Why an authentic career identity is important – and how to find yours

Are you happy in your job or career? Or are you feeling increasingly unfulfilled and disillusioned? Find out why it’s important to have an authentic career identity – and how you can understand your own.

According to a survey by Deloitte, as many as 80% of us are unhappy in our jobs. And yet, while you may feel like your role isn’t a great fit, it’s not always easy to pinpoint why, or to understand what type of job (or even career) would make you happy.

So instead we sight ourselves, learn to dread Mondays and carry on. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As career and leadership coach Andrea Anderson shares in her own career journey, with help we can learn what lights us up and makes us feel satisfied – our authentic career identity – and find a role we can thrive in.

Just a job?

I was inspired to write this article by the brilliant Who you are Channel Four series by Grayson Perry. The series got me thinking about how our careers affect our identity, and the impact it has on us when we’re not living the life we truly want to live.

When we enter the world of traditional employment, we’re given a job title, sometimes a job description, we belong to a department and we have a person who manages us. We’re put in our ‘place’ from day one.

And while our characteristics, values, education, social and family influences all inevitably form part of how we go about doing our job, somewhere along the way our identity can get lost in all the labels that we’re given at work.

If you feel good about your contribution, you have a clear purpose, freedom to express yourself and stay true to your values, then the clarity and authenticity of your identity will remain strong.

But if you don’t feel good about what you contribute, enjoy what you do, or know how you ended up where you are; if you question your purpose, conform to what others want you to think and lose sight of your values, then your true identity and authentic self will start to get lost.

And I know from experience what a miserable place this is to be. 

I conformed to things I didn’t believe in

The first sign of my identify being crushed happened to me in my mid twenties in my second job.

I was part of a financial institution where thankfully, I never felt I belonged. I was exposed to many senior management gatherings, and at one of them was introduced to the concept of ‘enforced distribution’. 

This is where managers are forced to rank their people’s performance to fit in accordance with a distribution curve that fits the budget for performance rewards.

I sat and listened in horror as managers were forced to justify the performance rating they wanted to give people in their team – and when the evidence was insufficient they were forced to give a lower rating.

When I shared my discomfort at this process with my boss, I was told to ‘toughen up’, feedback that was repeated to me as I progressed throughout my career.

If only I’d had the confidence then to not conform to hideous management decisions, and to understand how important my values and sense of self worth was.

I recently heard the fabulously inspirational Alexander Kjerulf, Chief Happiness Officer at Woohoo inc, talk at the Meaning Conference on the topic of workplace rebellion and the negative power that group thinking and our desire to conform has on our behaviour.

If only I’d heard him talk 15 years ago! But would a 25 year old me, entering the beginning of the 21st century have had the courage to be a workplace rebel? Was the end of the 90’s the time for such behaviour? Did I need more life experience and a turn in tide, our values in society to change? The answer is probably yes.

Becoming a mum led to an identity crisis

While I never became a workplace rebel, I spent the rest of my employment career trying to create happy environments for talented people to thrive in. 

When I succeeded, I felt great about my contribution, I had a sense of purpose and meaning and my values were being met – I was true to myself. But the more I progressed up the ladder, the more ‘toughening up’ I was told to do, and the more my true identify got lost again. Until, after almost twenty years of hard work, I felt it was time to take a break, to recharge my batteries and find some inspiration again.

Not long after that, I became a mum and life changed beyond all recognition. I was happier than I’d ever been, and something strange happened to my identify. The removal of a job title, constantly flashing Blackberry and people wanting to talk to me, because of my job title, disappeared.

It was replaced by the most demanding of bosses, who was difficult to fathom… my child! People no longer even bothered to refer to me by my own name. ‘Finn’s mum’ became my new label.

I felt as though I’d become the invisible woman, and that was a very isolated and confusing place to be.

Searching for my authentic identify

In planning my next career move, I knew I didn’t want to spend my life on a train, working in an organisation without purpose or meaning, and not being able to be true to myself. I needed flexibility to be the mum I wanted to be.

So, I invested money and time working with a coach who helped me get clear on my purpose, passions, what would make me happy and ultimately work out my true identity.

As the wise Chinese Philosopher, Conficus said, “ Choose a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Our values are changing, and we’re realising more and more that success won’t bring us happiness. Instead, happiness will bring us success (Shawn Achor, the Happiness Advantage – you can watch his TED talk here).

There’s an exciting movement happening

There’s an exciting movement going on, brilliant business people who know the change of the third industrial revolution is happening, and they want to create better business for the 21st century.

We want a better quality of life for our children and ourselves. Thanks to the most recent global recession, we have to make our own opportunities, and we want to do it on our own terms. And digital is allowing us to do just that, creating a platform on which we can share our products and services.

We’re questioning the meaning and purpose of working crazy hours, for soul-destroying businesses, often in highly paid jobs which make us miserable.

Escape the City is a brilliant example of three ex-city workers who have created a movement encouraging others to escape, do something different, something that makes you happy. A quote from one of their weekly essays is, “We believe work has the potential to become love made visible.”

How to discover your authentic identify

So how can you get clear on your authentic identity? Here are three things that will help you start to understand what really matters to you:

1) Explore your passions and interests

Spend time reconnecting with passions you’ve lost touch with. What did you love spending your time doing when you were 7, 13, 18, 24 – times before the strains of responsibility got in the way of what was natural to you?

2) Get clear on what you’re brilliant at 

Ask people who matter to you what they think are your greatest strengths. There’s bound to be some nice surprises in there!

3) Get under the skin of your values

Our values shape so much of who we are, our actions, our decisions. When we’re honouring those values we feel happy and fulfilled. And when we don’t, we can feel miserable and uneasy.

Does your career allow you to honour your values, use your strengths and spark your passions and allow you to be your true self? If not, maybe it’s time for a change!

Take our Career Audit to find your true passion

It’s easy, as the years pass, to lose touch with exactly what our true passions and natural talents are. And just as hard to work out how to turn them into a viable career (or business) that you love AND earns you an income.

Our Career Audit workbook takes you through a series of fun psychological exercises to help you reconnect with your innate passions and natural skills, and create an actionable plan to turn your authentic talents into a career.

So if you’re ready to find out what you really want to do, and to craft a plan to make it happen, take our Career Audit now.

Andrea Anderson is a career and leadership coach. She is passionate about helping people find happiness in business and life. You can learn more about her work on her website.