Can I Change My Career and Still Keep My Identity?
“What do you do for a living?” This is a familiar question, one that we ask and are asked all the time. It sounds innocent, innocuous – it’s just ‘small talk’. But if we consider the meaning it is laden with, it suddenly becomes pretty ‘big talk’. What we’re really asking when we ask “what do you do?” (at least, what I have found that I am really asking) is for you to tell me — What are you like? What are you good at? What defines your daily life and what are your values? What have you chosen to dedicate yourself to?
Perhaps it shouldn’t be so laden with meaning and expectation. We are more than what we do, surely?
Then again, maybe it should. If we are the sum of all our parts, and we’re at work 10 hours a day – it makes for a pretty big part.
These were the questions I was asking myself as I progressed through the beginning years of a career that for all intents and purposes, I enjoyed and was good at. There were bits I liked and bits I didn’t; but on the whole, it felt like a ‘good path’. The problem, for me, was the prospect of a path. When I saw things unfold ahead of me, I saw that they were ready-made – that I would be required, I thought, to slot in to a pre-existing, carefully carved-out channel in the road.
“Where is ‘me’ in all this?”, it made me think. “Will I be moulded and shaped to fit the ready-made slot? And is that the version of myself that I want to become?” Yes, it’s a ‘good path’ – but do I want to see my path before I’m walking it?
It wasn’t until a business idea dawned on me all of a sudden one day that the world opened up. I could finally see an alternative – I could sidestep the path and do my own thing.
And so it was that early in 2014, that I came upon Escape the City – they spoke to the voices I was battling with and offered guidance for startups. Little did I know that six months later, I would have stepped off my path in a different direction altogether, and would be working with them full time. My world had opened up – in a bigger and more profound way than I could have anticipated.
Taking The Leap.
The moment that a decision is made, that change is committed to, is always hard – however much we may know it’s the ‘right thing’. I had known, while sitting at my desk in a global PR company, that I needed change – I needed to shake things up
You can know that, but it still feels scary when it’s happening. Even as I said down the phone to the guys at Escape, “Yes, I’ll quit today, I’ll start in two weeks!”, I felt the familiar swoop of butterflies in my stomach – the voice saying “Ah, but are you sure? You must be sure!” Thankfully I had been to enough Escape School talks to know that that voice is inevitable, and that it’s advisable to ignore it if the fear is of change.
So, two weeks later, I was at the brand new Escape School offices – complete with semi-finished floors, half-ripped-down ceilings and just a handful of working lightbulbs. I spent the day buying loo roll and researching hoovers, washing up an inordinate amount of crockery, building Pinterest boards to design each room in the venue, laughing hysterically with the team, and not wanting to go home.
I knew the change would be a big one. I had been prepared in advance – having met the team a number of times – for certain dynamics to be fundamentally different, for my life to be turned upside down. I couldn’t wait – I love disruption, change, the new.
In practice, though, the changes ran much deeper than I’d anticipated. What I found out ran to the very core of what it means for me to be ‘me’ – professionally or otherwise. I’ve started to explore the answers to the niggling questions that had plagued me before, and engage with that understanding in a more constructive and less fearful way than I had previously been capable of.
What I thought I knew.
I had read enough, and spoken to enough people, to have a sense that the following would be true:
- I would care about what I was doing. Hurrah! Purpose. I wouldn’t have to battle with the feeling of futility that came upon me sometimes, or self-criticise when describing my job to people I met (‘Oh I basically help big companies take more money from their customers’).
- It would be scrappy, it would be like riding a wave. Forget the standardised project lifecycle that dictated the ins and outs of my daily past-life. Stuff would be all over the place.
- My role would be different – I was taking a ‘step down’. This was a big one for me. I would no longer be a ‘consultant’ or a ‘manager’. “Who cares?” I thought. “I’ll be doing something with meaning. I’ll figure it out.” Turns out I do care – but it does need figuring out.
As ever, experience tells a slightly different story. Turns out I didn’t know the half of it – and that the bigger picture now beginning to unfold before me is showing me the beginnings of a new way to live my life and be me.
What I found out.
It’s worth saying that I was moving into a startup on crack.
Escape the City heralds and practices the very essence of what it means to be ‘non-corporate’. It’s not imitating or drawing on corporate experience to make it work, but consciously rejecting those norms to redefine what work culture looks and feels like. It demonstrates the concept of entrepreneurial ‘growth mindset’ (see Adele Barlow’s essay here for more information), and lives and breathes values and principles that were borne out of dissatisfaction with ‘the system’.
The changes I anticipated (above) go a lot further than ‘what I thought I knew’. And what I’m learning is not only what it can mean to have a ‘professional identity’, but what a professional identity means for me – my own identity.
1. I would care about what I was doing.
…which would change my social identity and force me to confront uncomfortable personality traits.
A job with purpose? Hurrah, indeed. But doing something you care deeply about comes with its issues.
There is a common (predominant) ‘I hate my job’ mentality that permeates the culture of twenty-somethings in London (and, no doubt, far beyond). I find myself to now be part of a different tribe – those who have done something different, taken a risk.
This is threatening to many people, who can’t understand that decision, and – possibly – resent that I’ve freed myself from the life that they are so attached to. It’s too easy to inadvertently ‘preach’, or to advocate change to those who aren’t ready. I must retract from those conversations, and quietly know that I am simply no longer part of that world. A small sacrifice, if a sacrifice at all – but a change that I hadn’t fully anticipated.
The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose. -Richard Grant
Caring about my work has also brought my personal and professional identities much closer together. When you’re emotionally attached to your work, there’s no longer a line between ‘me at work’ and ‘me not at work’. I don’t mean this so much in the sense that I can never switch off or escape work – but more that I feel my most innate traits and tendencies surface in my work. For me (and I’m sure many others), that means that I work way too hard. I’m now constantly at risk of not stopping to rest – getting too into it and going down the positive psychological cycle of work-reward-work-reward (the rewards here being a simple sense of positive achievement and change-making naturally arising from accomplishing meaningful tasks, rather than depending on any external reward granting). Staying till 10pm – out of choice – on Day 1 at the Escape office is a case in point.
I can’t blame my boss, as it’s all too easy to do. I can only blame myself when I start to feel exhausted, and I must check myself – get in touch with my personality traits, acknowledge and control them in a way that means I can look after myself.
2. It would be scrappy, it would be like riding a wave.
…and that’s unlocked an energy I didn’t know I had.
I’ve never been one for routine – it stifles and depresses me. But a total lack of structure could, I knew, be frustrating – I have been trained to value efficiency and forethought. In practice, it’s really, really fun. I can influence change more directly and see things move quickly.
“We could collect feedback from guests at events better than we currently do,” I once said to Rob. “What do you think?”
His answer summed it up: “Go for it. Have a think and put something in place – whatever you think would work. I trust you.”
The interesting thing for me is that riding a wave also means constantly being in action. Keeping moving and enjoying that is a new thing for me. Previously, ‘getting everything under control’ and delegating to the point where I could comfortably disengage was where I found myself able to ‘cope’. It was the end goal. I didn’t want to be knee deep and flying all the time.
Now, the best moments are when I’m stuck right in and everything is happening – possibly just outside my control, but I’m hanging on. I’d craved inaction and rest. Now the opposite is what fulfils me and makes me feel alive. I have tapped into a load of energy that I didn’t know I was capable of.
3. My role would be different, I was taking a ‘step down’.
…but that thinking belongs to a paradigm that simply doesn’t apply.
I knew this would feel challenging. I didn’t know quite in what way or with what outcome. Who would I be? This was the biggest, and most unanswered question I faced.
There are things I knew I was leaving behind and I figured the ‘doing something I cared about’ would feel like enough to justify that. But on its own, it isn’t. It doesn’t fully take into account your sense of identity – who am I, what do I do, what am I good at. I was ‘doing well’ – a manager and a consultant. That worked for me and the professional identity I’d created for myself. Moving into my new role felt like it threatened that.
Today, working in a startup, I empty the bins, load the dishwasher, order the stationery, book the cleaner, liaise with the recycling company… I’ve spent more time in Argos buying kettles, plates, lamps, etc. than I care to quantify. I do this having come from a position where I was a ‘strategic consultant’.
“What do you do?” (That old chestnut.)
“Oh, I’m a brand strategy consultant.”
It feels like a safe and comfortable answer. It says “I’m intelligent, I’m successful, I know stuff you might want to know, I do intellectually stimulating work”. Which is not to say that’s necessarily true, of course. But the code is true, and one that I was safely embedded in.
Exposure to a system which rejects the established norms has led me to reframe how I analyse what my work identity means – and find out that it can be a hell of a lot closer to ‘me’ than I thought.
To the outside world I may have taken a ‘step down’. But what I now understand is that there isn’t necessarily ‘up’ and ‘down’, or ‘high’ and ‘low’, as such. And insofar as there is a combination of ‘intellectual’ and ‘practical’, the respected skill within start up culture is being able to switch effortlessly between them. Not ‘progress’ to increasingly ‘intellectual’ capabilities, leaving juniors and other departments to pick up the practicalities and logistics. We’re in the business of being rounded now, not specialised. The new challenge for me is the dual functioning, operating seamlessly at two levels – the Founders are masters at this, and it is this roundedness that I strive for now.
The work I do is different and so too is my relative position. I was a manager, I had a team, and responsibility for their progression and outputs. Frankly, they picked up the work I didn’t want to do. But when the nature of work roles changes, so too does the structural picture.
No, I’m not a manager anymore. But a ‘manager’ wouldn’t have a place in a startup in the same way. We look out for each other and solve problems together. Work isn’t passed down, but across. Yes, someone makes final decisions and the buck stops with them. But day to day, there is little sense of person x controlling person y and person z, or deciding what person y and z will spend their time doing. Seniority and title are less and less relevant.
Being in a startup has disrupted my concept of job titles – it’s no longer a progression from junior to senior to director etc. The pain and politics of that path is replaced with a new and altogether more fulfilling challenge – aligned directly with the individual and not the system. Namely, “who do I want to be, and what role can I create that would help me get there”. This is fostered by a company culture that encourages me to now create that role, and do the things I need to do in order to fulfil it.
I’m working upwards – but the goal is not an arbitrary ‘seniority’, granted via promotion. It’s a personal goal and identity that I want to achieve. No more “here’s the prescribed job description for the level above you, and the objectives you must repeatedly fulfill in order to prove that you are ready to reach that target”.
Of course, all of this means that if I’m not going in the direction that I want to be moving in, it’s on me to change it.
It also means that I no longer have a mask to disguise myself. Employees in startups (and their Founders) are understood first and foremost to be humans – with a complex psychology, foibles, preferences, talents, weaknesses etc. One is not first and foremost ‘position x’. Meaning you can’t hide behind your role, attempt to deal with your issues by head-clearing walks around the block, to sit back down at your desk, repressed and resentful, forced to battle through the issue while maintaining your professional facade. There are too few people around to let structure dominate and mask the people behind the job description.
So… can I keep my identity if I change my career?
I hope I have conveyed so far that this question is essentially null and void. I no longer want to keep my previous identity, I’ve lost touch with what I felt was so valuable about it. Any sense of identity I had before now feels superficial. So the answer to the question, in my case, is “No – you can’t keep it. But you can find it”.
People often say that this or that person has not yet found himself. But the self is not something one finds, it is something one creates. ~Thomas Szasz, “Personal Conduct,” The Second Sin, 1973
Working in an anti-corporate organisation involves a process of self-analysis, self-development and self-acceptance. Who you are and how you interact couldn’t be more central to the day to day running of the company. (This, of course, is true in any organisation – but in a well-run company, it’s fully acknowledged and embraced).
Having a level of self-awareness is paramount – because you’re no longer a small fish, hidden in a big pond. The blur between personal and professional, the emotional intensity of moving at pace, and the fact that everyone is directly impacting change and progression the whole time means that your inner life is as important as your outward professional role.
It is this for which I am most thankful, and is the reason I now couldn’t consider a role in a large, systematised corporation. I can’t suppress myself now I’m out of the box, and I’m committed to learning about me – to being the most effective version of myself (NOT the most effective ‘brand strategy consultant’) that I can be.
Doing something different with your life and career is hard… but you don’t have to do it alone. If you need help with your Escape and if you are ready to re-take control over your life, join our Tribe.
“No one can tell you what to do with your life and there is no “one-size-fits-all” escape that will lead you to happiness. What does work, however, is exposure to new ideas, likeminded people and a safe environment for you to figure out what it is you really want.”
– Rob Symington, Escape the City co-founder.