Most career questions are actually identity questions. It seems like maybe we need to know which job to take, or which boss is better, or which line to delete on our resume. But really, we need to know who we are.
I learn the most about identity when I’m lost and I have to make a tough career decision. Here’s the first time it happened:
When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to play professional beach volleyball, but I was actually in Chicago, being a bike messenger in the snow, and I had no idea how I was going to get enough money to get to Los Angeles.
So I answered an ad someone ran for posing nude. I thought I could do it and get enough cash to get to LA. I went to the guy’s apartment. Insane, right? You are thinking this was not a safe move. I know. But I was young and sheltered, and I had never been faced with the problem of not having money.
The guy opened his door, and while I was still standing in his hallway he said, “Nice legs. But I can look at you and see this isn’t going to work.”
I said, “Huh?”
He said, “Well. What can you do? You can’t just stand there. That won’t work.”
“What should I do?”
“See,” he said, “I told you this won’t work.”
He told me to stand on my toes and toss my hair.
I couldn’t do it.
He told me to practice and then come back.
On my way home, I thought. “That guy sucks. And I should be in Playboy. In the centerfold. I could do a great job at the written interview.”
But by the time I got home, I was thinking how stupid it would be to spend my time figuring out how to get into nude modeling. That is only a stop-gap measure. Not a long-term way to make a living.
And I asked myself why I was doing that? Why wasn’t I doing something I’d be more proud of? I realized that the ways I choose to make money reflect who I am and how I see myself, and I need to start seeing myself as smart and clever. I always knew I was smart, but I didn’t present myself that way in the world.
That’s the moment I decided to switch. It seems obvious in hindsight, right? Of course getting paid to be smart is better than getting paid to be naked because it’s getting paid to be who I really am inside.
But we each struggle with this constantly, throughout our careers. How to figure out who we are inside and what career will be right for how we see ourselves now. It’s a constantly shifting alliance — what is our identity and what is the career that will reflect that.
Don’t be so arrogant as to think you do not consider such mismatched career moves for yourself as my nude modelling was for me. It’s very hard to define a career that honors our identity. Identity changes as life changes And it’s hard to know what’s true to us at any given point. It takes a lot of vigilance and honesty and a willingness to shift when we’re totally off base.