"We're shutting down the office."
And with those words I found myself out of work for the first time since my daughter was born. When I talk with people I know about the office closing, I've had a couple of them make comments that I shouldn't have left my position with a government agency to take the job in the tiny remote office. Government jobs are typically much more stable. I probably could have stayed there until retirement, but I wanted to work somewhere that I could make a difference. I wanted the energy and adventure of the tiny office and they delivered.
As things were winding down in the office, I was thinking about that government job. Specifically my mind kept coming back to a couple of conversations from years ago that I had with the fellow in HR. One day he challenged me to make a list of the ways I define myself. Am I a worker, a wife, a mother, etc? I went away, thought it through and came back with my list. When we sat down to discuss my list, he asked why I had my career at the top of the list. Was I defining myself first by my job? He pointed out that it can be dangerous to define yourself by your job because when things happen, such as a reorg to a new role or losing that job, then you lose that part of your identity. That makes those types of changes harder. The other danger in defining yourself by your job is that you are limiting yourself to that definition, so it can be difficult to branch out to new opportunities.
We worked through each of the items on my list and chatted about why I would define myself like that. When we got through the top 5, he pointed out that one of my most important roles - that of me as an individual - wasn't on the list at all. He asked me if I thought that I could be the best possible version of myself if the first item on that list wasn't about me as a living, breathing person with my own hopes and dreams. His point was that I was doing a disservice to the other roles that were important in my life by not being the best version of myself. It was quite the aha moment.
It's like when they tell you in the airline safety briefing, put on your own mask before assisting others. I had forgotten that I even had a mask. The first step to changing my definition was to identify those moments where I was forgetting to put my mask on first and modify the behaviour. I started to pay closer attention for those opportunities to put me as the individual first where I wouldn't have done so before. Today my list of how I define myself is quite different from the one I wrote all those years ago.
Over the years, I've noticed the same behaviours in others. Those moments when it seems like they are defining themselves as something else first, always take me back to this conversation and my journey since then. So I pose the same question to them - how do you define yourself?