Who are you without work? Why it's worth finding an answer.

304243784Let’s face it. The idea of work/life balance is tricky. I don’t really subscribe to it for a number of reasons, but I get why it’s out there. It’s appealing. To have work just be work and then to get to be you and live life the rest of the time.

The challenge is that it doesn’t play out that way. If we’re not careful, we can easily become defined by our work. It’s oftentimes the first thing someone asks you – what do you do? Sure, you could say that you ride bikes, cook great meals and practice yoga. In fact, I recommend leading with that instead of what you do for work. But when someone asks that question, most of us understand they mean “What do you do for a living? How do you earn a wage? What pays the bills?”

When it has become commonplace to lead with your work in social situations, it’s easy to understand why our careers are such an ingrained part of our identity. It is, quite often, the first things someone thinks of when they think of you. The first identifier they use to describe you.

If you have no traditional work, who are you? It’s a challenging question. For some, a scary question. But worth the effort to understand. I rarely (if ever) make guarantees in my coaching practice. But the one thing I feel confident about guaranteeing is that at some point in your life, you will experience a career disruption.

They come in many forms – layoffs, mergers / acquisitions, bankruptcies, outsourcing. These are what I call external disruptions. They’re scary and when you go through one, it can feel like your world is crumbling and you have no control over it.

The more confusing and sneakier disruptions are what I call internal disruptions. They happen when your priorities shift. Maybe you’ve started a family and spending your time worrying about work no longer seems worthwhile. Maybe you’ve experienced a shift in your values, and work, for some reason, no longer seems so important. Internal disruptions are less obvious and feel sort of like a mid-life crisis. What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I care anymore?

Whether external or internal, you will have disruptions. And the problem is that when you’re not absolutely in love with your career – when it truly is just a means to earn a living and not a part of some higher calling you feel – a disruption in your career rocks your identity and leaves you feeling lost.

If you’re one of the few lucky people that have been able to pursue a career that calls to you – that you would pursue and engage in even without the external benefits you receive for it – then allowing that work to consume your identity makes sense. Again – if it’s something you would do even if the costs started to outweigh the benefits, then it is a part of your identity. It’s not just about what you do, but it is truly who you are.

But if you’re like most people in our modern culture, you’re not in love with what you do. You’re in it primarily to pay the bills and if the benefits started to dip (i.e., a paycut, less time off or a particularly challenging manager), you’d consider something else. That’s fine. All that means is that your work is your work and you do it to earn a living and you are bigger than just your work. Your work is merely a part of who you are – it does not define you.

The problem is knowing the difference. If the benefits of your work were reduced, would you still pursue it? If so, fine. Lead with your career. It’s more than merely what you do – it’s a part of who you are.

But if not, it’s time to get real about who you are. This doesn’t mean you have to change jobs or go spend a year trying to find meditationyour passion (I’m vehemently against that approach, anyway). But it does mean you need to take some time to discover who you are outside of your career. If your career went away tomorrow, who are you? If you have nothing to “do,” do you still have an identity?

The tricky thing is, the deeper you go down a career path, the more your career becomes ingrained in your identity and the harder it is to step off the path you are on because you feel like you are stepping away from who you are. It takes diligence and constant checking in with yourself to ensure you’re not falling into the trap of losing yourself in what you do. It’s a scary question because if you dig deeper and peel back the layers, you may find there’s not much there. You may find that you’ve been doing what others have told you you’re supposed to do and neglected to find who you are at your core.

That’s ok. There’s still time to figure out who you are. I recommend starting with this book as a quick read to get you motivated. Then sit with the question for a bit – if your work goes away, who are you? What will you tell people about who you are? Dig deep, there’s something there and it’s absolutely worth finding.

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