Recently I was talking to a friend who was released from his company after 20 years of employment. I could hear in his voice a feeling of being lost. He is by nature an optimistic guy. He is always really upbeat and a guy that I have looked for to show me the bright side in many situations. We have not known each other that long, but in our short friendship he has shared little nuggets of wisdom with me that can only come from a man who has experienced life. Unlike in the past this conversation between us was short. I could tell he wasn’t in the mood to talk and that he really did not know what to say. There was a sense of embarrassment, although I am not sure which of us was projecting it. I highly respect this man and that respect is 100% independent of his job status or title. I doubt saying that would have convinced him at that moment. His identity was in question.
Our jobs really do define way more about us then they should. When you meet someone new I bet within the first 4-5 questions one of them is “What do you do for a living” or “Where do you work?” Even when my wife meets a new friend the conversation eventually turns to “What does your husband do for a living?” When I am asked to introduce myself in a business meeting (or social function) it is often followed by the statement; tell us what you do for a living. When we are in a professional setting our titles are typically plastered on our ID badge. We all tie ourselves to our place of employment and more so to our title. I don’t like to admit this, but it’s true. So for me the funny thing is all my life I have worked against my talents yet expected to have the big title.
I remember sitting down with my financial advisor the year before my wife and I got married. We sat across the table from him as he worked to help us lay out a plan for our future and retirement. I clearly remember saying to him “Look Lou I know most of your clients probably plan to increase their salaries each year, but I am working to reduce mine.” He looked at me kind of funny as I explained that my desires were to trade in my “corporate title” for something meaningful and we all know that meaningful doesn’t pay I said. Every time I think back on that I have to laugh. I was 31, idealistic and really clueless about what I was saying. That was 14 years ago and my journey has looked very different than I planned. Through a strange series of events I found that I could indeed do something meaningful and increase my salary, the two are not mutually exclusive, like I thought as a young idealistic single guy. Meaningful is in the eye of the beholder. For me I define it as an occupation that allows me to have a positive impact on the people I meet.
Despite finding meaningful work that pays, what I do is still too heavily tied to who I am as a man. I work daily to separate my identify from my profession, but I would be lying if I said I had that mastered. I figure it is a like the rich man/poor man analogy; when you have lots of money, money is not what drives you, but when you are broke the dollar is your focus. So how would I feel if I suddenly lost my job? What if I had to take a job with less of a title? What would I feel like the next time someone asked me “What do you do for a living?” If I am truly a servant leader then should I really care about what my ID badge says or should I just be willing to serve…period?
Once again my friend’s experience has imparted a nugget of wisdom on me without even knowing it. His situation has caused me to do some healthy self reflection. Currently, I face a decision in my life that will test my growth in this area of separation of profession and identity. One of the people I will seek counsel from is my unemployed friend who by his recent experience and years of wisdom can surely see things in a perspective that I cannot. One thing that I do know, is this, at the end of my life no one will care if I got laid off during my career, what I did for a living or what titles I held. What will matter is how I impacted those around me, how I treated my wife, and what type of father I was to my daughters. So today do not ask me what I do for a living, rather ask me who I am and in turn I will keep working to separate my identity from my profession. Together let’s show everyone that is worthy of our respect, that our respect for them is 100% independent of their job status or title.