Professionals may enter their jobs with ideal and sometimes unrealistic expectations; a ‘romantic image’ developed due to the perceived prestige that society attaches to professional jobs (Lait and Wallace, 2002)
If you were a bright child, did well at school and were always praised for your successes, perhaps it was inevitable that you chose a career where you would continue to be appreciated for using your brain. Choosing your career was perhaps simply a matching of certain aptitudes against tasks to be delivered; you were capable of passing the exams, so you did.
Little did you know that you were laying the foundation of your very identity – for your future self.
Instead it is easy to become hooked by the status, earnings and meeting parental and societal expectations. No doubt you initially found work engaging, inspiring and, on many levels, deeply satisfying. And, when you didn’t, it was easy to move on; every move seeming to offer both the answer to your doubts – and more money.
But after many years as a successful professional, a creeping and then galloping sense of purposelessness emerges in the work that you do. Initially you manage to keep convincing yourself that what you are doing in your work is of value and important to you. But eventually you cannot deny the gradual stirring of revolt against your chosen path.
You have to face the horrifying idea that your work increasingly means nothing at all. Is it time for a break-up?
Is it then inevitable that our self-identity becomes dependent on our professional identity? Why should this be and how does it come about? Here are some thoughts:
Professional work provides status, identity and structure.
As Wayne Oates recognised forty years ago when he coined the term “workaholic”, some people are psychologically addicted to work because it gives them a status, identity and structure they can’t find elsewhere.
A profession provides you with a “safe” place in the world.
Donald Winnicot’s work on transitional objects :
…”In later life, a valued possession,….a cherished dream, or perhaps a valued attribute, skill, or ability may come to act as a substitute for our lost doll or teddy, symbolising and reassuring us about who we actually are and where we stand in the wider world.”
A professional workplace provides you with social norms.
In her research on The Psychological Contract of Solicitors, Helen Grant noted that the ‘apprenticeship’ period,ensures the professional internalises an extensive set of norms which over time becomes an integral part of their identity’.
GRANT, HELEN,MARGARET (2010) The psychological contract of solicitors and the impact of promotion to partnership. Doctoral thesis, Durham University. Available at Durham E-Theses Online: http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/311/
“In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost” Dante
How important is your work to you? Is it something that’s always been a great source of pride? For many professionals, their career represents a massive investment of energy, hope and ambition. They’re bright – and proud of their intellect. After all, it’s tough even to get into their particular profession, let alone to succeed at it year after year. And they enjoy a certain status, even a mystique, because of their grasp and application of specialist knowledge.
But as an accountant, lawyer or other professional invests more and more effort into progressing their career – regular passing of exams, completion of training contracts, long hours, changing jobs and earning promotions – they risk creating something that is so psychologically valuable that it become an end in itself. At some point their career starts to represent more than what they do – it became who they are.
Of course, they don’t realise that at the time. It’s only when they start to question the value of their work that they end up facing a gargantuan knot of career as self-identity. A terrible doubt can emerge; “if I strip away all my professional identity, will I disappear?”