Society Work

Why Work Should Not Define You

I recently read HBR’s interesting interview with Herminia Ibarra, a professor at the London Business School, about the relationship between ourselves and our work. Reading through the professor’s comments got me thinking about the way in which executives, especially American ones, often find it difficult to separate their personal and professional identities. In my work, I have seen many executives transition, voluntarily and otherwise, out of the c-suite, and it’s common for them to struggle to find a life that is not a continuation of their past role.

For Ibarra, a major source of this difficulty is the sheer amount of time we spend doing our jobs. As she notes:

I mean that’s the paradox of it. You know, that the phrase “you are what you do” could be taken in many different ways and the first of the ways in which you expressed it, you are what you do is what none of us want is to be a kind of like a narrow thing that’s only defined by the instrumental logic of making a living.

But “you are what you do” in the more Aristotelian way is you are what you do every day. What you do habitually, what you do most often, how much that shapes you. And because we work all the time and you know, we work more hours than we do most anything else, it’s gonna shape you and so better to recognize it and to make sure it’s shaping you in ways that you want to be shaped.

The last sentence of this quote is what struck me the most: “it’s shaping you in ways that you want to be shaped.” Most professionals think often about how they shape their job, debating ways of working or tasks that they will or won’t accept. However, my guess is a far smaller number ever stop to think about how their jobs are shaping them. For example, I spent a long time in management consulting, and I can tell you that fifteen years working in someone else’s offices affected how I think about workplace function and disfunction. I also spent that time pretty much living with colleagues on the road: we ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together, often for months at a time. We met early and worked late, always in each other’s company. These intense and highly personal working models made me value calm and collaborative colleagues. Contrary to some opinions, management consulting has no time for prima donas. The best colleague is one you can work alongside from dawn to dusk and still get along.

As with me, when I speak to doctors, scientists, professors, journalists, etc., I notice how their work has changed them. The pressures and pitfalls of professional life can have deep consequences for all of us, yet early in our careers we don’t realize that fact. We think of work as something we fit into, like a car or home, but that’s not really how things work. In fact, for most of us it’s the other way around. Indeed, the best way to think of the impact of work on our identity is to consider the emerging science of epigenetics, which is the study of how our environment affects us in the most fundamental ways. As the field advances, we are learning that our environments (physical and psychological) can affect us biologically in ways previously thought impossible: down to the genetic level. I suspect that in time some enterprising epigeneticists will turn their attention to the workplace, to better understand how bosses, colleagues and offices impact us physically over decades of working life.

As much as we understand that we are not our work title, the temptation to identify ourselves by work is a strong one. Titles can confer status and relevance, and they can elevate one person above his peers. However, titles eventually disappear, and no one is CEO forever. Ibarra notes as much with a story about a long-serving CEO’s experience once he announced his departure:

I still remember one person talking about how he had planned out the transition and so lived through a lame duck period as a leader. And he could actually feel that people weren’t responding to him in the same way and you know, he’d walk into the room and people wouldn’t kind of like hustle to attention. And so he was living with the markers of his declining power on a day-to-day basis and how hard that was even when you think you have a pretty solid ego.

In short, sooner or later, all corporate labels are gone, and we are left only with what we are, intrinsically, as people. I was reminded of this fact by a conversation with a friend who recently left his job as CIO for a global high tech firm. He has been a CIO for as long as I have known him, so I asked him what it was like not to be a CIO at last. His answer was unusual: he loved it and did not, as yet, miss his past role. After years of global travel and responsibilities, he is focused on rediscovering what he, the person, loves to do when he doesn’t owe his day to a company. I mentioned to him that most CXOs who leave their roles find this initial phase exhilarating, but in time they want to return to their past identities. I also mentioned that the few who don’t have this need are usually those who are best able to create a new life for themselves that is wholly distinct from their former corporate roles. They are typically CXOs who always kept a distance between their personal identity and their professional role, ones who would prefer to talk to you at dinner about their passion for music or teaching rather than their latest work challenge.

The preceding point was illustrated to me by another conversation I had last week, this time with a former Accenture colleague in London. We spent the better part of an hour talking about his organizing of a group to lobby for a second Brexit referendum and how he was, for the first time in his life, energized by political action. What started as an idea has grown to a movement, which he leads and through which he is engaging with the world around him. Listening to him talk, I would not be surprised to see this new personal identity, of activist and change agent, continue long after the Brexit debacle is over.

In the HBR interview, Ibarra mentions the idea of a personal story and how we all build a narrative about ourselves, especially when we transition from one role to another:

We are wired to be storytellers and to make sense of our choices and our decisions and sometimes as people ask – especially when you’re leaving a very blue chip organization – like, “Why would you leave?” Or, “why would you do that?” The story is not necessarily always fully-formed or clear in your head or compelling or well-told.

I think this is a critical element for all of us: we should build a narrative of our lives from our very first working days. I have certainly tried to do so. Indeed, some people ask me why I spend so much time writing or teaching, and I always answer that I do it to maintain a safe distance between my job and my identity. Jobs and titles come and go, but what I write and teach stands outside of any one company or role. The same goes for my other personal interests, which I hope define me much more than any job I have or will have.

We are all a story that adds a page every day, sometimes happy and sometimes not so much. What is critical is that this story is ours, not our companies’ or our bosses’ – they come and go with the years, but who we are, and the lifetime’s work we do, are uniquely ours. A mentor, like my CIO friend for example, is a guide to young people with or without a title. A thought leader is driven by curiosity with or without an innovation portfolio. An organizer is a leader in the community as much as in the office. If our personal story, separate and appropriately distanced from work, is one of which we can be proud, then it’s that identity that matters most and that really defines who we are as professionals as well as persons.

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