I know of a girl in her 30s. Fairly successful, single, satiated and high on life. She spent her 20s at a PR agency thinking her work defined her personality. Every day, she would give a little more of herself to every client, every meeting and every team member. All of a sudden, her 20s disappeared. As ‘thinking 30s’ crept in, her relationship with work continued, unaltered. It was all too perfect and then the bubble burst.
Actually, life kicked in.
I also know of a boy in his early 20s. Fairly successful in his early career. Host of a very popular podcast, well-known on social media - a soon-to-be celebrity. One day, he confided in me - ‘I am leaving all of this’, he said. I couldn't believe my ears. ‘So soon’, I asked. ‘Yes, I cannot be burned out, I want to do my own thing.’ ‘GenZ knows everything,’ I thought to myself.
Then again, I met someone else over coffee - a girl at the threshold of 30. Educated to be in a highly specialised field, yet after a few years, completely breaking away to do something totally different, totally new.
In isolation, these are stories you hear every once in a while. But to me, when I look deeper, there is a common underlying thread , ‘life cannot be defined by a job.’ True meaning and purpose are much larger than ‘what we do at work.’
Psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, and individual identities lose importance. Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self. We are a generation enmeshed with our careers. A book I was lucky to preview proves my point.
Simone Stolzoff’s yet to be launched book (that I was lucky to preview), ‘The Good Enough Job’, explores the concept of ‘workism’, wherein jobs are akin to a ‘religious identity’ as in addition to providing a paycheck, they also provide meaning and purpose. Quoting from the book, ‘In the United States, productivity is more than a measurement, it’s a moral good.’ This sentence summarises what work and identity mean to the white-collared worker today - yet, two hundred years ago, careers did not exist. Most people (across the world) were farmers, and thanks to the industrial revolution, we are now in an era where our productivity is enmeshed with our sense of purpose, which is further enmeshed with being busy and working through the day.
How do you know you are enmeshed?
As per this Harvard Business Review article, here are 5 questions to ask yourself when your identity feels jeopardised by work.
- How much do you think about your job outside of the office? Is your mind frequently consumed with work-related thoughts? Is it difficult to participate in conversations with others that are not about your work?
- How do you describe yourself? How much of this description is tied up in your job, title, or company? Are there any other ways you would describe yourself? How quickly do you tell people you’ve just met about your job?
- Where do you spend most of your time? Has anyone ever complained to you that you are in the office too much?
- Do you have hobbies outside of work that do not directly involve your work-related skills and abilities? Are you able to consistently spend your time exercising other parts of your brain?
- How would you feel if you could no longer continue in your profession? How distressing would this be to you?
Let’s face it - this is most of us (living in Metros at least). The only difference is that realisation strikes at different points of life. I will let you into a secret (since you are still reading this article - the first girl in the story is me). Until recently, I answered all these questions in the affirmative. It would be safe to assume, ‘I had no life beyond work.’
The bubble burst when a personal crisis made me realise I had given away too much of myself to work and found it hard to reclaim those pieces. I tried looking for myself in my projects, my stories and could not find who I was. That exercise would only be possible if I detached from work and looked deep within.
Is detachment possible, while keeping attachment intact?
OK, here is the hard part. If you are anything like me (God forbid), complete detachment is impossible (hence the title of this segment). However, there are ways to ensure your life is wholesome (as it should be).
About twelve years ago, my friend Shweta Sharan was a content housewife. It was after her daughter was born, she realised she had to be financially independent. As she worked her way up, she realised her identity was not so much from her successful career (of being a freelance journalist and Editor of children’s books), but from being ‘her daughter’s mum’. Shweta tells me, ‘being a mother has opened up my mind. It was after my daughter was born that I learned to drive and pushed myself to become very independent. Before that, I lived in a comfort zone.’ Today, Shweta is on the verge of being an Entrepreneur, yet the identity she is most proud of is being her daughter’s mother.
It has been drilled into us to find our calling and it has been further drilled that purpose comes from ‘what we do’ not ‘who we are’. Don’t get me wrong, doing something you love and loving what you do are perfectly valid (I do too!). My only point is, ‘is that my whole identity?’ ‘is this all I am’ - many times I am left with the answer there is so much more to me than just my work. The point I am driving at is, if we are to look at life as a whole, why limit ourselves to find our calling only from work, that too from one single job. All of us know that life is fragile, jobs even more.
Aditi Parekh, Educator and Founder Animo Labs (offering leadership development and soft-skills workshops to organisations) shares, ‘I love my work and do view it as my identity. However, to me the definition of work is broad - it includes how I contribute to the community, my writing, my clients, how I view myself as a Founder/ business woman and how all of this demonstrates my values. Who I am is not a trade off really, it is all of it!’ She further says, ‘I have a monthly journal wherein I keep track of my various activities. Through this I know if there is an imbalance and work on it, so it does not go out of whack.’
All the stories mentioned here are about moving forward, finding ourselves and experimenting. They are also those of immense struggle and frustration during the gaps when one is introspecting and cannot find the answer. Remember, our parents did n’t have to do this. They lived their entire lives with one career (sometimes one they bequeathed). Our generation is especially different, as not only do we have a lot of choice, but we will have at least 5-6 careers. And, FOMO to top it all. What I am talking about is not easy. Yet, it has to be done. Personally, I am resorting to various kinds of workshops and sessions to go on this self discovery journey - I urge you to do so too, if you are ready for it.
Some of the possible approaches you can take are (these are very personal and there may be many*):
- Create a life framework and map the things that are most important to you - like this one by Tara Viswanathan, Founder and CEO Rupa Health.
- Start practising a story of yourself - by first talking about who you are and not introducing your profession.
- Ask your friends what you are really good at apart from your work and maintain a list. Explore these interests and figure how you can either monetise these or build a ‘portfolio of personalities’.
- Make time for yourself. This is perhaps the most obvious, but most understated practice. Being busy is not equal to being productive. Don’t fall into that trap.
- Nurture. Identities need nurturing. Try to hone your various identities in ways that will bring them out fully and not in parts.
Before you are fully enmeshed - think about this: if you were your own portfolio, would you put all your eggs in a single basket?