You Are Not Your Career

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I shall explain in more detail soon.

The following is a guest post from Warren Talbot.

On September 30, 2010, I walked away from my career. I’d been carefully planning this day for 2+ years: saving money, plotting out my next move, and building up excitement for the future.

I was following a new path in life, one based on what I wanted and not what was expected of me.

However, there was one question that still bugged me as I stepped out those doors, one I did not realize would be so challenging: “how will I identify myself without my career?”

My Career Defined Me

I had spent the previous two decades building up a nice career in the technology industry, one I was proud to have my name associated with.

When people would ask me what I did I’d quickly described my role and the functions of my job.

This was core to my being and in describing my job I believed I was describing myself in the process.

It seemed logical since my career, at least in my mind at the time, defined me.

I was Warren Talbot – businessman, entrepreneur, and long-term strategic planner. I was certain these traits were the most essential to my being.

My career and my identity were so intertwined that I could not imagine my life without the profession.

  • Who would I be without my career?
  • How could I identify my role in society without one?
  • How will I judge my success and failures if not through my rise on the proverbial “career ladder”?
  • My job was a part of me, and now I was walking away. What the hell was I thinking?

There was a lot of concern and very few answers.

The Journey Begins

The decision to leave was mine, at least as much as any momentous shift in life may be.

I had a great job, one which afforded me the flexibility to enjoy week-long vacations in new locations and live in a nice home in the neighborhood which fit perfectly with our (my wife’s and my) personalities. It was a job I enjoyed getting up for each morning and it filled me with a sense of purpose.

And then in 2008 a dear friend suffered a brain aneurysm. Suddenly, I found myself standing beside a hospital bed wondering if she would survive.

The experience rocked the core of what I thought to be immutable – “I will work until I retire and then we’ll travel more, see more, do more. Until that day my future path is clear and secure.”

As I stood there looking down at my friend I was forced to ask myself the question which changed my life:

“What do you really want?”

A few weeks later my wife and I were having drinks with a couple and the subject turned to the shortness of life. We posed the question,

“If you knew you would not live until 40, what would you do?”

My wife and I were both 37 at the time and we immediately, without thinking, both said, “travel the world.”

Listening To My Gut Instinct

It was a gut response to a question we’d never actually asked.

It was a response without thinking about what’s expected of us. It was a response based solely on our own desires and it was authentic.

More than anything I’d done until that moment it was a true, authentic response to what I wanted.

I recognize now, in retrospect, that this is the moment my life changed. It was then that I realized that what I wanted was not the career I’d spent so long creating, or the house we owned, or even the lifestyle we had created.

Leaving Behind My Identity

Once I walked out the door, I realized that my life would not be the same. Yes, I was running towards the life of my dreams with the woman I loved.

But, without my career, how would I define myself? How would I relate back to people without the explanation of my profession? What is going to fill this void?

For the first few months, while we traveled around South America I would spend hours contemplating this “void”. This missing piece of me.

I would try to put a firm answer on “what is it you love?” and to me the answer could no longer be related to my profession. I needed a new answer, and one that I had to create from scratch.

It’s funny now to realize just how much stock I put in my career as my identity, but at the time this was a significant challenge for me.

Filling The Void

Now I was struggling with questions of who I was, what would fill me with joy, and even what I really liked. For so long my career was just a part of me and consumed a majority of my life.

I would think about work in the evenings. I would dream about problems I was facing. I would answer emails at home. My career consumed more of my life than anything else. And now, it was gone.

To begin to replace this focus I searched for what I loved doing. Now that I had some time on my hands I decided to dive head first into a few hobbies I had been merely thinking about for years.

I snapped 1,000 pictures in my first week, finally releasing a 10 year desire to be a photographer. Of course, the first step is to take pictures and I poured myself into the process. And I loved it.

I began to learn, to fill my brain with the knowledge I had wanted to pursue but always chose to work instead. I read more in that first month than in the previous year.

I began learning Spanish, spending 3 hours a day listening to podcasts and practicing out loud.

And likely the most exciting, and least for my wife, I discovered a passion for cooking. Nothing was too scary to try and not everything I created was edible (or could even pass as food).

But I dove in with enthusiasm to determine if I would enjoy pulling together new culinary delights around the world.

Being Open To New Experiences

My “job” now was to apply all the energy I had been dumping into my career back into determining who I really wanted to be. By trying new things I was able to see what fit and what I liked.

Some experiments didn’t work, and that was ok. I was not meant to be a bird watcher or a connoisseur of fine wine. But the key is that I tried them all, and so much more, to see what I could envision as “being me”.

Over the last 3 years I’ve made the slow transition away from defining myself by my career. It took time, an acceptance of the problem and a willingness to explore new passions to see what I connected with.

Now I see that the labels and identity I had created were put there by me, and thus it was up to me to change them. It was up to me to determine how I want to identify myself – both externally and internally.

I now know that one’s identity is not connected to your job. A job does not encapsulate one’s passions, desires, and the complex set of interests we all have. It is merely a tiny aspect of what makes up our lives, but does not define us.

A New Identity

This revelation has changed my entire outlook on how I see myself. I no longer see myself as a businessman, a technologist, an entrepreneur, or an employee.

Today I see myself as an explorer, seeking more connections with the world around me.

I’m curious to learn about people, their lives, and experiences in their own countries. I strive to connect with people on subjects that have nothing to do with how they (or I) make money.

It is, finally, my identity which I’ve come to terms with. Today, I no longer worry about the identity I “lost” but am grateful for the one that was uncovered when I let myself answer the question, “What do you really want”?

Bio

Warren Talbot is curious about the world around him and never misses an opportunity to introduce himself to a stranger and see where the conversation will take him.

Since 2010 Warren and his wife Betsy have been putting their relationship to the test while they live, write, and travel the world together.

Their fourth book, The 24/7 Relationship: How We Live, Work, and Travel Together (Without Killing Each Other), will be available on March 15, 2014. Find out more at their website, Married with Luggage.