Your Job Isn't Who You Are


12/3/202213 min read

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Were you ever asked that as a kid? Of course you were. Maybe you are still trying to figure it out.

I don’t ever remember saying I wanted to work in a human resources department, but that’s how it turned out. Not exactly the stuff childhood dreams are made of, but at some point, dreams give way to reality. Most of us aren’t doing what we said we wanted to do when we were kids. That could feel disappointing, but then again we don’t really expect to be doing at age 45 what we said we wanted to do at age 5.

So why do we ask kids that?

Did you ever stop to think about how odd it is we ask children what occupation they want to be as an adult? An occupation is definitely the answer we’re looking for. We’re not asking if they want to be a good person. We’re not asking if they want to do good deeds. We’re asking them a question they will be asked over and over again throughout their childhood and into their early adulthood. We’re priming them. What job will they have? What kind of a career will they have? What on earth will they do if they can’t figure that out? Better start young. If they can’t figure it out by the time they’re a young adult we start to worry, so we start implanting the idea of a job and career very early.

Obviously we want our kids to grow up to be successful adults who contribute to society. We want them to have a well-formed sense of identity and a clear purpose in life. We want the best for them - a successful and good life. That’s fair enough, but why is the answer we’re looking for an occupation? Why are we trying to send such a clear signal that the job you choose is who you will become as a person?

children standing on bridge
children standing on bridge

I’ll tell you why. It’s because we live in a careerist culture.

We live in a careerist culture that has become obsessed with work, occupational status, and the size of one’s salary. Our jobs exist not only to provide money, but the promise of much more – identity, purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.

Peoples’ identities have become intertwined with their jobs. One of the first things we ask a new acquaintance is, what do you do? We’re not really asking what they do. We're asking who they are. When they look in the mirror, who do they see, and who do they want us to see? A high-powered attorney? A successful executive? An educated professor? A caring health care worker. A CEO of a startup. A software developer working on a cool new app. A working parent who can deftly balance raising kids with a successful career. Someone who has more than just a job. Someone who is on the right track. Someone who has achieved something in their career. Someone who has made it. Someone whose job reflects the best of who they are.

Some people are happier than others to tell you what their job is. Have you ever noticed that every interaction with an engineer is prefaced with, “Well I’m an engineer so…”. So what? Am I supposed to instantly understand you're smarter, more analytical, logical, and systematic in your thinking than I am? Am I supposed to attribute a certain level of credibility to whatever comes out of your mouth next just because you’ve told me you’re an engineer...regardless of whether we’re discussing engineering?

Notice that no one ever says, “Well, I’m a waiter” and expects skill and competence to be heaped upon them.

But engineers have college degrees you say. Yes, they do. Believe me, so do a lot of waiters. But math is hard you say. Yes, it is. And if someone can do hard math, they’re probably pretty smart, and I respect that. But how much am I supposed to value an engineer’s opinion over a waiter’s just because they can do hard math? How much status and respect should I give someone, before I ever hear the content and quality of their ideas?

person serving burger with pitcher of juice
person serving burger with pitcher of juice

Our careerist culture tells us how much.

The higher the level of occupational prestige, the higher the level of social status. We ask people what they do, not so much because we are interested, but because their job is a clear indication of their social status. We want to know as quickly as possible how we should regard them, and more importantly, where we stand in relation to them in the social pecking order. This especially true for high earning, educated, middle to upper class professionals. The white collar working elite can barely process how to interact with someone unless they know their job title and educational pedigree.

Because we live in a careerist culture, we virtually assume that what you do for a job, is who you are as a person. Jobs have become a quick and easy proxy for peoples’ identities and persona. Our jobs stand in for the public image of our personalities, and the social role we’re playing in the world. They have become the defining detail of who we are.

man wearing black notched lapel suit jacket in focus photography
man wearing black notched lapel suit jacket in focus photography

This tendency has a long history. For example, think about how many English surnames come directly from an occupation. Baker, Butcher, Carpenter, Cook, Cooper, Farmer, Fisher, Hunter, Mason, Miller, Piper, Potter, Shepherd, Shoemaker, and of course, Smith the most common last name in the U.S. The practice became common in medieval Europe and today there are literally hundreds of occupational surnames across various nationalities and ancestries. What could be more defining about who we are than our name? Today this practice is long gone, but the legacy is still with us. An obvious but critical distinction is that back then people didn’t choose their jobs. Choosing our professions is part of what makes them such a significant marker of our identities, and creates a more nuanced significance to our jobs.

As an indication of just how intertwined our jobs have become with our identities, many people now experience a phenomenon psychologists call “enmeshment”. With enmeshment, boundaries between work and personal life become blurred, and personal identity is subsumed by one’s profession. Knowingly or unknowingly, some people almost welcome this blurring. If you have a "good job" there is plenty of positive reinforcement and external validation to be gained: recognition, praise, prestige, status...maybe even envy. All the signals indicate you are on the right track and doing the right thing.

But what if you don’t have a good job? What if you don’t have a job at all? Have you ever witnessed the uncomfortable, semi-embarrassed look on the face of a homemaker and stay-at-home parent when they’re asked what they do? I have. It didn’t feel good. Why should that be the case? According to studies, kids with stay-at-home parents have better academic performance, lower levels of stress, fewer behavioral problems, and more hands-on time for play, nurture, and development. Being a stay-at-home parent is arguably harder (and more important) than many career-oriented jobs, and yet it continues to be stigmatized and less esteemed.

What about when we meet someone subsisting as a barista? Quickly assessing their situation, we see that with only a Bachelor of Fine Arts and service industry experience on their resume, their chances of re-inventing their career is dismal at best. Do we smile and offer the polite cliché that “it’s just a job” while privately pitying them? Do we ever think to ask if they have other pursuits and passions, or do we automatically, if not a little guiltily, think to ourselves, loser?

woman holding magnifying glass
woman holding magnifying glass

What about the masses of people who have had a modest measure of career success and are working as middle management in some company we’ve never heard of? They might actually be pleased with their job, and for good reason, but would they be mortified to know that to the casual observer most of what they do is rather dull and uninteresting?

On the one hand, careerism promises that with education, hard-work, and admittedly a little luck you can improve your situation. A better life, upward social mobility, self-identify, purpose and meaning are all within your control, if you only follow the script. That’s not an all-around terrible proposition, but it is a limiting proposition. Identity and self-worth are a lot to stake on a career, let alone on a job.

What happens when your career becomes your whole identity? How much angst does the simple question “so what do you do?” create for anyone who can’t honestly say they love their job? How much more angst is produced by a bad performance review, or a mediocre raise? When your job is a reflection of who you are, how do you cope with being demoted, downsized, or fired? It’s not just the worry of being able to pay the bills you’re feeling. It’s the anxiety of not being good enough, and having part of your identity taken from you, if only for a little while.

Is the careerist yardstick really how we want to measure peoples’ worth? What happens if you don’t measure up? Most people aren’t truly satisfied with their careers, but they have bought into the idea that they should be, only to be left feeling disappointed, anxious, and unfulfilled. Careerism has overpromised and under-delivered. And that’s only part of the problem.

man wearing white top using MacBook
man wearing white top using MacBook

The pernicious issue with careerism, is that it so often goes hand in hand with consumerism. A good career is not just the way to boost one’s self-identity, it’s also the way to get new and better stuff. Luxury cars, expensive watches, logo handbags, and the latest tech all signal that careerists are living well. But better stuff isn’t the only way careerists show they're living their best life. Our status symbols have evolved to be much less ostentatious, but status symbols nonetheless. Much of the “stuff” careerists now buy includes new and better experiences, and is meant to signal their investment in themselves, particularly when it comes to lifestyle, wellness, and education.

Today’s careerists are just as likely to spend their hard-earned money on concert tickets, events, festivals, vacations, meals at posh restaurants, spa days, yoga lessons, high-end gyms, personal trainers, private school for their kids, and all manner of personalized and curated experiences. Some of this consumption isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If these experiences are done in the company of friends and family, they can indeed buy some happiness. The problem is, whether it is a luxury car or a luxury vacation, the more new and better stuff we get, the more we want. Perhaps if careerists could take a step back and reflect on their consumption they might gain some clarity about what they truly need to be happy. But who has time for that? There is an arms race for status actively raging among careerists, cranked up to 10 by what they're viewing on their social media.

How do careerists keep up? It’s either massive credit card debt or kicking the career up a notch. Sometimes it’s both. Careerists pursue raises, promotions, and better jobs not just because they boost their self-image, but because they also lead to higher incomes. Those higher incomes allow them to keep up with whoever the Joneses are to them. The ironic downside is that their higher incomes also fuel lifestyle creep. Even if careerists could avoid the toxic effects of social comparison, they can’t help but continuously adapt to the level of their newly gained lifestyle. Careerists are stuck running in place on the hedonic treadmill, in a perpetual cycle of work and spend.

photo of woman holding white and black paper bags
photo of woman holding white and black paper bags
woman in black tube top sitting on chair
woman in black tube top sitting on chair

In this paradigm, what happens when the devout careerist wakes up one morning and realizes they hate their job? What happens when it gets harder and harder to muster the energy and enthusiasm for work? What happens when they start to question if pursuing their career is really their key to living a good life? Troubling thoughts, especially when they've invested so much time and energy in their career. These thoughts are even more troubling when their mortgage payment and student loans are due, private school for the kids is adding up, and they still really want to go on that trip to the Amalfi coast.

Like mental antibodies fighting a mind virus, conventional wisdom kicks in and tells them this - If you’re feeling doubt about your career it’s probably because your job just isn’t quite the right “fit”. That happens from time to time, but it’s okay. You just need to find a job that is a better fit for you. You’ve got a great career and you should be thankful for it. Make the best of it because after all, we all have to work. Put yourself in the shoes of this careerist. Maybe you’re wearing them already. What happens if you take the red pill? You can decide to see reality as it is and come to terms with these unsettling thoughts, but practically where does that leave you? You’re stuck.

woman with jacket on front of concrete building
woman with jacket on front of concrete building

But what if the conventional wisdom isn’t quite right?

My basic premise is this. A career is important and necessary, but it isn’t something we should spend 45 years of our lives doing by default, without a conscious choice. Although most people don’t realize it, there is a choice to be made. This choice is especially relevant for the highly educated, high earning careerists have been the most devoted to the religion of work. Do we double down on our careers, continuing to fuel increasingly expensive lifestyles, hoping to find an illusory sense of fulfillment, or do we seek a different path?

The alternative path is both psychological and practical. First, it involves rejecting the idea that our career is our identity. A career is what we do for a time, not who we are. It is recognizing that the sum total of your self-worth isn’t your job title and salary. Second, it involves achieving financial independence, so you don’t have to be dependent on a job to fund your wants and needs. This involves everything from mastering the basics of personal finance, to intentionally designing your desired lifestyle. At its simplest, it means rethinking your relationship with work. It means questioning the tenants of careerism and being open to the idea that you might have to ditch your career to start doing what is really meaningful to you.

I recognize there are people out there who have to work indefinitely. They literally can’t afford not to work. While this is a reality many of us have more control over our lives and our financial futures than we think. Ditching your career doesn’t mean dropping out. It means liberating yourself to make an impact where and how you want. It means re-conceptualizing work from earning a salary, to using your time and talents for something important and meaningful to you. Be a full-time parent. Get involved in your community. Pursue an entirely new vocation. Start a business. Travel the world. Volunteer. Develop your character. Discover your true calling. Do the things that bring your enjoyment and satisfaction, but also do things for the greater good - things that actually connect to your unique sense of purpose and meaning.

But can’t you do those things and still have a career? Better yet, can’t you do those things through your career? For the people who hit the careerist lottery, maybe so. My hat is off to anyone for whom this is the case. And look, let me be clear about who this message is for. If your career involves solving the world's most important and complex problems like feeding the hungry, lessening climate change, finding cures for debilitating diseases, preventing pandemics, forestalling nuclear Armageddon, brokering world peace, and advancing life changing technologies, then this message is not for you. You should probably ignore this and keep doing what you're doing.

Clearly I'm being a bit facetious, but the reality is most people's careers are not spent working on the world's most pressing problems. They just aren't. I wish more were. Maybe more people would if they only had the choice and freedom do so. If working on the world's most important and complex problems, even in a small way, seems like a good idea to you, perhaps you need the financial independence to extricate yourself from your current career so you can actually take up a more important calling.

I realize I might be setting a high bar. Doing anything short of solving world hunger doesn't mean your work isn't important or valuable. We can all make a difference in our careers, even if it's in a small way. If everyone showed up to their job and did their best every day clearly the world would be a better place. It’s good to invest in your career. It’s good to have a career. We need ambitious people to work hard and contribute to our society. In many ways, our high standards of living and prosperity are due to peoples' careers.

grayscale photo of military man
grayscale photo of military man

With that throat clearing out of the way, my premise still remains the same. Careerism has overpromised and under-delivered. Careerism creates an overdependence on our jobs for both our means and meaning. It causes us to be stuck in a cycle of work and spend. It causes us to be laser focused on getting ahead in our careers to the detriment of making an impact in other, perhaps more important ways. It causes us to feel disappointed, anxious and unfulfilled when our jobs aren't as satisfying as we unrealistically think they should be.

We all have a deep desire to be productive, creative, and helpful to others, but our jobs don’t have to be the only way to achieve these aims.

If you are on a career track you feel good about, then my advice is to keep going. See what you can accomplish. Seek the limits of your potential. But keep in mind there might come a day when your career is less important to you than it is now. Your career may become something you don't want to keep doing. What if that day comes before you can retire? What will you do then? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a choice? It’s nice to have an escape hatch when you want it. The thing is, the escape hatch can’t be built overnight. There is a simple path to financial independence and unshackling yourself from your career. Simple doesn’t mean easy, and it won’t happen overnight, but it is infinitely possible for anyone.

You just have to start by remembering one thing. Your job isn't who you are.