Identity Crisis

24Mar09

They say it is a trait of Americans that we derive a lot of our identity from our jobs. Here you ask someone “What do you do?” and you are almost guaranteed to get an answer relating to their job. In Europe I’ve heard that if you ask the same question you are as likely, if not more so, to get an answer involving their hobbies. I was never convinced that I had fallen into that pattern until recently.

Right now when I am asked “What do you do?” I have to stop and think. I find that I still identify with my former job. When I talk about things my former company is doing, I still use the word “we”. But I feel dishonest saying “I am” when to be completely accurate I should say “I was.” Granted I am looking in the same field for my future situation. That just makes the “I am/I was/I have been” decision even harder.

Another instance that brought this potential identity crisis to mind was a recent phone interview I had. I was asked the standard question of “What is your biggest accomplishment?” The first thing I came up with related to having a son headed off to college in the fall with over half of his tuition paid for by academic scholarships. Part of me liked the fact that I have a strong identification with being a father. But then again, his academic record and scholarships are his accomplishments, not mine. It got me wondering if not being active in my field made it harder to think of an answer that actually related to the job I was applying for. (Not surprisingly, I didn’t get a call back from that company, probably due in part to that answer.)

The most important thing is to keep some separation. The biggest problem with drawing our identity from our jobs is that we start equating “What do you do?” with “Who are you?” The surest way to an identity crisis is letting those two become equal in your mind. If you answer those two questions in the same way, you are sliding down that slippery slope. What you do NEEDS to be only one part of who you are—and hopefully not the most important part. Because then when that “what you do” ends you suddenly lose your whole identity. It is even dangerous if all your answers to “Who are you?” directly involve other people. Don’t start letting yourself think that their accomplishments are your own. People like that seem to suddenly decide they need to run off and “find themselves.”

What do I do? I am currently unemployed and looking for work. Who am I? I am an almost 40-year-old guy. I am married to a brilliant woman and we have an even smarter son. I love to cook (a little too much sometimes). I like to read, especially science-fiction. I like to sing and listen to music (sometimes at the same time and sometimes the same song). I have a sense of humor that varies from dry and sarcastic, to slightly sophomoric, and occasionally to slightly macabre. I have a vegetable and herb garden in the backyard I am aching to get to work on. I like power tools and like to use them, sometimes even actually making something. I am trying to teach myself some website design to use on a website for my wife and another for myself. I’ve started a blog that occasionally gets visited by complete strangers.

Suddenly I feel a lot better about who I am and am less worried about what I do.

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