Who are we if we are not our jobs?
For years now I have been attempting to separate my identity from my job title, role or description to be able to liberate myself from the constant mental race through life. The struggle is real, who are we if we are not what we do? If you are asked to introduce yourself, what will your answer be? Name, nationality, job title, what else? The fact that you are a proud parent of n number of kids? While that highly depends on the context, you are unlikely to say your nationality if you are home, but in a foreign land you might find yourself saying where you are from. Is the place where we were born a part of our identity, granted the place where we are brought up might be, but does our nationality have a bearing on us?
Some claim that who we are is how we act when we are alone. In that case, is being addicted to social media who you are? Or are you the couch potato that binge-watches Netflix all weekend? Or maybe that the question itself is unrealistic, that we are dynamic beings that cannot and should not be reduced into a few stagnant words that offer no insight into the past and no foresight for the future. Perhaps the question should be, “what do you like?” “What activities do you enjoy?”, “What are you passionate about?”, or “what makes you angry?”.
The reason I find it important to separate one’s identity from one’s career is the limiting effect it has on one’s life. If you think of yourself as a “doctor”, it might seem like anything you do, that does not directly promote your career or enhance your skill, a waste of time. Now imagine the impact of this on your life, a life with no hobbies, for example, you give up playing the piano, you can no longer afford to spend a few hours a week honing that skill, you’d rather read a medical journal. Imagine avoiding family gatherings, you need to be attending that upcoming course. All those sacrifices that we make that slowly eat away at your true self and what brings you joy and happiness. Not that having a successful career is not a source of joy and pride, but having only a successful career is a great source of unhappiness.
I have recently lost my mentor to a terrible accident that was entirely preventable. And while I struggled with the shock of it all, the first reaction I had was to quit my job and dedicate all my time to my children. At the time it seemed to me that nothing else mattered, not the job, not its impact and not even my dreams. I felt that there was nothing that is worth anything compared to spending time with them. Two days later, when the dire shock subsided and deep, unrelenting sadness set in, I was able to actually reflect on her life.
She was, by far, the most productive person I have ever met in my life. She was extremely ambitious and now that I remember when I worked with her ten years ago, she was my age back then, yet her knowledge, experience and responsibilities far exceeded anyone’s of her age, far exceeded anyone I had ever worked with. But the most inspiring thing about her, for someone like me who grew up in a family where work and productivity were the most important aspects of one’s life, the most inspiring thing was that her zeal for life, how much she enjoyed all the experiences that she was going through and how open and inviting she was for more.
When Sameera talked about securing a grant for a research proposal, I thought that that woman did nothing day or night except work on that grant application. And when she was relaying to us the details about her moving to her new house, I thought that if I hadn’t known who she was, I would have thought she was an interior designer. And when she talked about her kids, especially her daughter, she made me feel as if she had no other hopes or dreams for herself and that was entwined in her daughter’s. She would talk about shopping with the same passion she talked about founding a new biobank. This was so perplexing to me. I used to judge women who talked about their kids or their homes at work. I thought they were not serious enough about their careers. But there Sameera was, sharp as a whip, scary ambitious and successful on every front and had no scruples with being perceived as gentle, soft or even maternal. Looking back at her now, she was herself 100% of the time. She did not feel the need to act tough or stand-offish to be professional or to be taken seriously. I have to say; this was ground-breaking for me. I can’t count the number of times I have heard my own mother say that the moment she reached work, she completely forgot about her family. She had no photos of her children at work, and nobody knew anything about her personal life. So, when I worked with Sameera I was amazed. I am genuinely grateful; she has invested time and energy in me, and I always feel like a part of me wants to succeed in life to make her proud.
What it means to succeed in life
While the past decade has witnessed a paradigm shift in work culture and perceptions regarding work/life balance, some people are still struggling with outdated ideas of productivity, and, worse yet, their sense of self outside of their productive time.
People who grew up in the cut-throat cultures of the 1970s, 80s and especially the 90s, find the idea of a work/life balance too fluffy to handle. For them, success is often measured in numbers; how many hours you’ve clocked in, how many clients you have, how big of a bonus you received and how big of a profit you made. What you had to compromise or totally sacrifice in order to attain that “success” was not included in the formula no matter how priceless it was; quality time spent with family, memories made with one’s children, hobbies long forsaken. Very high prices indeed paid to attain a successful self-image. But what truly is success? And what are we genuinely seeking, a successful life or a successful career? Reflecting on Sameera’s life, I see her as one of the most successful people I have ever encountered. She had a successful career, a family of which she was always the heart and soul, friends who trusted her and who often relied on her, and an abundance of memories of moments lived in genuineness. This is what made her life special, what made her a successful person. People remember her as kind and gentle, as smart and capable. She is not remembered for being cut-throat or aggressive, she is not just remembered for being an epidemiologist, she is remembered for being a kind, gentle, genuine, motherly, curious, hard-working, ambitious, helpful, intelligent, successful epidemiologist who cooked great food and cared a whole lot.
Living a successful life is individual, personalized by nature. Living a successful life is rooted in living on your own accord, by your own rules, doing what you love, surrounded by the people you love and upholding the values and principles you believe in. I have, well, had, Sameera to thank for being a role model, someone who lived her life fully with zeal and passion and thirst for success in every aspect. I wish I had told you that back then, I love you, you inspire me, and I hope I am making you proud.