Becoming more than ‘what you do’

Refusing to define yourself solely by your job

Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

I’m frequently guilty of defining myself mainly based on what I do for a living. That isn’t practicing what I preach, because I’ve written elsewhere how being too caught up in your work and your career makes it difficult to achieve balance in your life.

But many of us find it very difficult to define ourselves any other way. Society places so much emphasis on what we do for a living — so much so it’s often one of the first questions people ask others at parties: “So what do you do?”

I’ve seen people squirm when asked that question — particularly if they aren’t currently working or if they’ve chosen a path other than a typical safe middle class career. That’s because there’s so much pressure to have a career and not just simply a “job.”

Yet some people are able to quite happily define what they “do” in a different way. I’ve met people who define themselves based on their roles as parents, volunteers, students, homeowners or members of sports teams, religious congregations or clubs. They see work as a means to an end — not a way to define who they are as individuals.

Others see themselves in relation to their job title and the organization they work for. In fact, I’ve heard that can be even more unhealthy than defining yourself based on your occupation or professional background because few jobs last forever. What happens if, after 10 years, you’re suddenly no longer director of human resources at XYZ Company?

Non-traditional roles

It’s also hard for people to define themselves based on what they do when they’re in non-traditional roles, and it’s difficult for people to pigeonhole them. If I asked my friends, family and neighbours what they think I do for a living, some would say I work in publishing, a few would say I’m an editor and others would say I’m in HR.

Some people — like my in-laws for example — don’t even understand what I do for a living. And at least a couple of people keep on referring to me as a lawyer, no matter how many times I’ve told them I’m not a lawyer (even though I have two law degrees and write quite a bit of employment law content).

For someone like me who’s always been career-minded, this type of career identity crisis can be a little unnerving. Am I an HR professional, editor, writer, legal professional, product manager, line manager, IT professional or marketer — or all of the above?

For the record, I still see myself as an HR professional first and foremost, albeit one with strong legal, communications, business administration and technology backgrounds. However, as my role continues to evolve and change, I’m also finding myself taking on increasing levels of responsibility for product development and marketing (“product” is after all one of the “Four Ps of marketing,” along with place, price and promotion).

While others may find it hard to pigeonhole me, I’ve simply decided to enjoy the ride for now and see where it takes me. After all, when I read about many senior business people’s careers, they often have done many different things and have quite varied backgrounds.

‘All work and no play’

I have started practicing what I preach a little more by refusing to define who I am solely based on my job or my career. As the old cliché goes, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.”

Besides my work, I am a husband, father, friend, homeowner and part-time student. I have interests such as cooking, travel, eating out, fitness, walking, music, hockey, dogs and microbrewery beer. And I’m even toying with the idea of taking up drawing and painting again — something I haven’t really done since I was a teenager. Doing some volunteer work is also something I would like to get back into.

Paradoxically, taking time to pursue other interests outside work can actually help make you a more productive employee by helping to avoid stress and burnout and making you more focused when you are actually working. And it can actually help you become a more interesting person, which helps in social situations because you have something to talk about other than work — which is important even when socializing with work colleagues.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit    

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