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You Are Not Your Work

How to escape “workism” and reclaim your identity.

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If asked who you are, what would you say? CEO. Entrepreneur. Artist. Engineer. Consultant. Often, we identify ourselves based on our work, believing our work title is our identity. Teacher. Lawyer. Nurse. In The Atlantic article “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” Derek Thompson describes “The Gospel of Work” or what he calls “workism.” Workism "is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

When you are told, again and again, that you are your work, you start to believe it. The trap in workism is associating your full identity and self-worth with your work, occupation, or job. You are not your work. Your work is simply a part of you. But it’s difficult to separate the idea of meaningful work from a meaningful life.

Dan Lyons of The Times wrote about how a contestant on Apple’s “Planet of the Apps” said, “I rarely get to see my kids. That’s a risk you have to take.” The contestant, like many Americans, was taught to believe that meaningful work (even non-meaningful work) requires the sacrifice of meaningful relationships; it requires 24/7 dedication and unwavering commitment to the work above family, self-care, or personal fulfillment outside of work.

With cell phones glued to our pockets, we are always connected and readily available to respond to work-related emails, calls, and meeting requests, often making it difficult to disassociate ourselves from our work. And for those of us doing what we love, we get stuck with the mindset that because we love it, we should be doing more of it.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

In this hyper-connected and hyper-working culture, to fashion a fulfilling creative life requires clear boundary-setting and a new set of mindsets about your identity, your life’s meaning, and your work.

Here are the psychological detriments of “workism” and suggestions to reshape the way you view yourself and your work.

Overworking Is Underproductive

Many entrepreneurs, high-level executives, entry-level assistants, and students wear their work ethic as if it were a badge of honor. If you’re waking up earlier than your peers, working longer hours than your peers, and taking on more work than your peers, then you’re getting ahead of your peers, right? In the age of “hustling,” we are taught to believe that the harder—and longer—we work, the more successful we are or will become.

Hustling has become so commonplace that people in their 20s and 30s have become “obsessed with striving, relentlessly positive, devoid of humor,” writes Erin Griffith in the New York Times article “Why Are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” They are encouraged to exercise more and meditate more frequently so they can be better equipped to land the next big client, or handle another project, or spend more of their free time on side hustles, thus making their sole identity and sense of self-worth work-focused.

But what we don’t talk about is our productivity threshold. We all have one. As humans, we need sleep to be productive, and yet, “burning the candle at both ends” has become the norm. When you’re overworked, you’re actually less productive. When you get more sleep, develop a healthier work/life balance, and actually learn how to separate yourself from your work, you will find that you’re capable of not just enjoying more meaningful (and productive) work, but also of creating a more meaningful and well-rounded life.

You Risk Losing Yourself in Your Work

Maybe you’re staying late at the office and taking on extra shifts or clients so you can better provide for your family. Maybe you’re staying at the office later and later so you can get ahead of your colleagues in the hopes of getting promotion after promotion so you can save your money and retire early. Maybe you’re working on 10 different projects, all in an attempt to make your startup more successful than the competition.

Chances are you’re losing your sense of self and not even aware of it. “Workism” makes us believe that we are what we do for our job or pay-related work, which leads us to adapt a work-obsessed mindset. When we see our peers, colleagues, or idols promoting their early-morning workouts, their late nights in the office, their after-work work, we start to believe that everybody’s hustling. But often we see what others want us to see, which may increase the risk of depression and make us believe that we’re not doing enough.

The problem is that stressing to get more done today could impact our mental health and lead to burnout, which ultimately puts you farther from your goals. The perceived reality is that successful people are always focused on work, but in reality, many successful people view their self-identify by more than one title: business owner, husband, father, friend, little league coach, mentor.

Crafting a New Identity Leads to a More Meaningful Life

Basing your life’s meaning on your work is not the same as crafting meaning in your work. You can enjoy purpose-fuelled work without losing yourself in the process. One important key is to identify your own personal purpose. Your purpose will be the driver of your work goals, your personal goals, and your family goals. It will center your day-after-day and keep you focused on your core self. Your “core self” is where you derive your identity. It is not work-driven. It is self-driven.

To attain a healthy or well-rounded identity, you must establish balance in your work and in your personal life. That balance will shift occasionally (i.e., when you’re launching a new part of your business, when you’re on a tight deadline, or when you’re preparing for a wedding or taking your child to check out colleges). Your work should add meaning to your life, but it should not be the “meaning of your life,” even if it’s the dream job you’ve always wanted.

We are all in the pursuit of meaningful work, but often we get caught up in the day-to-day stress of reaching our short-term goals instead of focusing on the long-term ones. Work success is always rewarding, but is it as rewarding, in the end, if you’re disregarding your personal success?

For a fulfilling creative life, aim for both personal and professional fulfillment. To do so requires a lifetime of disciplined habits, prioritization, and self-reflection. Are you neglecting your health for the sake of your passion project? Are you neglecting your family for the sake of your new job? Instead of rushing to do more, take 10 minutes each day to refocus.

Ask yourself detailed questions about your routine and your overall purpose, taking note of your sleep habits, your work habits, how much time you’re spending on work versus how much time you’re spending with your family or on self-care. See if day-to-day actions are putting you closer to or farther from your long-term purpose. And remember: You are not your work.

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