Who Are You Without Your Job Title?

Having attended countless personal and professional events, it is without fail I’ll get asked, "what do you do for a living?" In any social setting, this is a very common question that you are expected to provide an answer to. And likely, you would naturally ask the same question when you are meeting someone for the first time.

I remember moments in my career when I felt really good about my work. I was able to answer this question with ease, comfort, and confidence. When I felt accomplished and had a positive outlook on my career my response to sharing my job title came easily. For example, "I work for <company name> as a <job title> ... oh yes I am really enjoying the work that I do to... <insert an effortless description of my work>". 

The most gut-wrenching times for me were when I get asked this question and I don’t have a socially acceptable answer because either:

  • I’m unemployed

  • I didn’t get along with my boss

  • I dislike my co-workers

  • I don’t like my work and need a change

  • I’m overworked

  • I don’t feel like my contributions are valued by others, especially my boss

When I am in these situations, I realized that I would feel anxious and want to run away. I didn’t want to answer the question about my work title. At the same time, sarcastic thoughts would start to bubble in my mind: “Can’t you come up with a more original question? Why don’t you ask me about something other than what I do for work? Can’t you see that work is sucking the life out of me and I don’t want to talk about it?”

Many of us closely tie our identities to our work and this may not always be positive. Your identity starts to be defined by your work with every promotion you’re chasing or as you’re aspiring to be selected to work on the next high profile project.  

Our society has conditioned many of us that success means more money, more responsibilities, and a higher ranking title. However, success is defined differently by each person.

The realities of not having the safety net of a large company and a management job title hit me hard when I resigned from Ontario Power Generation (OPG). I wasn’t pursuing another career at the time. I was solely focused on my family. I remember travelling and attending weddings, and without hesitation people asked me, “what do you do for work?” I wanted to sink into the ocean and not return. When my response was that I left OPG to focus on my family here’s the range of responses I got:

  • Couldn’t you hire someone to look after your family?

  • What!? Why would you do that? What about the pension and benefits?

  • What about your career? You’ve been climbing the corporate ladder and you shouldn’t stop now.

Leaving OPG was the right decision for me, however, there’s always a bit of doubt. And these comments only served to fuel my self-doubt. So I began to question who I was without the company and job title. This process of self-discovery has been one of the most impactful transitions out of my four career changes so far.

Here are some questions to help you reflect on who you are without your job title:

  • What are your values?

  • What are your hobbies?

  • What are your strengths?

  • What type of tasks energizes you?

  • How do you like to spend your time?

  • Who do you like to spend your time with?

ACTION: The next time you meet someone new, replace the usual question “what do you do?” with “what do you like to do for fun?” You may actually get to know another human on a deeper level without judgement.