It’s Okay If Your Career Doesn’t Define You

December 31, 2019  |  
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career indecision and identity

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Sometimes I think careers were something invented by the powers above to keep us distracted during this lifetime. Or, they were a device created by society to keep us all busy, well behaved, and productive. Our entire lives seem to be designed to move us towards and through a career, from the moment we are born. It already starts even as toddlers now: it’s true! You’ve got parents bribing “special” preschools to take their kids so they can get into the best elementary school and the best high school and then the best college. You’re born and everyone worries “Ok how does everything we do starting right now affect this person’s career potential? Her earning potential? How do we make the brightest, most ambitious child and then, adult?” You’re catapulted into this lifestyle of chasing and climbing and aspiring. Is it good? Well, the answer to that isn’t so simple.

I believe we know by now that, when hospice nurses ask patients what they wish they’d done more of, they hear very few answers like “earned more money” or “become more famous” and a lot more answers like “spent time with loved ones” and “traveled” and “laughed.” With old age comes clarity and the elderly don’t seem that concerned with what sort of stamp they left on whatever industry they worked in.

That being said, if you’re lucky enough to have a career you love—one that means something to you—you can feel that loving and laughing and caring for others are all one and the same with working. But what if industry just…went away? If we lived in some utopian society where nobody worked or, a scarier thought, a post apocalyptic one, where would that leave those who clung so tightly to their careers for their identities? If you are someone who doesn’t feel immense career drive but still feel like you know who you are and what you’re contributing to society, maybe you don’t need to panic. Here’s why it’s okay if your career doesn’t define you.

career indecision and identity

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Pay your bills and you’re no burden

In terms of money, let’s say you have a job you like just fine. It doesn’t depress or anger you. And it pays you enough so that you can pay your bills—the essentials. If you do that, that’s something to be proud of. It means you don’t need to burden your family by asking for money. That’s an accomplishment, no matter how you made the money—whether through bartending or dog walking or stock trading.

career indecision and identity

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It doesn’t affect others

Even if they act like it does. And they will act like it. Your family might pester you your whole life about what your plan is or what you’re going to do with your life—as if life isn’t happening right now. If you’re genuinely content working jobs that, perhaps others don’t see the dignity in, but make you happy and pay your bills, then don’t worry about impressing them. Your family should just be proud of you if you’re a kind person.

career indecision and identity

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You can be a part of your community

It’s easy to forget that you can make an impact on your community in other ways besides through your career. You can be the neighbor who always knows who needs what sort of help and lends a hand and connects people. Everyone respects that individual, regardless of how she makes her money. In fact, being a great member of your community eclipses career accomplishments.

career indecision and identity

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You can be creative on your time

Often creativity is discussed when talking about a fulfilling or important career. But a career isn’t the only avenue for creativity. If you have a writer’s spirit but don’t feel like competing in the publishing world and dealing with the demands of audiences or managers who may not understand your vision, you can just self-publish. You can read your stories at local open mics. You can be creative on your terms, no pressure of money.

career indecision and identity

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You can support the careers of others

Some people find their calling in supporting the careers of others. Maybe you never feel the need to have some high profile career, but you’re the first one to reserve a table when your friend opens a restaurant and the first one to help her bus tables when her staff gets sick at the last minute. You’re always promoting the work of your impressive friends and family, like an unpaid publicist. There’s honor in that, even if you make your money in a quieter, humbler way.

career indecision and identity

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It shouldn’t impact your friendships

What you do for a living should not impact your friendships because it has no bearing on what kind of friend you are. It also shouldn’t affect who is or isn’t interested in friendship with you. But the truth is that flatterers and superficial individuals won’t come around if you aren’t wealthy or well known. Good. Let them stay away.

career indecision and identity

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And it shouldn’t affect your relationship

The type of life partner you are to your romantic partner says a lot about you. Maybe you’re defined by being a fiercely loving and loyal partner. Maybe you always put your relationship before money or fame. And you know what? A good relationship stays the same no matter what the individuals within it do for a living.

career indecision and identity

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Finding a dream career is not easy

For the record, it’s unrealistic to believe everyone will have newsworthy careers that change the world. It’s very hard to A) discover what you love to do and then B) make a very lucrative living doing it. Most people don’t get that lucky. But also, it’s quite possible to be happy in other ways.

career indecision and identity

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Pursuing one may slow you down

In many cases, making a career out of what you love only slows down your ability to do what you love. You just want to be a healer/chef/singer but when you make a career out of it you’ll spend a lot of time working on websites and marketing campaigns and social media outreach. Sometimes doing what you love not as a means to make money just lets you do more of it. You get to do it on your terms. No administrative tasks holding you back.

career indecision and identity

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If you’re happy, you’re good for others

If you do what you can to make yourself happy, then you are good for others—you’re good for society. Maybe the high profile CEO who is miserable would be better for everyone he quit his high paying job and just became a bartender who was happy and kind. All I’m saying is that, if you’re happy then I promise you you’re good for those you interact with.

career indecision and identity

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A life without competition can be nice

Not everyone is cut out for competition. I don’t even want to say “cut out” because it implies some sort of failure. Some people just have a gentle heart that would rather not live a life that meant taking something from others if you wanted it, and a life in which there is not enough to go around. That’s understandable.

career indecision and identity

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It’s brave to be stripped down

It’s actually quite brave to say—if it really is your truth—I don’t need lots of money or notoriety to be happy and I know who I am, even if nobody else really finds me impressive. It’s brave to seek the value in yourself outside the conventional path lined with money and status.

career indecision and identity

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You can still enjoy every day

I mentioned earlier family asking what you’ll do with your life. It is such a funny question because it implies life is just on hold, waiting to begin until you pick a career. Life is happening now. Today you can help a neighbor or be creative or experience something new or be kind to a stranger. Your day is no less of a day because it wasn’t spent working on your brand.

career indecision and identity

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And life doesn’t need to be expensive

If you can be truly happy with little, then you’ve got it figured out. So often ambition grows for the wrong reasons—because we spoil ourselves and ruin our ability to enjoy the simple things. In that case, only more money can do. But it never ends and we need more and more. You’re lucky if you’re free from that cycle.

career indecision and identity

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A career is fleeting

If you can find a career you love, great, but remember that even that will end. You’ll grow old and tired. Your industry might go extinct. So never stop yourself from enjoying today—from loving and laughing and being creative—all in favor of a thing that will evaporate one day. If you’re focusing on what counts in life, don’t be too hard on yourself if your career isn’t impressive by conventional standards.

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