E02: Who do you think you are?
Updated: Dec 3, 2020
Who are you? How do you want people to remember you? As a longstanding victim of workism, I give an account of my errors in trying to find identity in work and encourage you to look deeply at your priorities to discern your identity, legacy, and purpose.
This is a podcast transcript. If you would like to listen to the show in full, please find it on our podcasts page here.
I'm going to get long-winded today. It’s a curse, sorry. In my old job, I was only ever good at writing something in 3 words or 5000 words. Nothing in between. I’m either way too brief or way too loquacious. If you’re going to TL;DR this, then I’ll tell you that the main point of today’s podcast is that you should never do what other people or culture expects you to do because you’ll end up unfulfilled. If you stick around, you’ll see what I mean by an Uncommon Life, and learn the importance of taking time to figure out your identity and what you want your legacy to be.
People feel fulfilled when their identity is correctly placed. But it takes time to discern your identity. Identity is usually not usually something people consciously choose, though you can. Usually your identity is a weird combination of things you were told about yourself, things you see in culture, and things you subconsciously absorb throughout your life.
If someone asked you what yours is today, you are likely to answer with your occupation. This is a symptom of workism. American culture places such a premium on work and title that people never question why they include work as part of their identity. But work is circumstantial and, often, temporary relative to the duration of our lives. If we fold work into our identity, we’re doomed to end up feeling unfulfilled as our work circumstances inevitably let us down and shift over time.
I would like to argue that you can stop being a passive participant in your identity. Your identity can include things you’ve absorbed throughout your life - there is nothing wrong with that - but you need to go deeper and analyze what makes up who you are and why you do what you do. If you understand this, you’ll start to understand your motivations and tap into being a more effective and responsible person overall. You can better understand your identity when you know your purpose and values. Soon, I’ll do a podcast series on how to define these, leveraging knowledge gained from when I used to help corporations understand their purpose and values.
This concept of identity is tied to where we place our value so I’ll discuss both today. Quick example to help explain this: If I identify as a stay at home mom, then I gain value from doing it well. I’m going to feel like a failure if I’m not doing a great job momming at home today and I’m going to feel LOST when my kids leave the house. I need to define my identity in something broader, deeper, and less circumstantial in order to feel more fulfilled and understand my motivations.
Identity is also tied to our legacy, meaning, what memory of yourself you want your children and grandchildren to take with you after you die. And what you want them to learn and gain from you. This something that has been on my heart a lot the past few years as I worked through my own issues of misplaced value and identity. My identity struggle relates to work and I imagine that I’m not alone in that. Specifically, I fell prey to the dangers of putting too much stock and value into what I did for work everyday, regardless of my role or the company I was with. For some of you, your identity might be in your job, your education, your upbringing, the way you look, or some achievement of yours. None of these are inherently bad things to draw value from. But, if they don’t match with the legacy you want to leave this world, and if you lose your sense of self and fulfillment when you fail, then you could end up dissatisfied in life.
Since my struggles center around work, that is where we’ll focus today. As you listen to my story, I hope you’ll think of something in your life that you place too much of your value in because this is a symptom of a misplaced identity. At the end of the podcast, I’ll share some tips on how to redefine your identity if you need to.
I should share a bit of my philosophy on work in general first. The idea that we NEED to love our jobs – that is, love the tasks and the day to day work that we do – is a modern notion and it is breeding dissatisfaction that is rampant throughout post-industrial society. In reality, a job is a economic exchange. It gives you a means to an end. You exchange time and labor or a service in exchange for dollars. A job is a way to finance the life that you need and that you want. For a rare few, a job is their main objective in life and what they want to be remembered for. I’m not knocking that, as long as you’re consciously making that choice and are aware of the ramifications. But that’s my point – we should consciously analyze what we want our legacy to be and make choices that help us obtain that. Since a job is just a means to finance your legacy and doesn’t matter for eternity, then it should be unemotional. When you clock off or close your laptop or leave your last meeting of the day, you should set aside work and move toward the things in your day that really matter to you.
Now, all of that being said, if you’re the kind of person who loves their job then that’s wonderful. I’m happy for you. This podcast is for everyone, including you. It is about figuring out what matters most to you and orienting your life around that thing. This is about getting to a place where you’re at peace with how you spend every day, regardless of your finances. We’re going to review my mistakes, what I learned the hard way, and then give you some tools so hopefully you don’t have to learn the hard way.
I’ve always struggled with needing to control things to an unhealthy extent. It’s affected me physically, given me an unwelcome relationship with panic attacks, and a crippling desire to overthink and over analyze a lot of choices. In relationships, it causes me to be easily frustrated and in life, I end up being too rigid with my plans and routines. What’s worse – I’ve never been too effective at the things I try to control! It’s like I’m not meant to succeed without God.
My perspective about work formed when I was young. As a kid, I decided that I needed to make more money than my parents when I grew up. Of course, I didn’t understand that pretty much everyone makes more money than their parents when they grow up. That’s just how inflation and economics works. But what I really wanted and didn’t know how to conceptualize at the time was that I did not want to struggle and I didn’t want my life to be stressful. You see, I watched my mom count every penny, spend one full day each week cutting coupons, and meal plan down to each can of food. While I praise her amazing ability to make a working class income feed 6 people, I also saw the stress it caused her. She seemed enslaved by her tasks and it caused her so much stress and anxiety, which transferred to us children. I hated seeing her that way. I wanted better for my life. As a child I thought the solution was just making more money. But as you’ll see throughout this podcast, that pursuit only caused me more anxiety. I learned after years of trial and error that what I really needed was a different perspective on my situation. I needed to shift my objective toward living a more peaceful existence regardless of my financial situation.
Right before I graduated college, I started a job that would pay more than my dad made after 30 years of working. Employment was contingent on me graduating. I thought “This is it. I made it. I’m set.” Being a foolish kid, I actually stopped going to college classes halfway through my last quarter of college to focus on this job. I thought I had it made and was in control of everything. More on these stupid choices in another podcast where I get deep into my literal come-to-Jesus moment and my redemption story. Oh man, you guys, I could write a book just about my stupid choices.
The painful conclusion of these poor choices was I didn’t qualify to graduate so I lost my job after 9 months; I hadn’t saved any money so I lost my apartment; and I had to go back to waiting tables because I needed to make money to pay for school again. I was in the worst spot financially I had ever been and have been since. I was embarrassed to be waiting tables and tried to avoid telling people about my job or what I was doing. This is the first lesson I received in how storing up my treasures in earthly things and putting my hope and identity in a degree and in a job – in intangible, material things – was unstable ground and would lead to disappointment. You would think that this was enough for me to change everything but no, I’m a slow learner. Instead all I learned this time was to always have a savings safety net and to stay out of debt. Other than my mortgage, I haven’t been in debt since - and we’ll talk about that in a podcast in the future as well.
Fast forward 5 years and I was married. I had a great job at a giant ecommerce company that was sucking the life out of me. I won’t name the company. You can probably guess it. One of my bosses had taken my work and billed it as her own, publicly, and made it challenging for me to succeed. I felt betrayed. My next boss voluntold me - that’s when you are volunteered for something without your consent - voluntold me for a project that required me to give my mornings, evenings, and weekends every day for almost 3 months. I was depressed, I wasn’t the person I wanted to be when I got home, I took it out on my husband, and I didn’t see the situation improving. And yet, I stayed. I stayed for too long for the wrong reasons. This is where I get ugly and honest about my pride. I liked being able to tell people where I worked. It stroked my ego. It was a far cry from waiting tables. I liked having a good income – the control it gave me over my life was comforting.
Furthermore, I believed that this was the defined path in life. I thought success required struggle and that you should always push forward in your career, even at the expense of your own mental health and happiness. Meanwhile, I didn’t trust my husband or God to provide. Instead I came home every night and cried. It felt like my soul was crumbling while I was devoting all of my energy to a thing that was meaningless. And I knew it was meaningless. But I couldn’t let it go because I thought what I did mattered a lot.
You guys, if the thing you’ve poured your identity and worth into is causing you to be a bad person, to hurt people around you, or to neglect yourself in any way, then that thing is toxic for you. End it. We suffer at the hands of work too much in America because we have a workism culture. But other things can cause this suffering, too. If you place your identity in having a great body, you might neglect people you love to exercise more and avoid social gatherings with food. If you place your identity in having a great home, you might lash out at family members who make messes and neglect self-care in favor of home care. You will know if something matters too much to you if it causes you great frustration and angst when that thing is out of order.
Back to my crummy job. My husband was continually encouraging me to just quit and try something else that I would like more. After awhile of working nights and weekends, I finally listened to him and quit. I thought I could fix my problem by just picking a job I liked. I thought that, it wasn’t that my identity was misplaced, it was that my job sucked. It was all the job’s fault, of course. I vowed to quit any job that infringed on my home life in the future. See, I’m a slow learner. So I took a nanny job while I studied to do real estate. The nanny job was fine. According to my own rules and logic, it should have made me feel better but I was not at peace with it. I hadn’t gotten to the root of my identity issues yet. The whole time I nannied, I told people “I’m a nanny, but I’m getting my real estate license.” It was important to me that people thought I had a real job. Then, a few months later, I started to work at my church to supplement my real estate income, I did the same thing. I only told people that I did real estate. The church job didn’t stroke my ego, it didn’t pay well, and the work itself wasn’t very interesting to me. This is a shame because that job fed my soul more than any job I’ve ever had. I made less money than I had in years but it was such a good, calming place for me to spend my days. God handed me what I needed for peace on a silver platter. Well, maybe not silver because it didn’t pay well! But like, a solid stainless steel platter, and I ignored his gift and kept making choices based on money and ego and what I thought the world expected me to do. So I believed the lies I told myself and left after a year.
I was offered a chance to go back to the corporate world and I took it because it offered more money than I’d ever made before. So it seemed like the logical choice. We should always want more money, right? That job quickly turned into the most stressful job I’d ever had. It regularly had what we called “fire drills” that required a panic response and hours of overtime.
Meanwhile, I didn’t follow my own rule to quit a job if it made my home life suffer. Learn from my mistakes - don’t let things matter more than your primary relationships. I was not the wife I needed to be. My husband and I fought constantly and I didn’t have the time or energy to nurture our marriage. Other than exercise, I did nothing good for myself. I didn’t spend time in the Word, or in community with friends and church, and I was generally unhappy. I wanted to leave but I stayed because, once again, I was lured by the money and the ego stroke. If someone asked me what I did, I felt like I could say that I did something significant at work and therefore, that must have said something significant about me. Meanwhile, my husband made enough money to support us and kept encouraging me to find a job that didn’t wear me down so much. But I felt stuck – wouldn’t it be such an illogical choice to leave the highest paying job I’d ever had? And for what? I didn’t have any other job interests and felt like I needed to be productive. I hadn’t yet learned that being productive doesn’t have to mean going to a 9-5 every day.
I feel like God reaches me through dramatic moments because otherwise I just don’t listen. After 1.5 years at that job, I suffered a miscarriage that shook my world. My husband and I were still fighting a lot, and the miscarriage caused a lot of physical pain and a depression that loomed for months after. I said this in the last podcast and I’ll say it again here: I will definitely dig into this period of my life in a different podcast or several podcasts because I came out of that experience with a strong belief that I needed to remove the stigma around miscarriage by sharing my story with people who would listen.
2 months after the miscarriage, and 10 years after screwing up with my first post-college job, and I finally experienced a dramatic mindset shift. I was still working too much and hating my life and went to a women’s retreat where I discussed all of my woes – marital, job, mental health, etc – and expected to get clarity on how to make everything I was doing work better, somehow. We’re supposed to “have it all,” right? Ugh, I hate the phrase “have it all” because your “all” looks different than anyone else’s and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I walked away from that retreat with some wonderfully direct advice from a woman there. I kept saying “I can’t just quit. I don’t have a job lined up. I need to make sure I keep working” She said “Why? Work doesn’t have to be in an office. What’s wrong with not going to an office everyday?” I thought that I had to keep working because only moms get to stay at home, right? And I wasn’t a mom. She kept pressing me and asking “Why does that matter?”
It forced me to really think about why I’m still working and what I’ve made matter in my life…why I’m allowing myself and my marriage to suffer under this weight of my horrible job. It suddenly clicked for me. It boiled down to me putting my worth and identity into something temporary and material and not trusting God. I had to have the shiny nice job that paid well and took care of me. I had to be in control. But every time I tried to get in control, I sucked at it and every facet of my life suffered. This was the same problem I’d always had. I had never let go of control and trust God. My attempts at control had always left me frustrated and anxious so something needed to change...now. I was so compelled by this realization and felt this tug on my heart to quit immediately with nothing lined up at all. I felt a sudden imperative to be ok with telling people that I didn’t go to an office everyday.
I quit within 2 weeks of that retreat. This was a momentous decision for me because it was the first time I relinquished control. I did not know my next step and truly wanted God to guide me to the next one. I didn’t know if or when I’d work again. I just knew that I was not obeying him if I stayed at my job because my reasons for being there weren’t right. See, it’s not that my job was wrong or evil. It’s that my heart and intentions weren’t right and it was destroying me. I wanted to be in control of my career, wanted to have a cool sounding job, wanted to feel important, and wanted to make more money than I needed. Money and being in control are also not ultimately evil, but I had let them take the place of God in my life and the only way I could remove the roots of that pride in my life was by removing the temptation entirely.
Finally I was in a position to be quiet and still and wait for God. And if you’re not Christian, maybe waiting for God doesn’t make sense for you. But what it boils down to is figuring out your real reasons and intentions for doing things. This is something we can all relate to. Once I was removed from the constant grind of work, which occupied my brain and shut out my own ability to reason, I was able to think about my “Whys.” Why did I work at all? Why did I have the jobs I had when I hated them and came home miserable every day? Why did I want to be a mom? Why did I want a different house? Why was I involved in the activities I was involved in? What kind of person did I want to be, anyway? Have you ever stopped and thought deeply about these questions?
Though I wasn’t working, it was important to me to be productive. I quickly learned what productivity looked like. It doesn’t look like the money you earn. It looks like how intentional you are with your time. This was meaningfully mind blowing to me. I stopped caring that I wasn’t working in an office and started becoming productive in non-monetary ways. My work became my yard, which had been completely neglected – as in, not even mowed – for years. Ok, I think we mowed it once a year. I described it as a “weed forest.” I spent hours every day transforming our yard into something that was presentable. Once a week I went on a long hike somewhere in the mountains because I’m blessed to live near the mountains and nature is grounding and awe-inspiring. I hardly watched TV because I was so busy - but it was the good kind of busy. I felt at peace in my productivity and at peace with my role as a worker in the home. I knew I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t on a timeline. I was just waiting for God to tell me what’s next. I wasn’t impatient or anxious. It just felt right. This is when I came up with the idea of an uncommon life. I was living counter culturally and making uncommon choices and, yet, I was the most at peace I’d ever been. When was the last time you took the pressure off of yourself and internalized the fact that you can’t control everything?
This season of life was eye opening for me. I had to step back from the chaos and distraction of a toxic work environment to see what really mattered to me and figure out my “whys.” I knew that I desperately wanted to be a mother and planned to be a stay at home mom. I wanted to set myself up to be the best mother I could be. Well, what did that look like? At first I had no clue, but it became more clear as I started taking actions toward prioritizing and simplifying my life. For example, I was involved in an activity that had always caused tension in my marriage. For the first time in years I stepped back and asked myself why I was doing it. Why was I still doing it if it was such a negative influence? Was it worth the damage it caused? I loved this hobby and it wasn’t a bad thing to be doing but, right or wrong, my husband and I had always fought about it. Instead of continuing to try to win this fight, I quit the hobby. I quit because I valued a peaceful marriage more than a hobby. I started to spend less time with people who weren’t really my friends and who weren’t supportive of my choices.
As my life started moving toward a more peaceful existence and I had headspace to devote to deep thinking, I started to ask myself what kind of life I wanted to give my future kids. Instead of “more money” or “not having to struggle,” which is what I had wrongfully pursued since I was a child, I realized that I wanted them to be raised in a peaceful home with a mom who was not stressed out all the time. This wasn’t a money thing; it was a mindset thing. That realization fueled my other priorities – how do I make every aspect of my life peaceful so I can be the best mom I can be? And ultimately, I ended up orienting all of my choices and my outlook around this objective of peace. Bingo! I had stumbled upon my identity, my value, and my purpose. I’m meant to be peaceful. This is not circumstantial. This is not temporary. This is a life-long pursuit and I can pursue it regardless of where I live or what job I have.
After 5 months out of work, I decided to return to my old job but the way I reacted to work problems dramatically shifted. Not that I didn’t have bad days or backslide but, for the most part, things didn’t bother me as much. This was an intentional mindshift because I had decided months earlier that all I wanted to be in life was to be a peaceful person and had spent months working toward that objective. Now everything else felt inconsequential by comparison. My old boss even noticed that my feathers weren’t as easily ruffled by work stress anymore and I told him “well, none of this really matters for my life.” The root of the problem wasn’t the job - it was me. I still believe in leaving toxic work environments if at all possible. But I believe even more deeply in getting to know yourself and defining your identity and value first.
I quit the job for good when my son was 4 months old and feel zero regrets about this choice. My identity is now a person who wants to be peaceful and create a stress-free home. That’s how I want my children to remember me. I want people to feel the peace when they step into my home. I place value into doing this well. This will be my legacy. I’m still working on it. I have days where I screw up. But it is my vision and mission for my life.
How can you apply my learnings to your life and hopefully, define your identity with less pain than I had?
You want to know how to not get bogged down by the rat race of modern society? Want to know how to unload stress? You can streamline your existence by having a singular vision and purpose.
I’m aware that I’m uniquely blessed with the ability to enter and exit jobs as I please because my husband has a good income and is supportive of my whims. Not everyone is blessed in this way and not everyone can or wants to quit their jobs! My goal isn’t to get you to quit unless you are able to and need to do so. My goal is to get you to see how you can get to a place where you can feel fine, regardless of work. Because work isn’t your legacy.
All you have to do is give yourself space to figure out what you want your legacy to be. How do you want your kids to remember you? What kind of person do you want to be? What is your core objective in life? Maybe you’ve been struggling with depression and right now, you just want to be healthy. Then orient your entire life around what it would take to get you well. Maybe you don’t want to have any bitterness toward your husband anymore. Then attack your bitterness and work on forgiveness and let nothing stop you until you are at peace in that relationship. Maybe you want to be a generous person in your community and you want that to be your legacy. Then do everything you can to help others with your time and resources. Orient your life around that objective and do it with zeal. Have a laser focus and cut out the things that get in the way, and only add unnecessary stress. Cut out the things you’ve been doing that take you away from being the kind of person you need to be.
I needed months away from working to clear my head and reprioritize in order to figure out what I wanted my identity to be and what mattered most to me. Maybe – and hopefully – you can figure things out in a different way and at a faster pace. But you might need some time and mental space to figure it out. And you might not figure it out in one day. If you can, take time off of work and go to a cabin for a weekend. Just sit with yourself. Don’t watch TV, don’t go on your phone. Just spend time in nature and spend time alone journaling. Your objective with this time off is to figure out what matters to you and how to orient your life around it. If your circumstances don’t make it easy to get away, then find quiet time in some other way. This could be 30 minutes a day to walk or journal if that is all that your life offers you. Journaling doesn’t have to be weird. Just start writing. Some days I’ll write “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what to write.” But then the words start flowing from there.
Also, work on your mental focus. Once you figure out what kind of person you want to be and what you want your legacy to be, your life won’t change in one day. It might take years. It will shift slowly, as you make small changes daily. Life is made of mundane moments and it takes a permanent mental shift to address all mundane moments. So think about how you can meditate everyday. Does this look like prayer for you? Meditation? Maybe it’s affirmations or something you write in your journal. If you reset your heart and mind to focus on this new thing daily, your choices and actions will start to fall in line. You’ll start to be more conscious of the things you have been doing that help or don’t help you be the person you want to be.
Finally, I have a special message for those of you who are blessed enough to not be a primary breadwinner. If you are working and work is making you miserable AND you don’t have to be at that job in order for your family to survive, I recommend you take a long hard look at why you’re working. Could you move to part time, change industries, or quit altogether? This might be required to give yourself enough headspace to figure out what matters most to you.
It is important that you don’t waste your life, that you don’t keep getting stuck in the same loop like I did, and that you feel at peace with the decisions you make. For me, my perspective around work was holding me back. For you, it might be something else like a toxic relationship or bad habit. If you know your identity, your value, and center your life around it, you’ll be fulfilled. Change your heart attitude, seek your core objective, and let the unnecessary parts of your life fall away. Don’t ever do things because it’s what other people or culture expects of you if it distracts you from being a good, peaceful person.
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