You meet someone new and their first words form the inevitable question:
“What do you do?”
Or, you meet someone who is so eager to convey what they do … they forget to ask you first.
THIS HAPPENED TO ME RECENTLY.
I met a woman who, soon after telling me her name, quickly stuffed a business card in my hand.
“I’m a senior marketing manager”, she added – emphasising the “senior” part.
I couldn’t escape the feeling that the label meant a lot to her.
This innocent exchange got me thinking about job titles:
- what they mean
- why we care so much about them, and
- whether or not all that caring is a good thing.
At a base level, being a “senior” this, “leading” that, “executive” other often forms part of the overall compensation package. This is business as usual.
But what happens when the lines between job title and identity blur?
THINGS GET INTERESTING.
The 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada mocks this seemingly inherent desire for title-based status.
Palpable ego-angst and insecurity fester between the “first” assistant and the “second” assistant as a poignant reminder that what one’s employer may giveth, one’s employer may also taketh away.
Just to rub some extra salt in the wound, Meryl Streep calls both of them “Emily”—the name of the “first” assistant.
And Andy, the “second” assistant / budding journalist, is all but an outcast. Proof that human nature dictates this simple formula:
BETTER JOB TITLE = INCREASED SELF-ESTEEM.
A current Korn Ferry study shows that the majority of people, if offered the choice between a better title and a pay raise, will choose the title.
Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung claimed that every profession has its own characteristic persona.
And that certain people become identical with their persona: the professor with her textbook, the tenor with his voice, the senior marketing manager with her business card.
(Related Article: How To Be The Big Boss).
At its most extreme people can become subject to what Jung coined as role engulfment.
Meaning, they lose all sense of themselves except as they exist through work.
For those unfortunates, the loss of work or being forced to change career through redundancy or retirement can provoke a severe identity crisis, leaving them asking:
“WITHOUT MY CAREER, WHO AM I?”
A survey of more than 100,000 Americans conducted by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index revealed that 16.6% of unemployed Americans are depressed compared to 5.6% of those with a full-time career.
Because a career provides a continuous source of feedback that you are a contributing member of society.
It’s ego reinforcement. That’s not to say you go to work thinking, “Hey, I’m a valued member of society.” The idea is largely subconscious.
As psychotherapist Charles Allen says “you feel it in the depths of your brain”.
IF YOUR CAREER DISAPPEARED TOMORROW…
Would you still be … you?
I’m not being flip with this question.
Most of us experience at least one major career transition in our lifetime. I went through it myself when I left a successful career in corporate human resources to found Arielle.
In my previous life, I had the unwavering trust of top executives who made major talent decisions for their organisations.
Starting my own company and relinquishing the prestige of my past identity was a huge leap of faith for me—one that entailed examining every aspect of who I am.
The past five years haven’t always easy, but because I was true to myself, they’ve been hugely rewarding.
Guardian contributor Keren Levy (during her transition to freelancer) put it this way:
“We start each day with a number of identities in place, but I hadn’t realised the degree to which, across a spectrum in which I am friend, daughter and godparent, my job title carried “me” weight.”
According to British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, work relationships take on familial qualities.
So, if your job title were gone tomorrow, there would be a natural period of mourning. But how much loss you would feel depends upon the extent of your role engulfment (think back to Jung).
The School of Life—a London-based organisation devoted to cultivating emotional intelligence—explored this in their insightful blog The Book Of Life.
On the one hand:
Work can be very good for people. The mentality fostered at work might be making up for aspects of the self that didn’t get properly developed before.
But on the other hand…
Work can narrow our characters too. When a certain range of issues and ways of thinking become entrenched, it means that others start to feel awkward and even threatening.
“THIS WOULD NEVER HAPPEN TO ME.”
I can hear you saying something like that.
After all, you’re not a low performer.
Turns out it can happen to the best of us.
Former C-Suite executive and Forbes contributor Glenn Llopis explains that even the most coveted high-potential employees can suffer from an identity crisis:
“Recently I met with a high-potential employee in a Fortune 200 company that said, “I’ve received so much feedback from so many people, that I’ve lost my identity. I spend too much time being so critical of everything I am doing so I can satisfy so many different people – except myself.””
Llopis believes that identity confusion is a major reason great talent walks away from even the most impressive job titles.
So, think about it. How much does your current job title define your identity?
And how much of the whole package involves pleasing other people?
Or, flip it around:
WHAT SATISFIES YOU?
To lead a truly meaningful life, Erik Erikson (the last psychologist I’ll reference this week, I swear) theorised that humans must master a certain value or skill at each stage of their development.
For adults, the critical milestone is developing generativity over stagnation.
- Generativity is about “making your mark” on the world through creating and accomplishing things that make the world a better place.
- Stagnation is about failing to find a way to contribute to, and feeling disconnected from, others beyond the confines of your ego.
HEY, WAIT A MINUTE!
Didn’t we just say our careers shouldn’t be about pleasing others?
The truth is, generativity isn’t about pleasing anyone. It’s about authentically being of service by doing what satisfies you most.
It’s a state of deep knowing that evolves when you’re offering your best self to the world through your work.
Yes, your business card says what you are paid to do, but don’t fall into the trap of using it as a hiding place from your true purpose.
And on that note, here’s a message from Pete Townsend.