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American Identity Crisis: Are You Your Job?

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It's automatic for strangers at any American social setting -- right after "nice to meet you" and within the first two minutes of conversation or your citizenship is revoked. "What do you do?" It's a line that would be considered rude in many lands, but not here, where inquiring minds have to know: What's your status and how much money are you making?

The answer could be "I like to bike" or some other expression of your real identity, but the instinctive response is to go with the very real-appearing but pseudo-identity, the job ID. In a rootless culture with no obvious class markers, the job defines the person and the pecking order. You are what you do. It's a case of mistaken identity that is hazardous to your health, life, and even the work you do. In a 24/7 world where we're always in work mode, there's little escape from the identity that's not you. We get home from work, and we're either thinking about work or talking about it, not a habit in other cultures.

Default to where the perceived value is, output without end, and you wind up doing too much of it. Even if you love your job, do too much of it and you'll hate it. Having all your self-concept tied up in the job can be particularly dangerous in the layoff era. Who are you without a job? It's a good idea to find out, because it's your real identity that gets you through hard times. You've got a foundation of worth to fall back on -- skills, social ties, and interests and enthusiasms that buffer the stress.

Tens of millions of identities have been stolen by an interloper, the performance identity, leaving the commandeered easy prey for false beliefs that rub out the real you -- that all value lies in performance, that you can't step back from production and tasks for a second, or you're a slacker; that busyness is next to godliness; that self-worth comes from the productivity yardstick, net worth; or that taking time for your life is an interruption of production.

Chasing performance and its metrics -- money, status, toys -- to pump up worth pumps up something else: futility. Performance can't produce worth, since it's an external yardstick, about what others think. You don't really buy it. You get a quick bump, it vanishes, and then you have to produce more to get more worth. It's a treadmill that can never give you what you really need, the internal validation that comes from satisfying the real audience, your authentic core -- and the critical needs at the center of it, autonomy, competence, and connection with others that researchers say we have to gratify, or we're not happy.

When your identity is dependent solely on the job, you're conditioned to feel as good or as bad as your latest performance, your worth hanging in the balance with every task or jitter-inducing free moment. Having to remanufacture your worth every day is exhausting, and it crowds out the parts of life needed to bolster your real identity.

Contrary to the instructions of the performance ID, your job is just your social face, what psychologists call a "persona." The term comes from the masks actors wore in ancient plays to indicate their various roles. The persona is a mask you need to function in society, but it's not the real you. When you think it is, you lose track of the authentic person behind the mask and that character's needs, interests and values. You make yourself vulnerable to "contingent self-esteem," worth based on a narrow domain subject to the fickle approval of others. It's a very flimsy affair.

You're looking for love in all the wrong places when the persona is running the show. The thrill of a job promotion is gone in two weeks. Then you have to find another notch to pump yourself up with.

Persona lives are a bit like one of those colorized black-and-white films. They feel "off," fake. The form is there but not the content. People hijacked by the performance ID tell me that something is missing in their lives, and it is -- the expression of their real identity. What's that? That can take some digging to uncover from under the pile of duty, obligation, and email. I met a guy in Los Angeles who is an identity detective. He helps professionals whose identities have been appropriated by their professions, particularly doctors and lawyers, rediscover who they are by going through old love letters, high school yearbooks and other clues that predate the persona ID.

It's nice to get things done, and I like being productive as much as the next person, but when all the value comes from this narrow slice of a human existence, the tendency is to default to more of it and to the stress, burnout, and overload that comes with it. As work hours go up and leisure time down, health problems and negative emotions increase and life satisfaction plummets, reports Tim Kasser, who heads the psychology department at Knox College in Illinois [1]. Working more than 51 hours a week can triple the risk of hypertension[2]. As for the work itself, productivity tanks with excess overtime[3].

The most insidious thing about the performance ID isn't just that it makes you work more than you have to; it's that it winds up running your time off-the-clock, too. It books up your off-hours with tasks, time urgency and busyness, obliterating the whole point of the work -- life, and the experiences that satisfy your core needs.

The unchallenged performance ID leads to a host of issues, from chronic fatigue to insomnia, cardiovascular issues, relationships nonexistent or on the rocks, and a gnawing void where life used to be, all of which i see in my training and coaching work. And, yes, the guilt, in the form of productivity paranoia. For as much as we get done, there's the guilt about what's not getting done. Take a night off or a weekend for kicking back, and you hear the nag in your head. Shouldn't you be getting something done?

The one-tracked mode of performance can leave you at a loss for what to do in a free moment. You forget interests, how to have fun. The mind maps for those disappear. It's like trying to hit a baseball after not swinging a bat for 10 years. It's gone. Stanford Medical School's Mark Cullen did some research on retired executives who had been super-successful in their working careers. They made gobs of money and had loads of status. However, when they walked out the office door to retirement, within days they felt worthless. "The minute they stop, 20 or 25 years of accomplishments leak out," he told me. "They feel they are nothing." After a lifetime of working for a time when they could live, they didn't know how. "They had no leisure skills," said Cullen.

That last comment led me on a search to the source of those leisure skills and this crucial piece of identity we're oblivious to, which I detail in my book, Don't Miss Your Life. It turns out that we exit the persona and find our true ID in the world of play. Studies have shown that we are more authentic when we're at leisure than when we're on the job. We're doing what we want, when we want, and we're motivated, not by the usual external payoffs that make us batty, but by internal goals -- fun, learning, challenge, joy, the experience itself, things that satisfy the cravings of the core self, such as autonomy and competence.

That true you is where you never expect it to be, right next door in the lowly realm of R&R, a place the performance identity would have you believe is worthless. It turns out that your time off-the-clock is the road to who you really are. The best predictor of personal satisfaction is satisfaction in your non-professional life. If you don't have a non-professional life, chances are you might not be too happy.

Reclaiming your real ID means separating what you do for a living, the output mentality, from the "input" of the living you're making yourself. A place to start: a new line for your next conversation with a stranger, one that can set the stage for real persons to emerge from behind the masks. What do you like to do?

[1] Tim Kasser, Kennon Sheldon. "Time Affluence as a Path Toward Personal Happiness and Ethical Business Practice" (2009).

[2] Haiou Yang, Peter Schnall, Maritza Jauregui, Ta-Chen Su, Dean Baker. "Work Hours and Self-Reported Hypertension among Working People in California" (2002).

[3] Edward Shepard, Thomas Clifton. "Are Longer Hours Reducing Productivity in Manufacturing?" (2000)

Joe Robinson is author of Don't Miss Your Life, on the science, spirit and skills of activating the fullest life. He is a work-life balance and stress-management speaker, trainer and coach at Work to Live.