You are at a dinner party working the room, mingling with familiar faces and meeting new ones. Dressed to impress, you introduce yourself with an inviting smile and a firm handshake. Your new acquaintance expresses what a pleasure it is to meet you, and then uses the all too familiar fallback conversation starter:
“So, John…what do you do?”
How many times have you had to answer that question? Probably more than you care to answer. This age old form of small talk illustrates how identity is often tied to profession by an awkward blurry line that merges who we are with what we do for a living. As if in our minds we believe that in order to understand someone else, we must first know what work they do.
This is not a new phenomenon. In years past, people were often known by their job titles. In South Africa, for instance, many family names stemmed from the husband’s occupation. The now common first and last name “Piet Poliesman” literally translates to, “Peter the Police Officer.” Talk about personal branding!
Sure, the activities that we are involved in (including work) take up a large portion of our time, energy, and attention and therefore does determine the focus of much of our lives. But does work define our lives and our existence? I think not.
The world of work is different today than it was for our friend Peter. Those living in the 20th century learned that if they were loyal to an organization they would be rewarded with stable employment and likely also financial security – the ingredients that offered them a firm foundation for a life and future. Unfortunately, in today’s world of work, this is no longer the case, so it is foolish to try to define ourselves in the same way. Today:
The 21st century has brought with it rapid advances in information technology which vastly expanded world markets. Globalization has necessitated that organizations operate and make decisions not only quicker, but also smarter. Consequently, barriers between functional units are often removed, thereby essentially flattening hierarchical structures of the 20th century to create organizations that are in essence boundaryless.
Not surprisingly, such a drastic shift in corporate structure has also changed the shape of careers. Instead of loyally working for one company while steadily climbing your way up the hierarchy, the Department of Labor has shown that the average person changes their career upwards of 11 times between the ages of 18 and 44. Work and workers have become much more flexible.
Some experts (like Career Counseling guru Mark Savickas) see employment today as a way of selling your unique skills, qualifications, and services to a series of employers who need short- or long-term projects completed. Consequently, temporary, part-time work is becoming more common. (Savickas gives the example of a motion picture crew who joins for one project and disbands afterwards.)
Our recent economic hardships have taught us the tough lesson that employment is unpredictable. At the time of this post, an estimated 8.2% of Americans are still unemployed, with a staggering 5.4 million Americans jobless for 27 weeks or longer. If we define ourselves by our careers, what will unemployment do to our sense of self? There are two important implications raised by the preceding points:
First, you must develop a sense of self apart from your work.
As the world of work changes, so must your sense of self. In today’s society, you no longer have to be defined by the title you hold, the organization you work for, or your current state of unemployment. Essentially, instead of defining you, your work should become an expression of who you are at your core.
“There’s a major shift taking place,” said Sean Aiken, the creator of The One-Week Job Project, in a recent TED talk. “A shift in how we as a culture view work and our relationship to it. No longer is our work merely something we endure. Our work is becoming ever more connected to our life’s work. A precious opportunity to share our unique gifts with the world.“
Aiken goes on to ask, “What is your unique gift? What makes you come alive?” To harmonize what you do with who you are, you must become (re)acquainted with yourself. Take time to explore the personality traits, interests, values, and skills that make you unique. Then seek opportunities that most align your passion with your career so that you can express yourself through your work without being defined by it.
Second, you must design your own future.
As work becomes more transient and unpredictable, you must take ownership of your career. You can no longer look to organizations to groom you for successive steps on the corporate ladder. Instead, carefully manage your own career by staying open to opportunities in an ever-changing environment. Be willing to change jobs and organizations when your projects (or goals) have run their course.
Even in a tough economy, try to be purposeful when choosing the projects/jobs that will require your time, energy and attention. Instead of just having a job, design a career that is gratifying to you each step of the way. Choose opportunities that will most allow you to chase your fire.
Happy career planning, friends!
PS – Here is Sean Aiken’s TEDxVancouver Talk about passion that I mentioned above. It is definitely worth watching!
Reference: Savickas, M.L. (2011). Career Counseling. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Photo credit: ltz
Tagged with: advice • career success • change • hierarchical structures • job survival skills • living a purposeful life • meaningful life • passion • self • self actualization • stable employment • success tips
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