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Has work become your only identity?

late night work image

I was doing a radio interview recently and the host read my LinkedIn profile out loud. "This is impressive," he said.

"Actually," I told him, "That’s really not me." The credentials and awards were all true, but when all is said and done, I want my obituary to say a hell of a lot more than what I did for work.

The "me" in my identity is so much more important to me. I want my obit to say that I loved and was loved. I was a good partner, a devoted daughter and a true friend. I was a serious cyclist, a crazy-passionate kayaker and a kick-ass adventurer who said "Yes!" to just about everything. And, yes, I wrote books, spoke globally, coached people and was an investigative reporter.

My work — which I truly love — is a passion, but it is not my identity. I’ve been involved with Network of Executive Women for a decade and, I have to tell you, I’ve run into more than a few Type-A people in the organization. It is so impressive how much so many NEW people have accomplished.

But the traits of a good Type-A (extremely competitive, impatient, anxious, status-minded, ambitious, etc.), can make it hard to let things go and just live a happy life. The characteristics that drive you to the top make you more prone to stress and health issues. They can slide you into workaholism.

While work may give purpose, challenge, fun and joy, studies show that Type-A living poses challenges for having healthy relationships and achieving balance. That may not be evident until years down the road when you see the consequences of the choices you have made, particularly with regard to relationships with others and, most of all, your relationship with yourself.

Your job is not your identity. You can work your way through life, thinking your worth is defined by impressive performance, pay, perks and promotions, but what does that really add up to? Outside of being a high performer, a strong leader and a professionally successful individual, who are you? Is your identity one dimensional?

It takes a lot of confidence to define for yourself what status and success really are. My friend Colleen is a C-suite officer at a $6.8 billion a year corporation.

She'd hired me make a keynote address for her company and, after the event, we had dinner. Her boyfriend called and told her that her new couch had been delivered for the sitting area of her bedroom.

When I saw her a few years later, I asked about the couch.

"You know, I have never taken time to sit on that couch," she said.

We laughed. It became a running joke throughout our friendship.

Two years later, same story. And three years after that, she still had not sat down on that couch. Ten years after we first met, I saw her and she knew I was going to bring up the couch.

"You aren’t going to believe this," she said. "I moved this year and we gave the couch away."

"Did you finally sit on it?"

"No."

"Not once?"

"Not once."

You can work yourself to death to achieve the symbols of success, but if you never take time to enjoy them, why bother? What good are they?

I coach corporate people all the time on how to reconfigure their priorities. They know things are out of whack, but they can’t extract themselves from a lifestyle that isn’t working for them on a soul level. They feel like they have too much to lose; if they start living in a way that honors the priorities that truly matter to them, they may slow their career trajectory. They fear they will somehow fall behind or fall short or not have the cash they need to support the affluent lifestyle they currently enjoy.

I have to wonder what they are missing out on because they are almost always working, thinking about working or collapsing from working too much when they finally get to their lavish homes. They stress themselves out trying to be good to their families, trying to show up for the right events, trying to do everything they are "supposed" to do.

They can’t slow down long enough to even examine their lives and ask the hard questions.

Can you? What do you want your obituary to say? What do you want to be remembered for? Who will miss you – and why? Did you live a life that made a difference to the people and causes that matter to you? Were you really happy?

Those are the questions that matter in a life that really matters.

Fawn Germer is the best-selling author of eight books, including Hard Won Wisdom and The NEW Woman Rules, written for the Network of Executive Women. 

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.