Your Career Is Not Your Identity

Imagine that you’re at an event and surrounded by strangers. If you were to meet some new people, there’s a single, over-used, and largely dreaded question that is about to be posed.

It’s not interesting or novel or insightful, but it’s just what tends to happen. We all know what that question is.

What do you do for a living?

For some reason, this has become the default question of choice whenever it comes to starting a conversation with someone new. It’s like an automatic reaction to meeting strangers. We immediately ask them about their work.

Although it seems like an innocuous question on the surface, think about what you’re really asking. You’re asking for a reference point to judge that person by. What is their social status? How much do they make? Are they worth my time? It’s all pretty messed up when you think about it.

On the flipside, the person on the receiving end of these questions is trying to exceed your expectations. It’s their chance to pitch themselves, to sell you on who they are and what they do. Is this what meeting new people has become? A sales pitch?

Whenever I’m faced with this question I often get stuck. I’m not really sure how to answer. Am I an entrepreneur? A writer? A designer? A consultant? A husband? A friend? I identify with them all, but for some reason we tend to fall back on the safety and normalcy of our job title.

I believe this common scenario is the perfect glimpse into a much larger problem: our tendency to turn our careers into our identity.

We may not be doing this consciously, but the example above is just one scenario of how ingrained this idea has become. How your career defines who you are.

In reality, we are an amalgamation of what we do, who we spend time with, and how we choose to live. Yet, for one reason or another, our career takes center stage. For the same reason that work-life balance has become an important conversation, so does career identity need to be re-assessed.

To put it bluntly, defining yourself by your career is not a great idea and here’s why.

1. Careers Are Self-Centered

First and foremost, your career is a narrow view of the world. Identifying yourself with your work means you have a pretty boring life. Everything you do is centered on your job and you miss out on the wonder happening around you.

Have you ever gone to a dinner with a friend and all they do is talk about work? There’s so much more you’d rather discuss, but you can’t even get a word in. It’s like they’re brainwashed. Don’t get stuck in this mindset and believe that work is all that matters (as much as I love San Francisco, the valley is full of these types of people right now and let’s just say, I’m not a fan).

2. Careers Are Uncertain

As much as we may love what we’re doing now or hate it for that matter, careers are uncertain. There’s no guarantee you’ll be doing the same thing next year or even next week.

The economy has changed and our roles in it are shifting too. Tying who we are with our careers seems naive, in the world today, especially when most careers are short-lived.

3. Careers Are Stressful

A side effect of taking this stance, is creating incredible pressure on yourself to perform at your job. When all you identify with is your work, the bad times hit even harder and the good times aren’t as enjoyable. You need something beyond work to hang your hat on.

Being too caught up in your career can create unnecessary stress and anxiety that you are essentially manufacturing for yourself.

4. Careers Are Narrow

Along the same lines, careers as identity make us forget or overlook the importance of other parts of our lives. The friends and family, the hobbies and projects, the things we do for fun.

Throwing these foundations of our life to the curb, makes it even more difficult to find the support that we truly need in our lives. It can be a dark and lonely life, when you live inside this box.

I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life’.


The point is, we need to do a better job of thinking beyond our careers and finding our center, our foundation, and who we truly are. I can at the very least guarantee you it’s not simply your career.

So the next time you face the question of ‘What do you do?’, maybe answer it a little differently.

  • Say you don’t know. This will really throw them off.
  • Try to answer it differently every time.
  • Answer it with something you hope to be, not what you are already.

Moreover, you have to do your part to stop asking this question in the first place. When you’re talking to someone new, ask something different, something more interesting.

Ask them what they’re passionate about? How they spend their free time? What they do for fun?

Pretty much anything to break away from the loaded question of what do you do and begin to understand what that person is truly all about.

Writer that designs — or is it the other way around? VP of eCommerce at function of beauty, creator of t-shirts, and lover of books.