A Mark Sanborn Classic
You’ve probably asked and answered one of the most common questions posed to adults in modern history more times than you can recall: “What do you do?”
The repeated asking of this question over and over is not a testament to the significance of the answer, but rather a window onto the prevailing tendency to define and describe ourselves according to our jobs. A number of years ago I moved to Denver from Philadelphia. I would ask new acquaintances, “What do you do?” When I asked that question in Philadelphia, the answers were occupational: “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’m a sales rep.” But in Denver I was getting responses like, “I snowboard,” or “I rock climb.” People were defining themselves not by their occupations, but by their avocations. This was a significantly different mindset than I was used to, but it was a refreshing difference.
Most of us do not lack other passions, but we still sculpt an image of ourselves that is narrowly defined. In fact, these chosen identities are more often confining. I am so much more than my occupation. And so are you. There are many layers, nooks and crannies to the “self” other than employment. There are many traditional roles I have: son of Dorothy, brother of Shawn, husband to Darla, father to my sons Hunter and Jack, friend, neighbor, etc.
I’m also an entrepreneur, an author, an avid scuba diver, and a sojourner trying to live a life of purpose and meaning. Because we spend so much of our time at our jobs, there is a tendency to ascribe to it the core of our being. As a result, losing a job, getting a pay cut or getting passed over for a promotion can be devastating to our identities. Those are no longer work events; they somehow reflect our value and our sense of who we are. When self-esteem and self-fulfillment are attached to the job to such a degree that job performance becomes a measure of who we are as people, we have lost the compass to a meaningful journey. By assigning so much identity and importance to our careers, we dilute our potential by distilling it into one segment of life: work.
We also run the risk of losing sight of our priorities and our values. While my work as a speaker and author is fulfilling and engaging, it is not my most important responsibility. My single most significant contribution to the planet is to raise sons who grow to be adults of integrity and commitment. There is nothing else I can do that would mean more to the world than to nurture the soul of my sons into principled manhood. No keynote address or corporate consultation could yield as much as that.
You also have a mission, a role, a purpose that goes far beyond the title on your business card. It may involve raising children; it may not. It is up to each of us to find our own paths. Finding your own path is not easily done in a culture that puts a preponderance of meaning on job titles. As a sole proprietor, I have to fight the urge to consume myself with business. Although I have owned my business for sixeen years and have weathered various boom and bust times, I still wrestle with my own work demons. My business has grown consistently every year, yet I still can get fixated on a temporary downturn. A full calendar tells me I’m doing great; a slow month has me wondering if I’ve lost my edge. I allow my sense of well-being to be influenced by the bookings on my docket. I still have to practice disengaging myself from my preoccupation with my occupation.
Success at untangling myself from my work has come slowly, with conscious effort and a commitment to a spiritual path. It is my unwavering faith in God that provides the bedrock for my choices and keeps me aligned with my core purpose. Following a spiritual tradition of any kind provides balance so that your life is not consumed by work; instead you are consumed with life that fills you up, and adds to your sense of well-being and belonging in the world. It gives a sense of perspective and a context for making choices that reduces internal conflict.
Rapid technological change and a burgeoning global economy have resulted in dramatic changes in business as we usher in a new millennium. It seems that every week another industry is undergoing a complete metamorphosis. In the wake of these sweeping changes, employees are wandering around like walking wounded. Downsizing, reorganization and new technology have rocked the business world. Managers in an array of industries find that their departments are obsolete. Competitors have suddenly become allies. Employees double check the signatures on their paychecks as they struggle to keep pace.
As responsibilities and people are shuffled, questions begin to emerge for those who no longer find themselves working in the same capacity as they had been. Some try to find their places in a newly merged organization while others find themselves looking at a severance package. The safety of a long-held identity as an employee with a specific title for a particular company is stripped away. Beyond the immediate questions employees face about how to meet the mortgage payment or cover the tuition bill is a deeper, more anguishing question that many are confronting. They ask themselves: what does it say about me that my company eliminated my position and sent me on my way with a severance package? Does that mean that I haven’t done a good job? Is the message that my contribution wasn’t valued? Am I insignificant?
Of course, you are significant and you have worth and value! However, no one else can validate your own worth. You have to believe in your own value. You have to love yourself, recognize the depth and complexity of all the things you are and separate your self-worth from your work. If you find that self-doubt and self-criticism haunt you, you need to take time to examine your life and your core beliefs. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” While that might be a bit of an overstatement, his point is well made. The reality is that unexamined lives are rarely lived well. How could they be?
It is only through reflection and dedication to personal growth that we can challenge ourselves to become more fully ourselves, to maximize our potential. Through a comprehensive process of self assessment, looking at all aspects of yourself–professional, personal, spiritual, physical–you gain insight and conviction about how to regain your balance and refocus your efforts. Relationships can be miraculously resurrected when the negligent party takes responsibility for his actions (or his negligence). By directing energy and attention into a relationship that had been neglected in favor of work, you have the opportunity to let yourself and the relationship flourish in ways that had not been possible previously because you weren’t fully participating. Likewise, new meaning and purpose can be found by devoting time to matters of faith. Attending to your spiritual self will enrich all the areas of your life.
It is always good to check the distance between your lips and your life. This is particularly sage advice for a public speaker! Congruency between what we espouse to be important and how we actually live our lives is the truest test of integrity.
Most of us wait until a major crisis shakes us to our foundation before we take the time to examine our lives and integrate our whole beings into our living. A crisis is not required; in fact, it’s not even recommended. Nurture all the aspects of yourself. Excavate those long-buried parts of yourself that you’ve forgotten. Pick up an old hobby. Get a new one.
Be a better spouse. Spend quiet time with yourself. Volunteer. Call an old friend. Play with your kids. Don’t wait until signs of neglect or imbalance begin to erode your life before you expand your self-concept to include all of you. Attend to all the facets of the treasure that is you.
There is much more to you than your job. If you’ve lost touch with the rest of yourself, find it, and then reclaim or develop it. You’ll be amazed and delighted with the results. Guaranteed.