Jobs + Identity: Who You Are vs. What You Do

05/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Many of us describe ourselves as our jobs. We don't say "I work as a baker," but instead "I am a baker." Or "I am an accountant/engineer/police officer/cook." There is a lot of "is" in our work. It's part of the modern construction of identity, a construction quite pronounced in the United States.

Cultures are different, and in some parts of the world people don't talk as much about their work or define themselves as much by it. It doesn't mean they don't place value on it. One scenario: countries used to economic volatility, where many highly-qualified people don't work in their field. I met PhDs in Cuba who guided tourists or sold cigars at the marketplace. They didn't seem to define themselves by the work they did as much by their regional and national identity, their family structure, their travels (many had studied in communist countries around the world based on Cold War-era alliances), and to a certain degree by their education. They shared a lot of wry smiles between themselves about the twists and turns of fate. I found another ethos in France, where occupation is one way of describing yourself, but people put a lot of emphasis on aesthetics, personal politics, and community. Parisians claim their arrondissements as fiercely as New Yorkers claim their own neighborhoods.

Americans work longer hours than people in most industrialized nations, including Japan. Until this recent economic adjustment, a lot of people also preached various (religious, political and secular) varieties of prosperity gospels that implied, if not stated, that you were literally a better person if you earned more money. (Folks still preach that, but I suspect some of the believers are questioning the message or at least the narrowness/judgment with which some people delivered it.) Our current state of affairs begs the question: what happens to the "is"-ness of work when work no longer is? Or, at the very least, if it is no longer what it was?

Well, for some people, it brings denial. For others, grief. (See research cited in Don Peck's recent article in the Atlantic showing that six months of joblessness delivers a psychic blow on par with a divorce.) Other experience freedom, even elation. Most of us have some mash-up of the above.

I'm certainly not immune to the lure of "is"-ness. For years I've defined myself as a journalist. I still am a journalist, but I have other things I do for joy, and for money. I try to mix joy and money, but sometimes work is just work.

I've learned to diversify my revenue streams more than at any time in my life. In 2009, I made money as a:
-- novelist
-- print journalist
-- online journalist (text-based and video-based)
-- radio host (staff and freelance)
-- radio reporter/commentator
-- digital media consultant
-- speaker/lecturer (on topics of race and/or digital media, mainly; at venues including high schools, colleges, and businesses)

I don't believe I made any money doing television in 2009, but I also did it as a guest and considered that "work"... more of an exposure/brand building type of work. I hired a lot of freelancers to help me execute various aspects of what I do, so in some ways I am helping keep our economy afloat.

I realize my position isn't typical. Over the years, I made decisions, some of them well-thought out and others by luck and inspiration, that allow me to work as a freelancer. What I miss the most while freelancing is the social nature of work, so for that reason (and healthcare!) I'm planning to move in a more structured direction in 2010.

But this period of dis-engagement from a traditional job-based identity has been really amazing. It's allowed me to move in a more entrepreneurial direction, and to realize that I desire certain things from work that not everyone needs. For example, in addition to paying the bills, I desire work that's creative, builds community, and has elements of experimentation and playfulness. That kind of personal evaluation of the different roles work plays in my life is something I couldn't have done when I was working in a traditional full-time job. I couldn't see the forest for the trees. And that was okay, at that time. This time of evaluation is perfect for what I need right now.

As I look around at my friends and colleagues, and at the country as a whole, I see a lot of people who are figuring out the difference between who they are and what they do. I think it's really important to see yourself as someone who is, just purely is, without making your identity wholly dependent on whatever you do for money. It's critical to take an audit of your skills and an audit of the job marketplace, and to realize that what you've done in the past is not necessarily what you will do or should do in the future. If you've been volunteering as a counselor at your church or organizing field trips at your child's school, you have skills. If you've been running a family, you have skills. If you've been learning how to navigate social media for fun... well, there's money in that too. I'm not trying to preach a neo-prosperity gospel that says there's a job just around the corner. Sometimes you have to walk a few miles in the cold to reach that job. But it's there. You can find it, or you can make it. And when you find it, or make it... you'll still be you, not just your job.

And by the way... I would love (love!) to hear what people have learned along the journey as we change jobs... or just our change or perspective on work.