If you’re like most people, your life has been one identity crisis after another.
- When you’re a little kid, you might have wanted to be astronaut, a doctor, a firefighter, a police officer….a stunt car driver.
- When you’re in high school, you freak out because you’re a freshman – bottom of the social ladder.
- When you’re a senior, you feel invincible – because you aren’t those puny freshman anymore.
- When you’re in college, you decide you’re going to major in chemistry…no, pre-med…wait, art history…aw, screw it – business.
And then you start your working life for real, and you realize you’ve been answering the question, “What do you want to be?”, instead of, “What do you want to do?”
In our culture, we have learned to equate our job/career with who we are. You can argue the rights and wrongs of this approach, but it’s a fact of life for most people in the working world. I’m not here to debate pros and cons. I’m more interested in honestly facing the impact our identity obsession has on our career decisions, and how acknowledging that fact can help us make better ones.
- The Company: Whether it’s when you’re first starting out or are 20 years into your career, the name of the company on your business card can influence your choice. Do you join Google, even though the job sucks? Or do you join ABC, Inc. – a relative nobody, but a nobody who will challenge and engage you on a daily basis? Easy money says you take the cooler sounding company because you know you have the opportunity to grow in an awesome organization.
And yet…companies like Google are targeted by recent college grads, but not because of their job now, but because it will help them get a better job later. [Note: Peter Cappelli shared this thought in a presentation I saw 6 years ago – still searching for the link!] Be honest about whether this choice is a destination or a stepping stone to something else.
- The Path: At some point, you may be faced with the choice between remaining an individual contributor or angling for the management track. A lot of people have no desire to lead others. They like what they do, the challenge of the work. The idea of dealing with the drama of others makes some people break into a cold sweat.
And yet…some people think if they don’t achieve manager status, they have some how failed. Is it enough to be “just” an expert in your field, or do you feel like you have to “prove” something…and maybe give up a piece of what makes you happy?
- Title: Those in the know will claim title doesn’t matter, just what you do; and that truly happy employees are unconcerned with such trivial things as what’s on their business cards. Plenty of us in HR and recruiting have rolled our eyes at the “Manager of Accounts” title that amounts to little more than a glorified salesperson.
And yet…how many of us have faced those same recruiters and had to answer ridiculous questions about why you “took a step back” just because a title isn’t as cool sounding as as the responsibilities you have? (Seriously, recruiters – you know better than to assume every company uses the same title structure!) It would be disingenuous to not acknowledge the influence that title has on our decisions.
- Industry: My background has been in a lot of different industries – some exciting (VOIP, startups, alternate energy) and some not thought of as innovative (event planning, insurance, utilities). Each industry I’ve worked in has taught me fascinating things and challenged me in ways I didn’t anticipate.
And yet…there have been times in my past where I have hesitated to share what industry I worked in because it wasn’t the “hot new thing.” If your identity is tied to being forward-thinking, envelope-pushing, and an all-around rabble-rouser, there can be some cognitive dissonance around the industry you choose to work in.
Each of us has made at least one decision (or more) in our career based on how we’ll answer the question “what do I want to be?” If we think we aren’t considering the coolness factor of a particular opportunity, and the way others might react when we’re talking at cocktail parties, we’re just fooling ourselves.
The ultimate sign of confidence and self-actualization may be the ability to simply share what you do when talking about your job…and being who you truly are.
We know what we are, but not what we may be.
*Because it never gets old to watch Dennis Green do this.