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We Are More Than What We Do

We Are More Than What We Do
Image credit: John Lopez | Flickr
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Eleven years ago Sunday -- on my birthday, no less -- I was fired from my coaching position. My athletic director walked into my office and told me, "The only thing keeping us from winning a national championship is you, so I'm making a change. We're buying out the remainder of your contract." Then he passed me a piece of paper and walked out of the room.

The irony of it was that my boss was famous for celebrating each person's birthday in our department with a surprise party, cake, presents, the whole nine yards. There was no cake, no party, no singing for me, but looking back, he did give me a gift. On that fateful day, thanks to my former boss, I experienced a rebirth. This is why I celebrate two birthdays: my birthday and my rebirth day. I think everyone should do the same.

I didn’t realize it until that day, but I had slid down a slippery slope and needed to get a life. For 12 years my entire identity had been wrapped up in what I did. When we tell ourselves that we are what we do, we over-identify with our occupation. If what you do is who you are, then what becomes of you when you don’t do it anymore?

Related: 7 Tips for Loving Your Career and Working With Passion

How do you fill the void when you can no longer find your identity in what you do? You need to get a life and experience a rebirth of who you truly are.

Through feedback from my executive coaching clients and readers, I've learned this slippery slope of over-identifying who we are with what we do is a common theme. Many professionals experience a traumatic career event such as termination, demotion or a buyout. It’s the death and rebirth of their career (usually between the ages of 35 to 45, it seems). The trauma is more significant than many realize.

A longitudinal study led by researcher Andrew Clark determined that unemployment is the one major life event people do not make a full recovery from within five years. His research team studied 130,000 people for multiple decades and found that life satisfaction improved faster after the death of a spouse than after a job loss. If this isn’t a compelling reason not to over-identify who you are with what you do, I don’t know what is.

Our society tends to label and define people by what they do instead of who they are. Think about the last time you met someone at a networking or social function. After introducing yourselves by name, isn’t the next question almost always "What do you do?" We spend just a third of our lives at work yet it’s the first way we identify ourselves.

Being fired helped me realize there’s more to life than just my job. Looking back, I had fallen into a trap, an identity crisis really.

One thing I found when I was coaching is that there are a lot of people who believe that because they are a coach, they can’t do anything else. While I was in that profession, I thought it was just how people in the coaching profession labeled themselves. After I left, I came to learn that label is an occupational hazard many in every profession give themselves.

Related: Why a Personal Brand Is a Matter of Personal Preference

Our labels become part of the story we tell ourselves. Being fired and having what I do stripped away from me in an instant helped me realize the only label I want is that of husband, father and son. That is my life and who I am. My job, whatever it would be from that day forward, was just what I do. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my career, because I do. If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd still keep doing exactly what I'm doing.

I encourage you to re-frame and rephrase how you view your work. It’s a role you play, just like an actor. We put the uniform on, step on stage, perform and then return backstage at the end of the performance. The best way to be able to step in and out of the role is to create a transition ritual for when you leave the office. Just like Clark Kent slips into the phone booth to transform into Superman, this symbolic, physical activity represents your transition from supervisor at work to super mom or dad at home. It serves to help you “separate the who from the do”.

One of my clients uses locking her car after she parks in the garage at home as her transition ritual before she walks in the house and turns into super mom. Another client keeps his tennis shoes under his desk, and when he leaves the office, he takes off his work shoes and puts on his play shoes so he’s ready to play with his kids when he gets home. I love this because it also serves as a very apt reminder to literally and figuratively be where your feet are. In other words, leave work at work and be truly present with your loved ones when you’re home.

Channeling my inner-athlete, my transition ritual is the same one I used in college as an athlete and had the athletes I coached use after a game. Instead of an athletic uniform I now wear a work uniform, and at the end of the day I throw it in the laundry and shower off the problems of the day before I put my street clothes back on. All the problems, stress and challenges are washed off and go right down the drain at the end of the day.

I’m not a coach, I’m a person who coaches entrepreneurs. You’re not an entrepreneur, you’re a person who practices entrepreneurship. Your self-worth is not defined by professional achievement alone. You are so much more than that. Value yourself for who you are, not what you do.

If you have a rebirth story please share it in the comments section below, I’d love to hear it.

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Related: Focus on Passion, Not Labels