What You Do v. Who You Are

In my career coaching practice I often notice patterns in the things that my clients are dealing with.  This week the issue seemed to be identity. 

In a perfect world, we would all have a solid grasp on our identity before we ever entered the work force. Why? Because having that firm handle on who we are as people would allow us to entirely avoid the lure of becoming our work.

For most people, unfortunately, this is not the case.

Many young people join the work force at 22 – fresh of college, at a time when their identity is still developing and evolving. Much of our identity is formed in relationship to who we are to others: a daughter, a brother, a friend, a boyfriend, a student. These are titles that describe both who we are and what we do. We’re students, so we spend time learning in a classroom. We’re daughters, so we love and take care of our parents.

So when many of the 20somethings I work with enter the work force and are given their first work titles, they struggle to disentangle their identity from their work.  For the first time in their lives, who they are is not synonymous with what they do. It’s easy for things like the process of pursuing knowledge as a student, or being a good friend to someone to feel like it has greater meaning behind it – because, well, it does. Finding the greater meaning behind a boring role in a field that you aren't interested in however, can be a bit more challenging. In some cases, it can be impossible.

Most people feel like they are alone in the struggle to choose a meaningful career path to pursue. They think that they must be behind, or that there’s something wrong with them for not having it all figured out yet. If ruminated on for too long, this feeling of not knowing can turn into a full-blown panic attack. It’s important for 20somethings to realize that this feeling is actually completely normal. It’s okay to not be sure of what you want to do right out of school. Like any big life change that we face, there needs to be a period of adjustment. Most millennials need to spend time exploring life out in the real world before they can determine what their career path should be. 

In our 20s, we spend much more time thinking about what we do, rather than who we are. This can motivate some people to settle for work that isn’t meaningful or what they love to do because it pays the bills, or sounds good on paper, or makes their parents happy. Which of course, is discouraging.

Millennials often find themselves asking, If I’m wrapped up in work that doesn’t fulfill me, then who am I? This becomes an internal crisis, and causes them to be extremely unhappy.

To have the greatest happiness in our lives, careers and relationships, we first need to establish a strong identity – a sense of self that is not defined by external factors such as our work or relationships.

To get a stronger sense of yourself, you’re going to have to ask yourself some tough questions. For starters:

What do I most value?
What lights me up?
Who am I as a friend?
How would my friends describe me?
How would my parents describe me?
How would I describe me?
Is there a disconnect between how others describe me and how I would describe myself?
Who am I when I’m angry?
Who am I when no one is looking?
Who am I to strangers?
How do I act when I’m frustrated?
What do I love doing?
What do people consistently tell me I’m good at?


The answers to each of these questions can provide key information to who you truly are.  I invite you to go through the above questions and actually allow yourself to answer them and see what comes up for you. 

If nothing else, though, at least stop equating the work you do with the person you are. You are so much more than your work!