In today’s episode, Anna explores the crisis in identity that comes from leaving behind a long and successful career and transitioning into something else entirely.
In our society, in a culture of high achievement, competition, and overwork, career has become almost synonymous with your identity. The paycheck that you get gives you a certain social economic status, you move in certain circles, you start buying certain things and so on. So there are very blurred boundaries between who you are as an individual and who you are as a professional. And the problem with this is that if you make a change to that career, that is so a part of your identity, it’s going to be really tough when that career comes to an end and you effectively have to let go of all those years of being associated with this particular version of success.
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Hello there. Welcome back, and this week I’m talking about something which I haven’t really heard anyone speak about, and it is about the identity crisis, and yes, it sounds dramatic, but the identity crisis that comes with a massive career change. And the thing is that in our society now, in a culture of high achievement, and being super competitive, that culture of overwork really, career has become a part of our identity. I think the research says that it’s often particularly a case for men, but obviously with blurred boundaries now and women in a good way, getting the same opportunities, hopefully as men working harder as well. The negative side of that of course is that the career becomes more of our identity as well.
And the paycheck that you get gives you a certain social economic status, you move in certain circles, you start buying certain things and so on. And so there are sort of blurred boundaries, and I read a Harvard Business Review article where they refer to psychology calling it enmeshment, and really those blurred boundaries between who you are as an individual and who you are as a professional.
And the problem of course with this is that if you make a change to that career, that is so a part of your identity, that is going to be really tough when that career comes to an end, even if you are reinventing yourself.
You’ve done all the work, you’re excited, you’ve got this new idea. You’ve realised that that illustrious career you had wasn’t what you wanted, or at least isn’t what you want to do now, even if you’re making this decision yourself and you’re not being forced into doing it, it’s still a massive challenge. It’s still a massive situation that you have to get used to, I guess, having lost one identity before you take on the new mantle of this new identity.
The trigger of this could be a redundancy, which of course is particularly challenging because you’re kind of forced into that. And although a lot of people say the redundancy, it can be the best thing that ever happens to you, it sort of kicks you into action, forces you to do something that you’d want to do anyway. And of course, that still does put a really difficult lens on things, and it makes you feel like, hang on a second, if I can’t do this anymore, what on earth, am I worthy? And all these terrible things that come to mind as well.
So whether it’s a redundancy or you just dislike your job and you’ve decided to make a change or you’ve burned out, perhaps.
That could be a positive trigger. Again, it could be that you’ve had a trip away, a sabbatical and I don’t know, a marriage, something positive, had a baby. And you just realise that there’s something else you want to do.
Or now of course, during COVID, as I’m recording now in 2020, there’s the new lens, I suppose, that we’re putting on careers and working and the opportunities to work more flexibly work from home. People having been put on furlough, even being made redundant, whole sectors being called into question.
A lot of us are rethinking reconfiguring, re-imagining what careers can look like. But again, even if we’re choosing to do that, it still is a challenge to navigate that identity change. And that’s what I want to talk about today. And I think I’ve talked before and I talked about it in a recent podcast interview, which I think will be published soon on another podcast.
But the idea of the butterfly and the metamorphosis is very visual here. So I’m sure it’s one of those cliched metaphors that’s used when it comes to transformation, and I probably looked into it early on in my coaching training thinking, “Oh, what a great metaphor for changing and emerging as this beautiful butterfly and so on.”
The truth is, as I discovered when I Googled this and presumably read some science articles about the metamorphosis of a butterfly, is that it is a very messy process. It’s not just a case of a little caterpillar lying down, curling up in its cocoon, and then tada, emerging after a little sleep, as this beautiful, delicate, graceful, colourful butterfly. It actually breaks down to gazillion pieces. It breaks down into really messy, broken protein soup in a very painful process before it eventually reconstitutes itself, picks the pieces together, starts reforming and developing into something different.
And that I think is quite an accurate picture of what it takes to potentially change career direction quite drastically. We do need to, to some extent, break down that previous identity in order to reconstruct a new one. And that’s true, whether we’re talking just about who we are as a human being, and a lot of people are surprised by the impact, I guess, changing career, building a business has on you personally, it’s really profound in the changes you go through, the insights, you get, the self-awareness, the challenges you face, but also the strength and resilience you discover. And that is a very profound process in terms of going through that transition.
And just a few examples, when I left Procter & Gamble, initially when I was going to conferences and things, I would still feel quite, I suppose, partly it was the imposter syndrome. I wouldn’t feel quite like I could say I was an entrepreneur. Struggled to say, I’m an author, a writer, I took on relatively early on, but still author is that step too far almost, or saying that I was a coach just felt a bit wishy washy.
I didn’t quite feel I could own that label just yet. So I would still say, “Oh, I work in digital marketing,” or “I’m a consultant,” even though I knew I wanted to focus on coaching and writing.
So certainly in the context of speaking to people in my old bubble, speaking to other corporate people and clients and companies and so on, I would tend to hold on to, hang on to my old identity.
Again, at conferences, you’ll see, and it’s quite amusing. But all start-ups, you’ll see on LinkedIn as well. All these incubators and everyone is CEO/founder, even though their business is just one person or a couple of people. So everyone sounds incredibly high and mighty, but the reality is we know that they are just a startup, which is great. They are still as worthy, but it’s just a meaningless title really, isn’t it? That you put on your business card just to sound fancy.
Or, again, of course, a particularly challenging situation is if you’re unemployed between jobs or for that matter on parental leave. There’s a stigma attached, I suppose. We might feel that people are judging us, and if we’re used to saying, this is what I do. Suddenly saying, “Oh, I’m between jobs. I’m looking for something. I’m taking some time off,” that can feel a bit uncomfortable.
Again, even if you’ve chosen to do it, even if you’re happy about it, most of us will feel some discomfort and feel like other people are judging us, even if they’re not. And hey, another example, and I’ve been talking a lot recently to professional athletes and organisations.
So I’ve realised there are lots of careers, professions where actually your career has to inevitably come to an end, whether you’re a rugby player, he’s been playing on the national stage, speaking of stage, you might be a ballerina or you might be a model. Actors to a lesser extent, of course, there are still roles for older actors, but the reality is that there are perhaps more limited roles, and particularly for women again. Cricketers, hockey players or whatever, certainly in the world of sport, gymnasts, there is an age when you are going to have to retire, and you have to retire with probably at least if not more than half of your working career still left.
And so what on earth do you do? And in particular, if you’ve been some celebrated public figure, that can be a massive challenge to have that really illustrious prestigious career in front of a massive audience with the whole team behind you. That’s a massive transition then to go back to civilian life.
Speaking of civilians, of course, having come back from the army, that’s sort of a well known transition that’s really, really tough. These are huge transitions and again, the identity crisis, and that’s all I can really call it that comes with that change in career, as well as not just the identity, but the change in your schedule, your ritual, how you spend your time, it can be this massive empty void, and it can be very distressing and very difficult to take that next step and to work out what we’re going to do next.
So, whether you’re leaving a corporate job and you’re leaving the army, you’re leaving a celebrated career as a prima ballerina or a professional rugby player, whatever that is, you’re going to come face to face with this transition and reconstruct another identity. And that has been particularly a challenge, of course, if you’ve really built your whole identity, and if you’ve really attached a lot of value to your career.
Luckily in some cases, I think team members, athletes are encouraged to keep other interests and hobbies going to the extent that’s possible. Certainly if you have a young family that can really help, because that gives you another sense of meaning, but it can be your life, and in some cases, this could have been your dream job. This is something you’ve worked towards, you’ve trained towards your entire life. And to have that taken away from you essentially, can be very distressing.
Okay, so I hope I’ve painted that picture of the painful metamorphosis of that butterfly, the potential crisis that comes of that big transition even if you’re doing it intentionally, even if you’re doing it because you want to.
So of course, I want to give you a few thoughts as to what you might do to mitigate this. And it’s a massive topic in particular, if you’re having that really dramatic change.
But a few thoughts for you, the first one is to remind yourself, why you’re making this change. What is it that’s truly important to you? Now, of course, if you haven’t chosen to make this change, I still encourage you to look for the opportunities to focus on what would you like to come out of this process?
Because, okay, this has happened. You have no choice, perhaps. And the career has come to an end. You’re at that age, you’ve had an injury, whatever it might be, what do you want to do next? What could success look like? What would make this, if not better than what you were doing before, at least what would make it enjoyable for you? Meaningful, fulfilling? What are the parameters? What kind of purpose could you be working towards that would give you that sense of meaning and fulfilment and give you that direction?
So if you’ve chosen to make this change, remind yourself of why you’re doing that, what’s important to you. And even if you’ve been forced to make that change, really think about what could be your why. What could be that pool towards something different? Now, next is of course, to begin to craft a new identity that you can own and express with confidence.
So you’ll want to look back at your existing skills and interests and begin to tell a different story, connect the dots as Steve Jobs used to say, really reframe the experiences you’ve had and think about all the transferable skills. So beyond the job title, the description, the obvious tasks, and really think about, “Okay, but this scenario, that meant that I was presenting to large audiences. I was negotiating. I was pitching. I was collaborating. I was mediating, whatever that looks like, incredible teamwork. I was motivating people, enthusiastically getting people together and getting them behind a cause.”
You can look at those sort of softer skills, the personality strengths that you have and really things that are transferable to all sorts of other careers.
So trying to connect those dots, weave a story, tell a different story to one that only sits with this one little job title, the one career or the one thing that happened to be on your business card or your LinkedIn profile previously.
Something, and I mentioned that would help you do this. Hopefully you’ve been doing it so far, but that is to focus on non-work things as well. Make sure you’re not now crafting a new identity that only is focused on work again, but really think, okay, are you a parent? Are you maybe a sibling? Are you a son or a daughter? What are the other roles in your life? Are there other sports or creative pursuits that you like to do? Traveling or whatever that might be, other voluntary things you do.
So really trying to craft a more holistic identity that’s not just related to your career, because whatever you choose now might well change and evolve as well. So you don’t want to be too wedded to one particular job, even if it’s a new one. Rebuild your network, and in particular, do the outside of your immediate bubble.
When people really judge us, or rather when we think people are going to judge us, is when we’re still in the old world. So if I’m surrounded by these corporate, ambitious people, who are all trying to get the next promotion, who are all trying to become general manager and CEO, or likewise, if I’m surrounded by people who are all desperately trying to get VC funding, who are trying to build their startup, whatever that looks like, that’s going to position me in comparison to them.
So if I’m making changes, definitely find people who are in this new area that you’re moving into. But even more importantly, I’d say more powerfully, find people who are just open and supportive, and encouraging whatever you choose to do. That’s one of the biggest game changers for when I left my job. Finding online and offline communities or people who just said, “Oh my God, that sounds amazing.” And not just in a superficial meaningless way, but they really meant it.
They’d listened to what I was suggesting that I was thinking about doing. They’d have ideas and build on what I was saying. They’d have already done incredible things like writing books and podcasts and travelling the world and done these incredible adventures, and that would be inspiring and they’d be role models to me, but also supportive.
So find new connections, make new connections outside of your immediate circle of friends, family, and colleagues. Do not get swept up in what other people think. Even those new communities, one of the mistakes I made, I think, well, I wouldn’t say it was a mistake, but you know, and I latched onto this adventure group when I first left my job and I loved it and it was so meaningful, so much fun.
And I had the most incredible experiences, paddle boarding down in Mississippi, and down the Thames in fact, and all sorts of other things. And yet in that group, the standard of success, I guess, was doing these incredible adventures, living in a van and all these things, and that wasn’t quite what I was after either. So you need to be careful so you don’t get swept up in some new definition of success, which is equally not what you’re after.
And finally, also, don’t settle for something that’s not what you want. So even if, again, you’ve been forced into this change, it’s involuntary due to the nature of your industry, nature of your profession, or due to redundancy, the unfortunate situation of the economy, whatever the reason, try not to just assume that you have to go now for something that’s lesser. That’s not going to pay as much. That’s not going to be fulfilling, oh, but everybody else just goes on to this job, so I’ll just do that. Or well the guy said I should do this…
Try it again. Take that step back, understand what is you want to do? What are the parameters? Everything I always talk about on this podcast. What do you want your life to look like practically and in terms of your day to day, in terms of the skills you want to keep using, in terms of your strengths, in terms of your ikigai. So your ikigai is the skills and the strengths you have, the passions and interests, the causes that you believe in, and also of course, things that can bring you the money that you’re after, because that’s something we all need to pay our bills.
But try not to settle. And part of this identity crisis is a feeling that we’re going to something lesser and that’s not what it is. It’s different. Even if we choose to take a less well paid job, a less prestigious company, if we choose to stay at home with our children, even if we choose to launch a little creative shop on Etsy, whatever that looks like, that’s a choice that we’re making, and that’s why we want to surround ourselves with those very supportive people, remind ourselves why we’re doing it, craft the new identity. You’re making this choice.
Maybe it’s even more incredible than the previous career, but it’s up to you to design that, and it’s not about thinking that you’re settling. It’s not about assuming this next phase is going to be less good, lesser than what has been the case so far.
So a few thoughts there on the identity crisis that comes with letting go of who you were, who you’ve been for potentially decades of your life and career. Beginning to craft that new identity. Build those new connections, the new network outside of your immediate bubble, and crafting that new identity that you can really own and enjoy and express. So, I hope that gave you a bit of food for thought. I look forward to seeing you back here next week. Bye for now.
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