Am I My Job?

April 06, 2004

It has been eighteen days since I was last employed. Eighteen days of emotional highs and lows, eighteen days of struggling to make sense of it all. This morning as I realize yet another day has gone by without a job prospect, I find myself wondering about the connection between my self image and my job.

As a child I was always told that I needed to study hard and get good grades so I could go to college and get a good job. If I didn't I'd end up "pumping gas" at the local gas station. And somewhere along the way I bought the whole career path idea. The one that states you have to have a direction to your career or you aren't successful. As a member of the information technology industry I always thought I'd be a programmer, and then an analyst, next a project leader, and finally a manager of some sort.

And so, in my career to date, I have been a programmer, and an analyst, and a project leader, and several other titles as well. But no matter what the title, I've always associated who I was with what I was called at work.

"I'm a programmer."

"I'm a team leader for a large OO project."

This is fine when you have a title. Viewing yourself, or worse, equating yourself, with your job title sucks when you haven't got a job. You are left with saying, to yourself if nobody else:

"I'm unemployed."

I think there is a huge fallacy in imprinting our young people with the idea that they are only as good as their job. I know better than to think I'm only as good as my job and I still have a brutally hard time letting myself off the hook when I don't have a job. When we tie self worth and happiness to some thing as capricious and vague as a job we give up our right to self determination. And we doom ourselves to never feeling happy enough, or content enough.

It has only been as the result of several very painful end-of-job situations that I've come to see that it is more important for me to focus on who I am, regardless of my employment. That my relationship with my wife and friends shouldn't change just because my status as a worker has changed. And yet, thanks to years of conditioning in school and as a young, eager to please employee, I find myself in the depths of depression because a place I hated working for no longer wants me.

Staying focused on who I am and what will take care of me is so very hard when all the imprinted impulses I have are telling me I should panic, and grovel, and sacrifice to get another job so I can have my identity returned. The idea that my identity was somehow owned by the employer is absurd, and yet not being employed has left me feeling lost and apart from myself.

( I suspect, but do not know from personal experience, that this "loss of identity" crises is what destroys so many people who retire only to wither away and die. )

I know in my head that I am not my job. That the sum of who I am is far larger than any title or position. But in my heart it is hard to feel left out of the mainstream, to feel apart from everyone I know who has a job.

From here on out I'm not going to answer the question, "who are you?" by saying I'm a programmer, or I'm a object-oriented application architect. Instead I am going to respond,

"I'm Mark. Human being at large."

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.