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Job Identity: Why You're More Than Your Job

career Jul 05, 2018

There's something pretty loaded and powerful in the question, "What do you do?" The response, however, is even more curious because have you noticed the answer always starts with, "I am..." followed by some societal approved profession.

How do I know this? It's how we've been conditioned to answer that question. In a matter of a few seconds people know about your interest, educational background, social standing, and income potential. I've proudly proclaimed that "I was" a lawyer, associate dean, associate professor, director, etc. I did so because I wanted to acknowledge my achievements and--let's face it--stroke my ego a bit. Why did it stroke my ego? Because certain job titles are a bit more impressive than others in our society. Also what you do seems to give people an impression about who you are. This never became more clear to me then when I decided to work in the direct sales industry and started telling people that I was an independent representative for a retail jewelry company. The shock and horror (as well as disappointment and judgement) on the people's faces was palpable.

The truth is I hated being a lawyer. My idea of justice didn't always align with how the system of laws were being carried out. I actually felt a relief when I was able to walk away and explore other interests. And while there was a part of me that wanted to hold on to that particular job identity for prideful reasons, I had to let go of the title's hold on me to find and live my purpose.

The Problem With Job Identity

This all came back to me when recently. I had a conversation with someone who wanted me to help her find a job. I explained that I couldn't assist her because I help my clients find their "true north" purpose and create a path to live and work in that space. She shared she had no idea what she wanted to do but knew she needed a job. Ultimately we got to the core of why she wanted a job. She shared, "because my job is my identity." When I asked what other identities she held she struggled to name anything other than what she did for work. We walked away from each other but only after I tried to get her to see that she was so much more than her job and until she realized that she'd never truly find work she loved.

When your identity is dependent solely on a job or job title, you've conditioned your subconscious mind to base your self-worth and self-esteem on your employment situation. Sociologists call this role engulfment  where your sense of self exist through your work. The loss of work caused by either layoffs, firing, or even retirement can provoke a severe identity crisis. And in the case of my friend, it's hard to see any way out of the crisis except for finding another occupation.

Perception Is Everything

This is why it's so important to reframe your beliefs and dialogue around job identity in order to free yourself to explore what you were put on this earth to do. You see perception is everything. It's informed by your beliefs, which shape your frameworks and attitudes, which dictate your feelings that will ultimately determine your behavior. When it comes to job identity this is very challenging because of how we define success in our society. We have to break free from these prescribed ways of thinking about success. We can do this by changing our perceptions (beliefs and dialogue) and basing our sense of worth on internally constructed values and not ones that are externally dictated.

When we can embrace the audacity of authenticity we can we find our purpose and engage in our life's work. We'll learn to find joy and meaning, irregardless of titles.

Why You're More Than Your Job

If you're picking up anything I'm putting down here, I want to share three reasons why you shouldn't allow yourself to be defined by your career or job.

1.It's About What You're Meant To Do, Not What You're Called

When you're doing something meaningful and impactful, you really don't care what people call it. It's about what you're doing and why, not the title attached to it. Even lawyers who love what they do won't just say they're lawyers. They'll use phrases like, "I defend justice," or "I ensure equal opportunities for all," or even "I argue for a living." You see when you find what you're meant to do you'll find a way to do regardless of what external label you put on it.

2. You Live At The Intersection of Identities

We're evolved beings because we can reason and because we can do multiple things. I'm a wife, mother, entrepreneur, consultant, friend, leader, middle aged, African American, woman, shoe lover and Harry Potter enthusiast. At any given time in my life one or more of these identities can be primary for me. Quite frankly, I live along the intersection of each of these every day. This is also true for you. Learn to embrace and love the many pieces that make up YOU.

3. People Remember How You Make Them Feel, Not What You Do

The great Maya Angelou once said,

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Your footprint on the world will be how people ultimately remember you. When other's talk about you what do they say? Is it your title or is about your character? Is it your job or the difference you make in your community? Or is it how hard you work or what an inspiration you are? Let your identity be defined by how you impact the world, not the job you were able to acquire.


In Emily Esfahani Smith's book The Power of Meaning, she talked about how so many people struggle with finding meaning in their life because their identity and self-worth centers around their educational and career achievements. Her research showed that cultivating qualities of being good, wise, and generous actually brought more fulfillment into their lives. I believe finding the core qualities of your identity is the basis of finding your true north, which leads to your life's purpose.

If you're feeling stuck, restless, and just asking yourself, "Is this all there is?" then I invite you to schedule a time to connect with me. Let's explore not just where you're at but where you were designed to go. 

Live, laugh, and unapologetically shine!



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