How Your Job Shapes Your Identity: What to Cultivate and What to Avoid

It’s important to know what you want out of a job before you set your sights on a particular career. For some people, most often those with jobs that lack specific hours (think doctors, lawyers, etc.), a career can easily become a way of life. So if what you do shapes at least part of who you are as a person, what attributes should you try cultivate through your job? And what attributes should you avoid?


Cultivate personal fulfillment

You’ll find the most professional success and satisfaction if you choose a career path in line with your own personal “values, preferences, and beliefs.” With that said, you should spend some serious time evaluating your own needs and desires. How do they line up with your current career? What kinds of careers are you naturally drawn to, and which values and beliefs do they fulfill? Which values and beliefs are not being fulfilled? The more closely your personal outlook aligns with your professional career, the more likely your identity will take shape in a way that truly fulfills you.

Cultivate an identity outside of work

While it may seem counterintuitive to focus on time spent outside of work in order to make you happier while at work, doing so can actually help prevent you from tying your identity too closely with your job. Explore the hobbies you’ve always been interested in but never had a chance to try or revisit some from your youth that you haven’t thought about in years. 

Cultivate making a difference

Choosing a job that makes some sort of impact on what matters to you can positively impact your sense of personal identity. What that difference is can be completely up to you. What matters to you? What issues do you feel strongly about? If your job can’t or doesn’t directly impact those causes, is there a way you can make some changes to help indirectly support those issues?

Avoid working solely out of obligation

Try not to choose a job out of a sense of obligation to your family or a particular community. This oftentimes happens when a child feels they have to “carry on” a legacy of some sort, whether it’s following in the footsteps of their high-powered parents or fulfilling the dream of loved ones who never got certain opportunities. Choosing a career based on the expectations of others can lead to a “fear of failure and isolation” that “drives people to center their lives on achieving what is expected of them.” When your identity is so caught up in a job you don’t love (or even like), it can be a recipe for disaster.

Avoid not having a life outside of work

Anne Wilson, a psychology professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, warns against spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on a career: “It can lead to a psychological state called ‘enmeshment,’ where the boundaries between work and personal life are blurred,” she explains. When that work is removed, whether through the loss of a job or retirement, it can lead to a crisis of identity if there are no outside interests to fall back on.

Avoid equating your job with yourself

There can be a fine line between loving your career and letting it take over your entire personality. Letting yourself identify so closely with your job doesn’t leave any sort of wiggle room if you decide one day, years later, you actually don’t even like it. You are a separate person outside of what you do for a living.

If your job helps shape your identity, think long and hard about what kind of company culture you want to be a part of. This decision can also affect what kind of person you become as you grow and change both as an individual and in your career.

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