The stories we tell (ourselves)
For four years I’d woken to each new morning in my Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan, looked in the mirror and seen in the reflection someone I had never dreamed of becoming. I saw an engineering manager at Google; an average kid from the north of England, living the dream, working in one of the world’s best companies in one of the world’s most seductive cities. It went beyond just seeing my mirrored self. I’d become fiercely proud of identifying with my role. I had become attached to my answer to the question, “What do you do?” My work defined my life. Again.
You are not a number
Given a life expectancy of around 80 years (Sanders, 2018) we will spend around one third of our days at work (AAT, 2018), alongside peers and colleagues. What we do for this one-third-of-a-life has become the default simplification of who we are. Our sense of self is collapsed into the response to ‘What do you do?’
At Google I took a stand for honesty, respect and trust. As a result I fought hard to create a space of psychological safety where the team could fully show up as themselves each day. Even as I did so I felt the irony of countless conversations wrestling with finding better work/life balance; just one of the many paradoxes I try to hold lightly.
Today those four years in New York City are recent history. Our vision was of somewhere quieter and closer to ageing parents, so my partner and I wrenched ourselves away from the life we’d made, to start something new. Today our belongings are packed, temporarily, in a storage container tucked deep in the English countryside, and a part of us remains behind in the city we fell in love with.
And now, in this moment, I was beginning day one of my coach training, sitting in a circle of strangers, taking turns to introduce ourselves to the group. The woman to my left finished speaking. Two dozen heads turned their gaze to me, attentive to my introduction.
I took a breath to give power to my voice; a futile attempt to swallow down the inadequacy I felt. I was in trouble. My identity was still attached to my (literally) redundant work role. This had been dawning on me since the introductions began and I’d increasingly focussed inwardly. I hadn’t heard the last introduction at all.
“Hi. My name is Duncan. I used to be a manager at Google, in New York City, and now I live in a small village near Monmouth with my in-laws. And I’m unemployed.” Inadequacy and anxiety rose in my throat. I was adrift, and the story I’d been clinging to no longer supported me.
I was in the midst of an identity crisis. The stories I’d built about myself for most of the last ten years were no longer relevant. I used to be interesting. And now I was… what? No longer special?
Stories are immensely powerful and humans are born storytellers. We write new ones all the time, yet old stories are hard to drop and often resurface. (I’ll share more about writing and using our stories at another time, along with how some stories are self-limiting).
Practices to stay afloat
In navigating my own identity crisis I discovered some ideas that were of value to me, and which might help you too.
- Remember your old stories – you have so many. I’d wager you liked the stories you held once, but you may have forgotten them and forgotten those parts of yourself. You are so much more than your job.
- You’re at a transition, a point of opportunity! Becoming something new! This is a time for playfulness and experimentation. Try out new ways of doing and new ways of being. You get to create new patterns without the constraints of expectation. How cool is that! Stories are inspiring, so what story do you want to write for yourself? What new narrative will you construct?
- Reflect on your core values – the stuff that’s really, truly, important to you. Freedom, community, social justice, family? Fulfilment lives in the space where how your are(‘being’), and what you do (‘action’), are aligned with your values. As an adult, values are relatively persistent – you’re likely the same person you always have been. That’s reassuring in a crisis. So what stories do your values tell about you? If all you have is that you are true to your values, then take comfort. Hold on to that, and float, safe for a while and rest.
- Use your support networks; as with all things, the people you keep close see you as you really are. Be alert to the conflicting and multi faceted opinions and feedback you get from outside of this group. Don’t compare yourself to the expectations and assumptions of people who are not you. Eg, “why would you walk away from that job”, “you must be mad”, “I don’t understand why you’d do that”
- Push yourself to create new networks and reach out to new people, new communities, new role models, as part of redefining yourself, to support your evolving identity. We evolved with a desire to belong. Seek out your new tribe.
- Practice mindfulness in whatever form works for you. It may be an activity that quiets the noise and distractions of life; taking a walk, running, practicing yoga, golf, knitting, tuning an engine! Mindfulness helps you stay present in this moment, remaining open and hopeful. (As opposed to living each moment mourning the loss of the past, or being fearful of the future, which never exists, it’s always in the future).
- Spend time drafting your new story. Make it a deliberate act. You get to write it. Read your new story out loud. Try it on for size. It’ll sound very different. Something magic happens when you speak words out loud. They become real as they are put out into the world.
- Write all of your stories down. Your experiences, your values, your beliefs, make you unique in this world. Take heart in that. Write the next draft of your new story. Write many drafts of it. Write many stories. Find a story that fits best for you. It will be a truth, or a version of a truth. And continue to evolve it. There’s always another chapter.
The updated story
It’s been more than six months since that critical moment acknowledging my identity crisis. I’ve come a long way in resolving my existential anxiety.
I had struggled with ‘What do you do?’, but try, ‘Who are you?’ and see what happens. My response is an outpouring of passions and dreams and ideas.
We carry many stories about identity. While recalibrating our sense of self there can be joy in reconnecting with some of the old ones. It can be in these stories that we find our resolution. Our new story may just turn out to be one we already know. It may be more reintegration than crisis.
I see now that I’ve always been a tech-head with strong people skills. My journey over 25 years has always been more about the people I walked beside than the tech I’ve built.
As a team leader, line manager, engineering manager and leadership trainer, I’ve been energised by building teams and developing others. Hey presto! I’ve always been a coach!
What is it that you have always been?
I’ve come, at long last, to view my coaching identity as a natural progression of what I have in fact always been; even outside of work where I’ve coached people rock climbing, sharing my passion and enthusiasm with others, supporting them through their own fears and growth on the rock.
Invite people to meet their true selves
One last tip, to foster a deeper human connection when meeting someone new.
Instead of reaching for…
“What do you do?”
…go deeper, listen intently, observe the aliveness and ask instead…
“What do you like to do that fulfils you?”
If you’re interested in digging deeper I found these sources interesting and thought provoking.
AAT (2018) AAT analyses the average Brit’s work life. Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) [article]. 27 September. Available from https://www.aat.org.uk/aat-news/aat-analyses-the-average-brit-s-work-life [Accessed 08 August 2019].
Bakota, E. (2016) Identity Crisis: Separating yourself from your career. GovLoop [article].April 19. Available from: https://www.govloop.com/community/blog/identity-crisis-separating-career/ [Accessed 06 August 2019].
Carmichael, S. G. (2018) How Your Identity Changes When You Change Jobs. Harvard Business Review IdeaCast [podcast]. 20 November. Available from: https://hbr.org/ideacast/2018/11/how-your-identity-changes-when-you-change-jobs[Accessed 07 August 2019].
Gervais, M. (2019) How to Stop Worrying About What Other People Think of You.Harvard Business Review [article]. 02 May. Available from: https://hbr.org/2019/05/how-to-stop-worrying-about-what-other-people-think-of-you [Accessed 08 August 2019].
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Inc. (2019) Why You Shouldn’t Cling Too Hard to Your Sense of Identity. Inc. [blog]. 04 April. Available from: https://www.inc.com/wanda-thibodeaux/why-you-shouldnt-cling-too-hard-to-your-sense-of-identity.html?cid=search [Accessed 01 August 2019].
Llopis, G. (2014) 5 Workplace Dynamics That Fuel An Employee Identity Crisis. Forbes[article]. 27 January. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/glennllopis/2014/01/27/5-workplace-dynamics-that-fuel-an-employee-identity-crisis/#577b2fe181f2 [Accessed 04 August 2019].
O’Brien, T. (2019) When Your Job Is Your Identity, Professional Failure Hurts More.Harvard Business Review [article]. 18 June. Available from: https://hbr.org/2019/06/how-we-confuse-our-roles-with-our-self [Accessed 16 August 2019].
Robinson, J. (2011) American Identity Crisis: Are You Your Job? HuffPost [blog]. 08 December. Available from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/self-identity_b_1128731?guccounter=1 [Accessed 01 August 2019].
Sanders, S. (2018) National life tables, UK: 2015 to 2017. Office for National Statistics. 25 September. Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/bulletins/nationallifetablesunitedkingdom/2015to2017 [Accessed 08 August 2019].
Sivers, D. (2010) TED : How to Start a Movement. TED. Available from: https://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement?language=en#t-170412[Accessed 11/02/2019].
Slade, T. (2015) Finding Success in a Career Identity Crisis. LinkedIn [article]. 29 May. Available from: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/finding-success-career-identity-crisis-tim-slade/ [Accessed 07 August 2019].
Whitmore, J. (2017) Coaching for Performance: The Principles and Practice of Coaching and Leadership. 5th ed. London: Nicholas Brealey.