It’s often the first question we’re asked when we meet someone new: “What do you do?” While we may do any number of things in our daily lives, from engaging in hobbies to caring for loved ones, those aren’t the answers the other person is looking for. Instead, we’re expected to answer the broad, inviting question of “what do you do” with our job title.
It’s dangerously easy for our careers and our identities to become synonymous. While some people may have no problem with this, many of us balk at the idea of being defined by our titles.
This can be especially problematic for those of us working for organizations whose values don’t match our own, or for people dealing with unemployment. So how can we keep our work status from defining us?
How to Define Yourself Outside of Work
1. If You Definitely Don’t Identify With Your Job…Know That You’re Not Alone
Ask the average person whether they’ve worked for a company they didn’t like, and they’ll probably say yes. Whether we’re working in a field we loathe just to pay the bills or dealing with a bully of a boss to get necessary work experience, we’ve all found ourselves in positions we’re less than fond of.
The last thing we want in these cases is for people to equate us with our less than amazing jobs. Even worse than that is when we start to identify ourselves with our unpleasant workplaces. We can survive when others have negative opinions about us, but when we dislike ourselves, we’re in big trouble.
So if you’re working for a company you hate and feel like it’s starting to affect your self-image, try a new approach. Think of a loved one who is or was working at a company whose values or culture totally clashed with their own. Would you equate that loved one’s ethics and personality with those of their office? Probably not—so it’s not fair to equate yourself with the aspects of your job that you don’t enjoy or stand for.
Plus, there are ways to fight back against office cultures that go against your personal beliefs. For more on this, see the upcoming section on fighting workplace negatives with personal positives…
2. Unemployment Doesn’t Define You Either
Disliking your job is one thing, what if you’re going through a period of joblessness? This is a tough issue to unpack, but as a start, it helps to remember that most of us have lived through bouts of unemployment that have left us feeling frustrated, bored, or even worthless. These feelings are normal, but they are not representative of reality.
Again, it can be helpful to think of a loved one here. Would you describe your grandmother, who never had a job but raised four children, as a slacker? What about your best friend who has incredible talents but hasn’t been able to find a position that fits her skills? There is so much more to them—and to you—than their job status.
Not convinced? Think of John Steinbeck, writer of The Grapes of Wrath, who was unemployed for years until receiving a grant to write guidebooks of major American cities and eventually using his writing skills to become a Nobel laureate. Or Susan Boyle, who had no formal position and spent her days caring for her ailing mother when she first auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent and became an overnight sensation. Then of course there are people like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and J. K. Rowling, who not only experienced unemployment, but were also famously fired from their early jobs.
It all goes to show the smartest, most hard-working people go through job slumps. No one would call Oprah a failure just because she faced career challenges early on. Who’s to say you can’t be the next Oprah?
3. Fight Workplace Negatives with Personal Positives
It can be hard to feel good about ourselves after we’ve spent all day doing something we hate. It’s even harder when we feel that the company we’re working for has bad values, whether they’re overcharging for products or treating employees like objects. Ideally, we’d be able to quit these jobs ASAP, but that’s not always an option.
Until you’re able to transition into a job that makes you feel good, find ways to make sure your life narrative doesn’t match the unpleasant narrative of your company. For example, if you’re working for a clothing company that promotes unrealistic beauty standards, you can advocate for more body-positivity and diversity within the company, or support causes like The Body Positive and the Dove Self-Esteem Project in your free time. Do your superiors promote a competitive, scapegoating environment? Defy the negative culture by being quick to own up to your mistakes and give your coworkers credit for even their smallest successes.
You can’t always control the story of your workplace, but you can control your own priorities and values. And who knows—maybe you’ll influence systemic change. Just think of Temple Grandin; after witnessing the horrific treatment of cattle in slaughterhouses, Grandin became a slaughterhouse consultant and advocated for majorly improved conditions. Then, of course, there’s the beloved Reese Witherspoon, who experienced sexism in the film industry firsthand and was inspired to start her own production company dedicated to creating better opportunities for women. Experiences in negative environments may actually give you, like Grandin and Witherspoon, the tools you need to better advocate for your beliefs.
4. Dedicate Time to Your Passions
Our career doesn’t have to be our only productive or meaningful outlet. The following are just a few ways you can dedicate time to the interests that make you feel fulfilled and inspired:
- Join a club dedicated to the sport you love, like ultimate frisbee or cycling;
- Enroll in a local college class like anthropology or gothic literature;
- Try to cook your way through an entire cookbook;
- Start a blog where you review local performances, food, etc—or see if your local news source is looking to publish your work;
- Find a group of people to meet with regularly and practice a foreign language—we recommend searching on Meetup or contacting a local college;
- Audition for community theater, or volunteer to help out backstage;
- Join a book club;
- Volunteer for a cause you’re passionate about, like animal rescue or supporting survivors of domestic violence;
- Become a little league coach; or
- Get musical by learning an instrument or even joining a band.
These, of course, are just a handful of ways to incorporate your passions into adult life. Do you have any family or friends who find time for their passions outside of work? What tips can you glean from them?
5. Set Boundaries
You won’t be able to establish a strong identity outside of work if you feel like you’re constantly on call. It can be difficult to establish and stick to workplace boundaries, but doing so is necessary to both your sense of self and overall health. Some people do this by disconnecting their work emails from their phones and refusing to check them outside of work hours. Others establish hard rules like not working on the weekends (no matter how much their bosses might pressure them to!) or refusing to do (or even look at) work documents in certain areas of the house, like the bedroom or the dinner table.
Sometimes, even basic rules like these are difficult to follow without getting in trouble at the office. Even if your work absolutely forces you to be on call at all time, there are little ways you can escape into a soothing space. Find tips for creating mini-escapes throughout your busy day here.
Your job may be an important part of your life, but so many things can come before it, such as your passions, relationships, or deeply-held beliefs. You can be a paralegal but also a learner, a mental health advocate, and an animal lover. Or maybe you’re unemployed, but you’re also an artist, an aunt, and a math whiz. It’s natural to put some emphasis on the role that allows us to pay our bills, but it’s also crucial to acknowledge the roles that make us feel happy, good, and like life is worth living.
What are your many, many roles? How do they shape your identity? Let us know on Twitter.