If you’ve lived or socialized in New York City for any length of time, you’ve probably had someone ask, “What do you do?” The culture is fixated on work – what it is, how it’s going, what successes or headaches you’ve experienced there, how much of a monster your boss is, the amount of your paycheck, etc. A common response is, “I’m a…” Continuing the theme of fixation, we use the verb “to be” in relation to our work. We are our work, and it is us.
But in truth, despite it often being placed at the very center of our lives and identity, work is only one part of our experience and does not need to be a part of our identity. Who we are outside of work, and all its complexity, is often left unexplored, unnourished, and undeveloped.
The Psychology of Career and Identity
As an adult living in the US, you are more likely to spend the majority of your waking hours at work than anywhere else. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those working outside the home averaged 7.9 hours of work per day, which does not include getting ready for work or commuting). Your sense of self and identity can easily become fused with, or overwhelmed by, where you are spending so much time.
This tendency is turbocharged by the social significance given to work-related ideas like productivity, working hard, getting ahead, chasing promotions, having to “hustle,” and consumerism. While this can feel uplifting for those experiencing a highpoint in their work, any changes in your ability to be optimally productive (such as getting sick, being fired, or leaving the workforce) can lead to big questions.
If you seemingly are your work, some of the below experiences may sound familiar:
Not having much to talk about other than work or colleagues
Difficulty identifying your likes, dislikes, or interests
Relating everything back to work (ex: positive qualities are those that allow you to succeed at work)
Belief that the next title bump, raise, or job will give you a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction
No sense of play (ability to do something simply for the sake of enjoyment, rather than for financial or professional purposes)
Who we are outside of work, and all its complexity, is often left unexplored, unnourished, and undeveloped.
I often work with clients to explore the impact that the internalization of capitalism has on their self-worth, goals, and identity. If the above experiences resonate with you, it may be a sign that you’re ready to challenge the status quo and break free from some of the capitalistic ideals that you’ve bought into for so long. So, let’s help you discover who you are outside of work.
As an adult living in the US, you are more likely to spend the majority of your waking hours at work than anywhere else.
How to discover who you are outside of work
The importance of exploring your core values and purpose
If your sense of self and identity are consumed by work, imagining anything else or thinking about where to begin may seem daunting. This is extremely common and understandable – you’re challenging yourself to grow in new ways that aren’t often talked about or encouraged. So, how can you start to discover who you are outside of work? One way to begin is by thinking about your values, interests, hopes, and dreams.
Understanding these things can help you recognize the parts of yourself unrelated to job titles and salary brackets. Here are some questions I invite you to reflect on:
- How do I like to spend my free time? (this can help illuminate any areas of enjoyment, hobbies, or potential passions that you may want to lean into)
- Do I have any interests or talents that I haven’t explored (or given myself permission to explore) yet?
- What aspects of my character do I appreciate? (if this is difficult to answer, ask yourself
- what do others appreciate about you?)
- What values do I hold dear in life?
- What are my strengths? What are my areas for growth?
- What drives my behavior and how do I make decisions?
- Who have been the most influential people in my life and why?
- How can I be a better friend, partner, or person to those around me?
If reflecting on the above questions truthfully, some of your answers may be uncomfortable. The purpose of thinking about them isn’t to have everything precisely figured out, but rather to serve as a starting point for learning more about yourself. For many, acknowledging the less comfortable parts of yourself or areas of life you’d like to be different is an important step toward growth and change.
Asking yourself simple questions such as “How do I like to spend my free time?” can help illuminate any areas of enjoyment, hobbies, or potential passions.
You are a whole person outside of work, deserving of rest and fulfillment
How capitalism keeps us stuck
In the United States, work and profit are valued above all else. We are taught from a very young age that to be unemployed or “unproductive” are among the worst things a person can be (just think about how intense the fear of being perceived as “lazy” is). Inevitably, this means many of us are consumed by work as we strive to be the most productive.
The fact that this constant striving leaves little time for the development of personhood is not by accident. People who are too tired and beaten down from work don’t have an opportunity to develop passions, break out of their isolation, organize with others to address their grievances and fight for change, or generally challenge the status quo. Keeping you focused on work affects things from the macro (national, state, and community level) all the way down to you.
For many, acknowledging the less comfortable parts of yourself or areas of life you’d like to be different is an important step toward growth and change.
So, how could you start to break out of this very intentional cycle and begin to get to know yourself better? In addition to reflecting on the questions above, having various building blocks in place can be helpful. Tending to things like your mental health, physical health, and your relationships can go a long way to having you feel supported as you push yourself to grow in new and exciting ways.
You Are More Than Your Job
I’m here to remind you that you are not your job. It may take up significant amounts of your time, energy, and attention, but at the end of the day, it is what you do, not who you are. Exploring your interests, values, and passions can be a great way to begin to untangle work from the parts of your life and identity that are just waiting to be cultivated. You deserve to rest and discover who you are outside of work. Embarking on this journey of growth and development with a trusted professional can be an especially rewarding and fulfilling experience. Regardless of how you get there, though, my hope is that the next time a New Yorker asks you about yourself, you will have more to say than you are your job.