How do I separate who I am from what I do?

who I am
Dear Sarah,
For the last two years I’ve been working as a freelance writer, but recently took a second job at a coffee shop to get out of house and help make ends meet. It was actually really hard for me because I’ve realized that taking this seemingly simple second job made me confront a lot of intense issues surrounding my idea of identity. Like, for the past year and a half, I’d been a WRITER. That was my identity and I’m really proud I was able to support myself by writing. But somehow, the moment I accepted the job offer, I felt like a failure, and I felt really confused about what I was and who I was.I hope that doesn’t sound cocky or stupid or both, but I felt like being a full-time writer had defined me for quite some time, and the addition of 20 hours a week slinging espresso muddled that definition. Do you have any insights on how much your job should play into your identity? It’s so crazy too because I’ve always valued things like relationships and creativity and sleep more than career advancement, and here I was having an emotional breakdown about working at a coffee shop at age 24.

Oh, dude. Have you been inside my brain? Were you living my life Aug – December of 2007?
Though I don’t really consider myself a capitol W ‘Writer,’ I very much know what it is to love and thoroughly identify with your job and then find yourself working outside your field and telling anybody who will listen “Hey, this is not my real life, okay? Just so you know. Just FYI.”
When I came back to the U.S. after my world ticket, I had three months of downtime before I moved to New Zealand to do my Master’s. So I lived with my parents and took a job waiting tables at a golf club near our house, a gulf club frequented by heaps of people in my tiny home town. If I had a nickel for the number of times that I heard “Sarah, what are you doing here?” … well, I’d have a lot of nickels. And of course, I fell all over myself pointing out that I’d just been traveling the world and was about to start school and that this life? It was very, very temporary.
And I’d be disappointed in myself every time I did this. What did it matter what these people thought? And who cares if my real life was waiting tables at a golf course in rural Minnesota? I’d just spent six months wearing the same jeans everyday and living out of a backpack – why was I all persnickety about my job title?
I think people generally have one of two approaches to work – some people view their jobs as a means to an end: a way to make the money that feeds their hobbies and families and adventures. And there are other people, often people who work in creative fields or who view their careers as something of a ‘personal calling,’ who think of their jobs as integral parts of who they are as people.
Of course, there’s not a right or wrong way to view your work life, you have to do what works for you. But for those of us who’ve been wanting to write/paint/heal/bake for our whole lives, it can be really disorienting to find ourselvelves out of our element. So I think the question here isn’t so much “How much should your job play into your identity?” as much as “My job plays into my identity alot. And now my job’s changed a bit – what should I do?”
Accept that maybe you can’t change your mindset
If you’ve been writing/dancing/trying to invent cold fusion since you were 5 years old, it’s probably unlikely that you can disentangle those interests from your identity. And I, personally, think that’s okay! Don’t feel guilty about it! But you should also realize that just because your job title no longer coincides with your interests doesn’t make you any less of what you are.
Keep talking about yourself as a writer/dancer/scientist
When you are making the rounds at those ubiquitous holiday parties, you don’t need to introduce yourself as a barista/office temp/professional couch potato. If you were a writer for five years, and you’re currently making coffee occassionally, you’re still a writer. And who knows who you’re going to meet? It’d be a pity to introduce yourself to a book agent as a coffee slinger when you’ve had three books published.
Keep honing your craft
Even if your income is currently coming from your job as a bank teller rather than from photography gigs, it doesn’t mean that you should stop learning PhotoShop. In fact, this should be all the more reason to take it to 11! Re-entering the world of professional potters/event planners/tap dancers will be easier if you’ve got some new tricks up your sleeves.
Realize that we all need breaks from time to time
If you work in a creative field or a field that requires a lot from you emotionally, you’re going to need a bit of downtime once in a while. I get reallllly emotionally involved at my job and there are times that I’d like nothing better than to serve coffee to strangers who won’t tell me about their families being hunted down by Burmese soldiers. And artists? They need time to let their left brain do a bit of the heavy lifting. View this as a time to let your grey matter rest a bit.
Keep hanging out with people who inspire you
If you’re a laid off research scientist who’s currently working at The Gap, there’s no reason that you can’t keep hanging with your researcher friends. This isn’t to say that you need to blow off that very nice college girl who folds sweaters so well, but spending time with people who are excited about the same things as you, know about developments in your field and actually care when you talk about genomes will make you feel a bit more normal.
Realize that this is a comma, not a period
Ya like that? How I made a nerdy writing pun because we’re talking about a girl who’s writer? Yeah, I thought so.
Annnnyway. If you’ve accepted that being a writer/sculptor/massage therapist is simply Who You Are, know that if you work at it, you’ll work in your field again. Generally, I think that people who define themselves in these terms are pretty kick-ass at what they do, and it’s just a matter of time before they start being professionally kick-ass again.
Remember all the other reasons you’re awesome
Even if you’re A Writer, you’re probably also a Best Friend, Daughter, Maker of Lasagna and Wearer of Hats. Think of all the other ways in which you define yourself and the many aspects of your awesomely multi-faceted personality!
How much do you identify with your job? Any other advice for our friend?

photo by gk.giannis // cc

36 Comments

Brittany

This is something that I am also struggling with. I am a college student so no career yet, but I am struggling with deciding what career to do. My advisor reminded me that a "career" doesn't necessarily determine who I am or what I do in life. It is far more important to be concerned about being a good person than what I can label myself as.

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Nicola

This came at the perfect time. Thank you, Sarah!

I graduated in June and then took off to live with my boyfriend for 4 months and didn't manage to find a job on my temporary visa. All that time I struggled with not being classed as a student anymore. Now I have returned home and am applying for retail jobs, so I feel like I'm squandering my "potential" and that if it's being classed as "potential" and not "sparkling ability and drive" that I'm failing. I want work that will define me, but don't know how to define myself yet, so coming to terms with this being temporary and a means to an end helps.

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Jess

this is a wonderful morning pick-me-up.
i'm struggling now with my imminent future of supporting my med-school-bound boyfriend and myself for 6 years on a teacher's salary. i REALLY would love to go to grad school (in anything BUT teaching) but having the both of us in grad school would be financially un-possible.
and we're still going to come out on the other end with hundreds of dollars of loans.
and there's the very real possibility we will have to relocate if he doesn't get into the medical school in the city i live in and love to death.

so. yeah. i needed this, girl πŸ™‚

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Tiffany

You are amazing and wise beyond your years. I loved this post.

P.S. My word verification is, "eysuck." No I don't, word verification!

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Ashe Mischief

OMG, I'm SO glad you write this, Sarah! I think especially now, in the (American) economy especially, that a lot of people are taking jobs that are just a means to an end. Especially young people. It seems our generation really wants to do something that matters to them over bringing in big bank (though I think we really want to do both), and it can be really conflicting internally.

One thing I'm glad for in my relocation is that I'll be moving in to a job in the arts. Prior to that I was a secretary and found myself often thinking, "I got a Master's to do this? This is really all I'm worth/capable of?" which is a horribly dangerous mindset to live in.

So thank you for writing this–I think all of your tips are spot on and it's a really good reminder to all of us…

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ML

I'm with Ashe, what a timely post for this economy.

I love your blog because it is always so sane & happy. Not just super giddy for the hell of it, but that kind of realistic, everyday woman happy–I feel like if I met you on the street we would have a great conversation and you would think I was cool, not just the other way around. Keep doing what you do, girl! It's really making a lot of difference to people, seriously πŸ™‚

p.s. Writer girl, you go get it. Espresso is not failure, letting other people define you in a coffee shop apron is! You got it!!!

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Jessika

I went through a serious crisis when I for various reasons couldn't work anymore. I had identified with my work for so long that the natural question was, who am I if I'm not working?
It took a while, ok, a longer while than I had imagined to figure out who I was outside out work. And work shrank away to one of those things you do. I took up some hobbies, developed an interest in botany that I had never ever been into before. Work provides you with purpose, social structure and also stature. When I eventually returned to work I found it to be interesting and fun while I was there. I enjoyed the chattery over the coffee machine with my colleagues. When I went home though I went home to my "other" life, the one that had come to define me when work couldn't. For all intents and purposes I still prefer the latter.

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KWu

This post is coincidentally really well-timed for me personally, I had a performance review yesterday that was okay but not as good as I thought it was going to be, which really threw me for a loop (dear commuters on the train: I'm sorry I left my hanky at home for the day and was a sniffling mess for an hour!).

What I find really valuable in your post are actually these parts: "there's not a right or wrong way to view your work life" and "Accept that maybe you can't change your mindset."

Part of what I'm so upset about is the very fact that I'm upset by the review at all. Work is not all there is to life, other people do appreciate what I do, etc. etc. But it just doesn't change that this does, in fact, matter to me and it makes me feel better to think that that part's ok. Onward and upward!

Also, I'm with what ML said about your blog too πŸ™‚

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Mary

Now this? This is good stuff, Sara. <3 for real.

I have never supported myself as a writer, but I've always held "writer" as my identity. I've recently realized that I don't even want to write as my full time job, even if it is how I identify myself. Instead, I'm sticking with a non-literary job, and the writing I do is strictly on my terms. It really allows me to hone my craft, read what I want, spend my free time researching things that attract me, etc. My next work related goal is not to bring writing into my professional life but to start moving my professional life in a direction that will fulfill me more. I'm looking for ways to reach out to other people and make the world a better place through my work, and you know what? That doesn't make me any less of a writer. Granted, this approach means there is no guarantee of publication (aside from my blog), but I can promise myself with 100% confidence that I will only write things I really care about.

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Jade

This is one of those posts that I agree with so completely, I almost don't know what to say. I think about what to do with my life/career so hard sometimes it makes my head hurt! I'm about to quit my 9-5 because it's, ya know, destroying my SOUL (ha), but am worried about taking on a job at a coffee chop, or retail, because what if someone saw me?? But even tho I'm worried, I'm still going to do it! Who cares what they think? Thanks for this post!

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Brooke

A fabulous post and I think it's applicable to so many of us right now (obviously, by looking at other comments). This was such a boost for me… thanks Sarah πŸ™‚

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Vanessa

I can totally relate to this because right now, I'm a Junior English/Journalism major in college, and when I'm home, I waitress at the restaurant portion of the local yacht club. You wouldn't believe– or you would because you've basically lived the same thing– how rude people can be because they assume you must be some kind of failure or drop-out because you're serving them martinis and steak in a stained black button-down. I've gotten some really condescending remarks, though I can't remember specifically what they were. I often get "so is this what you DO? Or are you in school?" and even though people might not mean to sound– frankly– like big, flaming douchebags… well, that's what they sound like. So what if this were my full-time job? I'm 20 years old, and while your child is probably making $8.75 an hour at some retail store, I regularly pull in over 100 on a Saturday night for five hours of work (which, FYI, douche, is over $20 an hour). It's just insulting that people feel like if you're doing a menial task, you're either a failure or you MUST be a student. It's really aggravating, but when your job is to serve people (read: suck up to them), you meet a lot of nasty people. Of course, I've also talked to many kind, gracious customers, but it's those bad ones that haunt you when you're tossing and turning at night over where your life is headed.

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Diana

This is such an awesome post. I've just recently finished my master's in Library Science, and I've been having trouble accepting the identity of Librarian when there's so many other areas I'm interested in as well. I'm a librarian, but I'm also a blogger, a seamstress, a knitter, and a style-maven. I can be all these things, and that's okay.

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Aurora

Thanks so much for writing this post. I have been working in an entry-level job for longer than I had planned until I figured out what I wanted to do and how to get there. I hated saying my title because every time I vocalized it, I felt like a loser and that I was letting myself down, not realizing my dreams, yadda yadda yadda. I've come to the realization that I'm not just what I do, but what I'm going to be doing (as far as a career goes) and what else I do (outside of work!)

Great advice for those of us in transition or who want to make a change.

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eleanor

Thanks so much for this! Again, blah, blah, perfect timing…
I just finished two masters degrees back-to-back and graduated to find zero job prospects. So, a cross-country move later, I'm back to living with my parents for the first time in a decade. I'm still introducing myself as an adoption social worker- even though I don't have a current gig as one. That's my identity though, it's what I've been doing and working towards for the past seven years and it takes far more than a job to strip me of it.
Thanks for the reminder and thanks for shining a light on all of us who are currently in this (temporary) slump.

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Towely

Hi Sarah,

I currently really love my job (despite not being in my dream field per say) and going back to school is many years away so I am definitely looking forward to when this all comes to a head for me. Yeah not really.

Anyway I just wanted to pay you a weird compliment. One of my oldest and dearest friends moved away a couple years ago, it's not that far and we do still talk and see each other but I miss her still.

There is something in the tone of your writing that makes me think of her every time I come here. And it always reminds me not to take the friendship for granted and always always to put in the effort to make sure that no matter how far apart we may be we still remain close.

So thank you for that.

Hadley

p.s. I love your blog for all the other reasons listed above too.

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BAM

I go in-between. I'm a biologist, and a big part of me is also a LEAVE WORK AT WORK person.

I really like my job and love my coworkers, but at the same time it doesn't define me. Most of my friends don't know what I do and I'm good with that. They know me as an active/silly/crafty person that has a job. That seems to be enough.

To the question writer: You're still pretty young and still finding your way to WHO YOU ARE. Where you work at 24 doesn't define you (I took money at a the door of a club at 24), its just what gives you a paycheck. For now. Good luck!
-b-

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stephanie

sarah – thanks so much for helping put things into perspective! i'm working as a buyer for a small retail store right now, even though i would love to be supporting myself as an artist. i have made some big jumps in advancing towards my art goals (like actually building a website, doing more than one show a year). but i'm still having a hard time. partially because when i took this day job, i told myself it would be temporary – and 5 years later, i'm still here. i'm trying to look at the bright side & gain as much knowledge as i can about running my own business. but, sometimes, i feel like i should be somewhere else right now. thanks for your post – it was encouraging & helped keep me looking in a positive direction.

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daddylikeyblog

Sarah, this is the best post ever–so inspiring for so many people, especially in this economy like a few other readers said. And as always I'm gaining a lot of great insights from your commenters too–all these ladies are so smart and savvy! Love it! πŸ™‚

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Abu

Ouch…
I've struggled with this so much…but wow what a great piece and the comments rock too!
I'm happy now as a photographer / teacher..and even though I earn more from teaching now than freelance work…I'm not as plagued as I once was by that awful saying "those who can- do, those who can't – teach."
I get to do lots of fun creative photography work and not worry about what I'll earn from it…

We all grow up being asked 'what do you want to be?

Maybe all this turmoil could have been bypassed if we'd been asked two questions-
1)what do you want to be?
2) how are you gonna make money?

Obviously that's a bit ridiculous you can't be grilling poor little tots like that….but what's equally ridiculous is the bashing we give ourselves over answering these questions as adults..

Thank you soooooo much for posting this Sara.

Oh and check out this guys blog:
http://taxidiary.blogspot.com/

He's a taxi driver who has a PHD and his blog is just like this one- filed under inspiration in my reader.

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Sarah Von Bargen

Abu, what a fascinating blog, that's for the link! I have such respect for people who are able to walk away from careers that don't suit or inspire them, regardless of the money or training that went into said career. I had a friend in New Zealand who gave up a career in law to become a carpenter. Dead sexy, right?!

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Abu

Amazing! He/She rocks. Gotta love a carpenter.
I've such respect for people who change careers, maybe not always through choice -like our taxidriver friend, but who totally make the most of their new one.
Someone told me the secret to happiness is feeling in control of your life. I think that's true.

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Helena

Thank you so much for this. I'm another 24 year old who feels the same way. (I have 2 science degrees, but am trying to set up my own design/illustration business, and am doing a random assortment of odd jobs in the meantime.)

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George

Thanks Sarah, this really really means a lot. I'm literally going to finish my masters at a prestigious university (which was my goal) in a few weeks, and it's looking like I'll be making coffee or selling t-shirts for at least the next few months (which was not my goal) while I look for something that actually uses my degree. The thought is pretty confronting, but you've just made it a lot easier to deal with.

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Steff Metal

When CDH and I were in Amman, Jordan, recently, we happened to be picked up by an amazing taxi driver. He'd gone to business school, got his masters, worked for a banking firm, and hated it. So he quit his job and drives taxis for a living.

Being driven by him wasn't like taking a taxi ride, it was meeting a friend. He drove us all over the city, showed us amazing treasures, took our pictures, chatted non-stop for 3 hours, and brought us sweets and coffee and water.

Sometimes, I think, what really, truly matters is not what the specific task you're doing, but how doing that task makes you feel and connect with other human beings. Our taxi driver got more of a kick from making our sightseeing around Amman memorable then he did from managing our investments.

I work for a charity organisation – making braille and large print books for the blind, and while I didn't exactly want a day job where I sat in front of a computer all day (I'm an archaeologist by trade), I love the job and could easily make braille books for the rest of my life, because of how amazing it feels to send off a book to someone who wouldn't otherwise have the opportunity to read it. I feel needed by people, appreciated, and like something I do actually makes a difference in the world. I never had that from archaeology, even though I'd dreamed about being an archaeologist since I was seven years old.

An amazing article, Sarah.

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Elizabeth Bennet

I work in a supermarket four days a week, but I'm also trying to be a photographer, which is why I only work part-time. I'm going back to school next year to finish off my bachelors degree (the one that I started 7 years ago!).

I do feel like a failure, especially when customers ask me what "someone like me" (whatever THAT means!) is doing working in a supermarket.

I did have one woman the other day compliment me, though, saying that we need MORE "people like me" working in supermarkets. That's a pretty backhanded compliment, since none of my colleagues are moorons..

It's not so much that I enjoy my job, it's more that I want to be the best at whatever it is I do, even if all I do is slice meat and stack shelves. So I try to be educated about the products I sell, and I know what different ingredients are for and how they can be used.. and I know stuff about vegan food and additives and which hams aren't suitable for coeliacs.

So I've rambled on a bit here, but my point is, I may "only" be a supermarket deli worker, but I'm a damn good one. And whether you make coffee, or write books, you should always try to be the best at whatever it is you do.

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Jackson's Mom

Sarah, this was a wonderful read! I saw the comment you posted on my blog, which made my day knowing that someone I hadn't met found value in what I had to say. Now I find myself reading this blog and am overwhelmed with how much I want to return the "favor". It's as though you have granted us all permission to be ourselves and reassured us that everything will be okay even if our dreams don't pan out as expected. I'm 27 and have held a variety of jobs in a variety of fields. I never expected to be a work-at-home mom strongly considering homeschooling my child. And yet…here I am, loving my life and regularly having to remind myself that it's okay not to have a career that uses my degree. That it's okay not to have a career, even! It's tough because my mother and sister are hardcore career-oriented women who slave away at work. I have a 24/7 job with extra work as I find it, but I feel judged by them nonetheless–which I suppose is only fair as I judge them as well.

Keep on writing! πŸ™‚

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Alexandra Franzen

There's absolutely nothing wrong with supplementing your writing income with a steady "day job." Plenty of great writers have done it. To name just a few examples:

> Salman Rushdie wrote advertising copy.

> Woody Guthrie painted window signs and worked in a drugstore.

> J.D. Salinger hacked carcasses in a meat-packing factory.

> Sylvia Plath typed medical notes in a psychiatric clinic.

> William Faulkner waited tables.

> Franz Kafka worked at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute.

> Octavia Butler endured countless declarations of "we're not interested" as a telemarketer.

> Diablo Cody was a stripper.

> Douglas Adams cleaned chicken coops.

The truth is, non-literary gigs don't make you a failed writer … they make you a BETTER writer. Think how much better you'll be able to convey complex emotions and moral ambiguity with a couple of demeaning joe jobs under your belt? πŸ˜‰

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Ella

I think it is important to remember that when you are working the arts/creative industry that sometimes you need a little help and that you should view this extra job as a stepping stone to your ultimate destination and tool to fulfill your dreams. So chin up πŸ™‚

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Crumble

As a teacher I struggle with this concept sometimes. I teach high school kids and I am meant to be a stand up, moral member of the community and somedays I feel that is what I am. But other days I'm a 26 year old boy who wants to play paint ball and go to the pub and teacher in just my job. It does confuse me every now and then. I don't know. I think it also comes down to work/life balance. I mean at the end of the day teaching in just a job. Like any other job and I guess I have to remeber that.

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Molly

Sarah,
Hello. I'm a producer in New York, and am contacting you after coming across your Blog – which is really interesting.
I'm working on a great project – a series of short films for the Web and, maybe, TV – and thought you might be an ideal person to interview.
The project – YOUR MONEY STORY – will explore the financial pressures on young people in America, and how Gen-Y thinks and feels about money. Created by an award-winning production company (with an Academy Award and Emmys to its name) the project will feature a dozen stories on topics including creative saving & spending, real estate regrets etc. We're looking for people who can share candidly – we want the good, the bad, even the humorous!
For more detailed information about the project and its producer, check us out online at:
http://www.yourmoneystory.net
If you're interested and think you have a story to tell I'd love to hear more, and invite you to e-mail us at:
mystory@thomaslennonfilms.com
Hope to hear from you! (if not, please pass the link on to any friends your think might be interested)
Cheers & a happy holiday week,
Molly

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