For most people, their job is a large part of their personal identity, but people need a professional identity that is separate and distinct from their current position.
By John Palinkas
My wife has made the decision to leave her current position in several months. She has been with her present employer for most of her career and has enjoyed her work. Of course, there is always the typical bureaucracy and office politics that get her frustrated, but I know she enjoys what she does.
She first decided to leave the company last year and has twice postponed her departure date. Part of the holdup involved her company asking her to stay, but I think the real reason she has stayed longer is very different. I think she is having the same problem that the majority of our workforce has. Her identity—how she thinks of herself—is very tightly linked to her current position. Most people's identity is so intertwined with their job that they have a crisis when they eventually leave that position. Whether the change is voluntary or not, they feel as though they are losing an important part of themselves.
I can relate to my wife's situation. I spent the majority of my career at AT&T. One year I was thinking about changing jobs. AT&T was downsizing and the severance package it was offering was fantastic. This was an involuntary plan, with AT&T picking who would be leaving. I thought about my situation and talked with my boss about selecting me. After all, it would make his life easier by picking someone who wanted the severance package and was willing to leave. He submitted my name, and then we waited for the official word from corporate.
I still remember that day when I was supposed to be notified. I was working from home and feeling extremely nervous. In fact, my hands were shaking. I thought to myself, "How stupid is that?" I wanted the package. I wanted to leave. And yet I was sitting at home, nearly scared to death. Why? At the time, I never understood why I was so nervous and scared, but now I do. At that time, I referred to myself as solution architect director, director of sales and so on. You get the picture. So much of who I thought I was as a person was tied to my position that the thought of losing it, even voluntarily, was a major shock to my system.
By the way, when I finally got the call and learned I was leaving AT&T, the news gave me an overwhelming sense of relief and happiness.
Helping Others Help Themselves
For the last four years, I have been a member of the NJ Chapter of the Society for Information Management (SIM). SIM is a national organization that brings together IT leaders to share, network and give back to their communities. I mention this because our chapter started a program called Members in Transition (MIT) a few years ago. This program helps members who are looking for a new job by bringing them together with "helpers" who can assist them with networking opportunities.
I have participated as a helper on a number of MIT calls. Over time, I have observed changes in the people participating in the MIT program and with my friends who are looking for a new job. I think a major part of the observed changes in people is caused by a loss of self, of identity. How many people do you know that refer to themselves as “the former CIO of xx" or "the former VP of Infrastructure at xx" even though they left these positions more than a year ago? Yes, your former job titles are a part of your career history, but they do not define who you are.