other forms of media entertainment
There’s no judgement about which of these identities is more valuable in a society, instead, seek to try on and develop many multifaceted identities so that work doesn’t become the sole identity.
3. Understand your values
Through understanding what you want from this job and experimenting with a variety of identities, start to form a solid picture of what matters most to you from the inside-out. This can be in the form of values or understanding your strengths, or knowing the mission/purpose behind this period of your life.
There’s periods of your life when work is your main identity. And there’s times of uncertainty or negative feedback at work when developing a multifaceted identity beyond work will help you move through the challenge. Three strategies to break out of this identity trap include knowing what you want from the job, developing identities outside of work, and deeply understanding your values.
Hello! I’m your host, Tutti Taygerly. I’ve spent 20+ years in product design & technology, leading teams at startups, design agencies, and large tech companies. I left Facebook in the summer of 2019 to focus on leadership coaching full-time. I write weekly about topics related to design & coaching which you can follow. If you’re curious about coaching and how it could unblock your life, come learn more.