Who are you?

Most people don’t realize how big of a blow it really is to lose a job in today’s economy. It isn’t just the money crunch (although that is hurtful); and it’s not just the loss of self-esteem.

No, the biggest impact to most people who lose their jobs is their loss of identity. Suddenly, they don’t know who they are anymore. They used to be Sam Robertson, Engineer; now, they’re just Sam Robertson or they’re Sam Robertson, unemployed.

50 to 100 years ago, people used to introduce themselves by explaining their heritage: “Samuel Robertson of the New York and Boston Robertsons”. Then somewhere around the 1960’s people began introducing themselves with their profession (or in the case of some housewives, their husband’s identities, “Mindy Robertson, Sam’s wife”). Now, our image of ourselves have become so entwined with what we do that when we lose that, we actually lose a part of ourselves.

For those who can (and do) find another job in their chosen job field, it’s not so devastating. But for those whose careers or selected job fields have actually disappeared it’s as if you’ve just been told you have a fatal disease. You actually have to go through a grieving period before you can even begin to think about reinventing yourself. It’s a form of reincarnation, and some make it and others don’t.

Some people are able to easily reinvent themselves (reincarnate themselves) and replace their old mental model with this new one. But others can’t so easily let go of who they were. Sometimes it’s been so much a part of them for so long, that they just can’t conceive of being someone else. They wonder (and fear) whether people would like the new them, or whether they would like the new them. Fear is the biggest roadblock to reincarnating in this way.

After all, as an engineer you had a wife, kids, a house, a great personality, and lots of friends. But as Sam the programmer, will your wife and kids still love you, will they respect you, will you still have friends or will they think less of you? And the worst fear of all: will you succeed or will you end up unemployed again? Is Sam the programmer just a flash in the pan, or can it become your new mental model?

It’s not easy letting go of who you are to become someone else, and it’s especially hard when you really love who you are. If the downsizing and unemployment came as a surprise, then you’re going to especially have difficulty if you have to give up that mental model. Sudden death—any sudden death (death of a loved one, friend, or job)—is shocking, surprising, and leaves you totally unprepared. Of course, that doesn’t mean a slow death is any easier to cope with. Any time you have to put your mental model to rest and create a new one is going to create havoc in your life.

It can be a bit easier if you have some sort of support group, some people to help you through the grieving process. Once done grieving, though, you really need to reassess that mental model of yourself, and determine how much of it really depends on what you did (for a living) and how much is really who you are. Because if you can separate the two of them (even just a little), it will make it that much easier to remove the part that no longer fits, the part that no longer works, and recreate yourself.

If you can see that the engineer is not the be all and end all of who you are, then it makes it that much easier to remove the parts of the engineer that no longer fit and add in those of the programmer that do.

We are the sum of our parts, but we need to keep our mental models flexible enough that we can recreate ourselves, reincarnate, when circumstances require it. I may be Tas, the writer, but that term is broad enough that I can make it fit many circumstances. After all, posting blogs, creating how-to guides or novels, or just keeping journal all count as writing. And an engineer can also be a programmer or systems analyst.

So, practice flexing your mental model. Try thinking about how you introduce yourself to others, and then think about who and what you really want to be. Maybe even now, you need to redefine your mental model. Maybe even now, it’s already outdated and you’ve already reinvented yourself without updating that mental image of yourself. Take another look in the mirror and compare it to the image in your mind, and see how close or how far apart they really are.


3 thoughts on “Who are you?

  1. This is so true. I lost my job last year, and I’m still struggling to come to terms with who I am and who I want to be. I thought I wanted to go back to what I had been doing, but I’m beginning to see myself differently now, without the job identifier, and I think that’s helping me figure out what I really want to do with my life.

    Great post, thanks.


  2. For the first time in my life I don’t relate myself to my career or job – maybe because in the past my job was who i was – where I performed at my best. Now that I am living my dream I am quite happy to say : Hi, I’m Jackie – the mad cat lady that lives in the middle of the african bush in a ramshackle cottage.


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