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Why I Stopped Defining Myself by My Job Title

I started asking myself: Who am I? And how do I want to live my life? And once I owned up to all the things that I had kept buried under my work identity, I started to make changes.
02/12/2014 11:22pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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When I graduated from college, I went to work in the social sector, and have remained in it ever since. At 27, I was named the number two in an organization, and when I left that job four years later, the executive director read a resolution in the board meeting minutes, honoring me and my work. My mentors threw me a reception and made donations to a nonprofit with which I volunteered.

So why did I leave? Because at 31, my physical and mental health and relationships were a mess. I'd fallen into a trap of my own making -- one that I think folks who choose to work in the social sector, in particular, are prone to fall into it. It was the trap where I told myself the story that my organization's success was dependent on me, the trap where my work became more than a job; it became my identity.

I didn't choose to work in the social sector because I thought that it would bring me fortune or power, but rather because I was passionate about improving American cities and regions, and committed to making the world a better place. People, upon hearing what I did and do for a living, assumed I was a mensch and that the work must be so "rewarding." But, like all people, I can be a jerk sometimes, and my work can be boring or unfulfilling.

So, how did I get out of the trap?

First, I wouldn't recommend doing what I did because it was pretty extreme. I quit my job and moved to a community where I had a strong network of friends. I found a new job but quickly fell into old habits. And then, four months into my tenure there my beloved dog died, and about two months after that I contracted pneumonia, and then two months after that my grandmother (who I was very close with) passed away.

And because of all this, for the first time in my career, I let go at work. I went in and did my job (except when I had pneumonia, when I worked from home), but I was able to see that it was just a job. People understood that I was dealing with "bigger" things, and they were kind and supportive -- coming with me to the vet, ordering a delivery of soup to my apartment, listening to stories about my gram as I grieved.

And for the first time in a long time, I stopped defining myself by my job title. And started asking myself: Who am I? And, how do I want to live my life? And once I owned up to all the things that I had kept buried under my work identity, I started to make changes. The simplest reflection of this was changing my Twitter bio, which used to feature my job title and organization prominently. It now just reads: Swimmer, Traveler, Lover, Fighter.

I wish there was an easy answer, or that the answer was the same for all of us. But, the hard truth is that it's not, and that ultimately you have to figure it out for yourself, and change yourself because no one else will do it for you. But, I can offer you a tool that's been really useful for me.

About 16 months ago, I attended a two-day training from Cambridge Leadership Associates called Learning to Lead Adaptively (which I highly recommend). One of the exercises that we were introduced to focused on identifying our conflicting motivations and values and how they show up in our behaviors. I think it works best when you write down your answers. But here are the questions -- slightly adapted for this context -- to reflect on:

  • 1. What sorts of things -- if they happened more or less often in your life -- would make you happier/more balanced?

  • 2. What values are you committed to/what's important to you? (write down whatever comes to mind).

  • 3. What are you doing or not doing that is preventing you from fully realizing the values/doing what you identified as important to you in question 2?

  • 4. Reflecting on question 3, what other values are you committed to/what else might be important to you?

  • 5. What do you assume will happen if you change your behaviors?
  • If you're interested in discussing this post, or sharing your own story, or have questions, please say hello. Comment here, or you can reach me @AKGold11 or alisongold [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Alison Gold is a swimmer, traveler, lover, and fighter who lives in Washington, DC. You can read more of her musings at www.swimmertravelerloverfighter.com or learn about the organization she works for at www.LivingCities.org.

    This article originally appeared on Unsectored.