Identity Crisis in Seat 5E

His name was John. We were seated next to each other on a delayed flight from Chicago to Dallas. John was telling me about his 20 year career with a large Fortune 50 healthcare company. He had been a Vice-President over a multi-billion dollar sales organization and had decided to leave due to a myriad of reasons (not important for us to consider today – just know, in this case, it was 100% his choice). John was/is obviously an incredibly successful business man with a proven track record, who was waxing on to me about how – since he left his power house career – he felt ‘lost and completely disregarded’ by his old comrades in corporate America. His old buddies didn’t feel he had any value to add any longer and said there had been several recent occasions where he was simply ‘dismissed’ as not being relevant to conversations at recent happy hours and dinner parties.

I wish I had a nickle for every time I have had similar conversations with men and women over the years.

His identity was all wrapped up in who he worked for, the scope of his responsibility, who he reported to, the cache of working for this well-respected company, his compensation package, etc. He shared his concern (and actual belief) that without this company’s brand name behind him – he didn’t have an identity at all. “Who was he really? How would he introduce himself now? No one would think he had any credibility or value.”

I cannot tell you how many people I have met over the years who believe their identity is completely tied to the company for which they work – and the level of position (the title) they hold. Despite their individual talents, successes, and even entrepreneurship within a large company, they have internalized that they are really ‘just a cog’ without a big company name behind them.

Why is that? Why does John feel this way?

I can’t answer that definitively for everyone; however, I do believe it is, at least in part, ‘learned behavior’ through the course of hundreds of corporate pep rallies, Fortune rankings of the ‘best place to work’, forced bell-curve rankings of performance, hundreds of corporate award banquets, executive search firms culling through executive ranks to find ‘the best and brightest’ like butchers looking for the finest cut of fresh meat.

Why does John think that his Corporate identity is the ‘only way’, ‘the preferred way’ – or that even any deviation from the standard career path is less than?

William Bridges, in his bestselling book, Transitions, writes in detail about life’s endings and navigating new beginnings. He positions these ‘endings’ as liberating rituals designed and intended to open new doors, by choice or force (although ‘we’, aka: ‘John’, don’t always see them this way). After a person leaves a current situation, they move into what he calls the ‘neutral zone’ – which is exactly where John is. John feels disconnected from his old job, de-valued, and not fully vested in his ‘new’ future.

This is a scary place. The ground feels as if it has literally moved under our feet.

We have all been there at one point of another – divorce, retirement, changing jobs or careers. And most of us believe (at least theoretically) that ‘this too will pass’ and will ultimately lead to a new perspective, direction and experience. It is just getting through that knot hole that is so hard! What initial (and simple) baby steps can we take to get through that period?

  1. Find time to be by yourself. Keep a journal of your thoughts – random or calculated – it matters not. The point is to open up – record how you feel, what you ‘really’ want, what fills you up, how you would describe yourself – is it different depending on the audience?
  2. Confide in an objective person – coach, mentor, sounding board – with whom you can open up, share, bounce ideas. This person really serves as a mirror for you – not a person with ‘all the answers’ – but a person who will help you reveal you.
  3. Think about what you really want now – and what you would regret if it was unfinished or untapped at the end of your life? Paint the picture of an ideal day, week, or year – what it would look and feel like. Describe what is it you ‘don’t want’ in your life – sometimes just identifying what is ‘not working’ for you – can help reveal what ‘will work’. Write a letter to a person you love describing that ideal life – in detail – as if you were living it one year from now. Are you happy and content….is that the ‘real you’ in that life?

These few small steps can lead to huge leaps in solving the ‘identity crisis’ we often face when we wake up and are, frankly, not sure how we got to where we are…and if it is ‘really you’ who is there!

Back to John. What I would like to suggest is that his identity is certainly not tied to his company. We know, logically, that we are all a culmination of our life’s experiences – this being only one experience in John’s life. Each person has the unique opportunity to become aligned to their purpose – as they define it by their goals, their values, their desires.

There is no ‘right or wrong’ as defined by society or corporate America or whatever ‘current benchmark standard’ we hold up: money, status, power, married, children, affluence, influence. Entrepreneurship, corporate America, community service….a combination of all or charting a completely new and untethered course – all are choices open to each of us. There is simply no reason for John to lose his identity in this process. In fact, in the process – he may just find himself a newly ‘aligned John’.

No doubt, these transitions ‘into alignment’ are challenging. Personally, I am not at all concerned about John. He will figure it out. But I know there are thousands of John’s (and Judy’s) out there. My coaching to them is actually wisdom from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said: “Not in his goals, but in his transitions, man is great”.

4 responses to “Identity Crisis in Seat 5E

  1. Great post! I hear variations on this theme on a regular basis when speaking with Netshare members in transition. I do notice that it seems to hit men a bit harder than women executives. Perhaps it’s because women often have multiple roles to fall back on. Our culture, rightly or wrongly, has probably inculcated men to invest more of their self worth in their careers. It will continue to be an issue until we start to realize the old saw about remembering that we are human beings and not human doings!

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

  3. A healthy “corporate attitude” in an employee implies, correctly I think, that the “one” has become a part of the “one body” of the incorporation of all the employees. Greater things can be accomplished in such an amalgam.
    The unhealthy error in our practice of corporate Americans is that we treat the Corporation as if it were itself another human being (as indeed the law have been interpreted relative to the rights of corporations). That “Being” seems more important than some real human beings.
    In other words, because we respect the Corporation we work for so greatly, we will work for the success of its operation, even when it is at the expense of other human beings. Somewhat like the old cattle barons who took land and killed off the competition if necessary to increase their holdings.

  4. Wow. Close to home and dead on Kristen. I identify with John and have echoed his sentiments exactly. Even if one has had various employers, it can be that level of responsibility and cache that we ALLOW to define us – especially in the good times! Ironically, the bad times and the times of transition are when we are most true to ourself and best defined by these tests of character. Your suggestion of getting clear about what you believe, want, regret, enjoy is the saving grace to reintroducing oneself. One other related quote (for those who did not make the choice) that keeps me inspired to keep trying and stay positive: “Success is going from failure to failure with great enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill. Cheers!

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