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Change Jobs Change Identity


The most popular surname in Germany and Switzerland is Müller, while in Ukraine, it’s Melnik; both are words for a miller.  In Slovakia, the most common last name is Varga, a word that means cobbler.  And in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US, it’s Smith – as in blacksmith, silversmith, locksmith, gunsmith.

These names date back to the Middle Ages when a person’s job was such a defining characteristic it became their literal identity.

We tend to think that having names matching our occupation was only in olden times.

Think again.  For fun, here are some names and occupations of real people as collected by Bored Panda:

Neuroscientist – Lord Brain

Firefighter  – Les McBurney

Lawyer – Sue Yoo

Cashier – Ka Ching

Volunteer – Alan Toogood

Physician – Dr. Docktor

Ophthalmologist – Ashley Seawright

Gastroenterologist – Joshua Butt

Jobs and Identities

In today’s crazy world, we do not know if the names or occupations in the previous list came first.

We know, however, that jobs have become a significant marker of identity in a more nuanced way.

When someone says they’re a surgeon, you generally assume they have a substantial education and high income – two metrics that can determine one’s standing in society and affect how you subsequently judge the person.  But, of course, that’s a two-way street.  Many welcome this judgment because they desire to associate themselves with the wealth and accomplishment their professional titles imply.

However, those who let their jobs consume their identities may do so at their own peril.  Many people with high-pressure jobs find themselves unhappy with their careers, despite working hard their whole lives to get to their current position.

Hating your job is one thing — but what happens if you identify so closely with your work that hating your job means hating yourself?

Psychologists use the term “enmeshment” to describe a situation where the boundaries between people become blurred, and individual identities lose importance.  Enmeshment prevents the development of a stable, independent sense of self.

Is your Identity “Enmeshed” with Your Career?

  1. How much do you think about your job outside of the office?
  2. How do you describe yourself?
  3. Where do you spend most of your time?
  4. Do you have hobbies outside of work?
  5. How would you feel if you could no longer continue in your profession?

What to Do?

  1. Free up time. Delegate tasks at work to free up time and (crucially) fill that time with non-work-related activities.
  2. Start small. For your new activities outside of work, start small and try out some hobbies you’ve had your eye on. You don’t have to commit to anything long-term.
  3. Rebuild your network. Reach out to friends and family to revitalize your social circles.
  4. Decide what’s important to you. Establish and review your principles and values. Think about what you care about, and let those priorities guide you.
  5. Look beyond your job title. Consider reframing your relationship to your career, not simply in terms of your company or title but in the skills that could be used across different contexts.

The Bible

Timothy Keller summarizes the dangers of attaching our worth and value to our work perfectly:

“When work is your identity, success goes to your head, and failure goes to your heart.”

“I am what I do” is ultimately a devastating way to live.

The only effective release from the burden of “I am what I do” is through Jesus Christ.

One of the remarkable, foundational truths of the Christian faith is that those “in Christ” are somehow caught up in His identity; His status is our status, His righteousness is our righteousness.  So, understanding our identity starts with understanding His.

And what is key to His identity?

As God the Father says of God the Son at His baptism,

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

When the Father looks upon the Son, His verdict is love and delight.

And that is the same verdict He has of you, for those in Christ.  Our achievements or accomplishments are not the sources of our identity.  Instead, it is a status, an identity conferred upon us from Someone outside us.

I know I’m just like all business leaders who like to say, “this is my company,” and completely identify as the business.

We need to see the danger in this, and that it is too ensnaring and restricting in our identity.  We need to simply identify as a child of Christ and let Him identify for us.