On Ego and Your Work Identity

Self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe

A few weeks ago, I facilitated our most recent career group session on the topic of career identity.

My particular interest in career identity came from my meeting with David, the life coach, back in 2010. At the time, I was struggling with whether to stay at my job or leave to make a big career change. One thing that came up in our session was that the pleasure I took in writing when I was a child has stayed with me through adulthood. David suggested that because I considered writing essential to my interests, it was appropriate to self-identify as a writer to others. I understood his point in theory, but it was too uncomfortable in practice. I didn’t write enough qualify. In my mind, writers can’t just enjoy writing occasionally in their free time – they have written actual books, they are journalists or poets or fiction writers. Calling myself a writer felt preposterous. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Even though I didn’t follow David’s suggestion, our conversation had made me question how I think of my career identity. I hoped to get the members of our group to do the same, and possibly uncover some of their own overlooked assumptions, goals, or interests in the process. In retrospect, my expectations of achieving this were probably a little higher than they should have been. As the day of our meeting approached, I felt less and less certain of how I wanted to organize the discussion. After some reading and good old fashioned brainstorming, I proposed examining career identity from three of the most common cultural angles using myself as an example:

  1. Job title (ex., Creative Director)
  2. Values/qualifications (ex., arborist)
  3. Field (ex., urban forestry)

I also wrote out some prompts that I hoped would spur interesting conversation:

  • What do you consider your primary career identity? Why?
  • What do you dislike about your career identity? What do you like about it?
  • Examine the role of your ego in your career identity. How important is it for you to feel that others think your job is valuable, impressive, or important?
  • Do you have an aspirational career identity – perhaps something that is a part of your job, but that you don’t feel you can 100 percent lay claim to?
  • Is your career identity something you are ashamed of or want to keep secret about yourself?
  • Are there alternate career identities that feel more exciting or relevant than the one you have now? What are they?

People responded most vocally to the question about the role of ego. Everyone acknowledged that their ego was an important factor in their career identity and that what others thought about their jobs mattered to them deeply. Many of us dread being asked “what do you do?” because we have no succinct, interesting way to summarize our roles, or end up being pigeon-holed into a narrow (or even unrelated) slot. We want other people to “get” our jobs as soon as we tell them what we do.

This was true for people like for Lisa, a senior program officer (“what does that mean?”) who frequently travels to other parts of the world for her job at an international non-profit. Interestingly, it was also true for Sara, who, as an architect, is one of the only group members with a job title that is immediately recognizable. Yet while people might know the word “architect,” Sara’s experience was that people often have serious misconceptions about the actual training and subject matter (real-world response: “Oh, my friend is an interior decorator.”)

When I asked her what she considers her career identity, Sara replied, “anything that feeds my creative self.” This fueled a discussion about identity as a broader concept and led to a comment from Abby that I personally found very helpful. Abby suggested that, when asked about what she did, Sara say something like, “I chose to go into architecture because…” and then fill in the blanks (an  interest in the built environment, in human health, in patterns of behavior, in visual art, etc.) By answering that way, she could share her actual job title, which is what most people are after, but also explain more about herself and her interests. This kind of answer is likelier to lead to a more interesting discussion, feels truer to who Sara is as a person, and also (hopefully) fends off further comparisons to interior decoration.

Toward the end of our meeting, I asked how important career identity would feel if we never had to tell anyone what we did for a living. Everyone agreed it would feel much less important – perhaps it wouldn’t even matter at all. Steph said, “I think the big myth about identity is that it comes from within, when actually, it is the influence of other people’s opinions (how we perceiving other people perceiving us) that is the largest force in forming our identities.”

I never did get comfortable telling people I’m a writer – even though, three years after that first conversation with David – I actually do write quite a lot for my job. After thinking more about it, I’ve realized that this can’t be explained entirely with humility or impostor syndrome. It’s that there is no one-word answer about my identity feels right enough. As much as I would like a simple one-word response, anything I try ends up feeling reductive. My response to the question of what I do for work is always meandering and convoluted – an unintentional reflection of my own uncertainty about how I want to answer. Abby’s simple twist on how to explain what we do is exciting because it is so much more nuanced, broad, and accurate. For me, it is a way to comfortably incorporate my interest in writing – but also other things – into my work without claiming any one of them as my defining identity.

Image: Self-portrait by Robert Mapplethorpe