June 1, 2020

A month ago, when Lydia* stepped into the office, she sensed that something was amiss. The air was so thick with tension that you could cut it with a knife. Once she sat down at her desk, her boss immediately pulled her aside with the dreaded words: “We need to talk.” Lydia knew what was about to happen next, with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Although her boss tried to cushion the blow, all Lydia heard was “unfortunately, in light of this global crisis, the company has to downsize and we need to let you go.” The crushing weight of that sentence sent her into a state of abject loss. What would Lydia do now that she was no longer employed? More importantly, who was she outside of work?

With a virus-induced economic slowdown underway, many of us will have to face the grim prospect of unemployment. And since our job is an undeniable component of our identity, not having one may toss us into an existential crisis. For someone like Lydia, who had built her entire life around her career, having a job gave her stability, comfort and a reason to wake up every morning. The danger, however, is that when your livelihood gets taken away from you, will everything immediately fall apart? Your identity should not be solely confined to what you do at work. It should also encompass your personal values and what you stand for in life. Can’t stop conflating your sense of self with your job? Here are some pointers to help you become a more well-rounded individual.

Have Hobbies Outside of Work

It is easy to be sucked into a vortex of emails even after working hours, especially in a society where there is the expectation that you have to be connected 24/7. But in order to develop other facets of yourself, it’s important to spend time outside of work on activities that are fulfilling. Volunteer for a meaningful cause like a charity organisation, take up pottery or attend spin classes at CruCycle. If you never had a regular hobby, consider starting small and exploring new pursuits that could have a positive impact on your identity.

Learn How to Accept Setbacks

When we get laid off or passed over for promotion, it is easy to feel like a total failure. But that doesn’t mean everything is downhill from there. Never place your self-worth on external validation. Keep reminding yourself that you are still a capable, valuable individual who can contribute positively to society. Just because when your career is not panning out in the way you’d imagined it to be, doesn’t diminish your empathy for others, your resilience, your ability to think out of the box and your wicked sense of humour—traits that make you a lovable human being.

Have Personal Goals That Add Value to Your Life

If career success is your ultimate objective in life, you end up being one-dimensional. Never lose sight of what drives and fuels you personally and emotionally. This could be wanting to be a more present parent or completing a marathon. To do so, spend a few hours a week quietly visualising how to achieve your objectives. Then jot these targets down in a notebook, or set an alarm on your phone as a reminder that there are things out there beyond work that add just as much value to your life.

Limit Talking About Work at Home

Once you get off work, leave everything at the door. Don’t talk to your family or friends about office politics and the problems you had to troubleshoot all morning. Instead, have a discussion about a thought-provoking article you read on The New Yorker recently, a gripping novel that you can’t put down, a Netflix series that you have been binging-watching, a touching movie that made you bawl your eyes out. This helps you to disengage from work and creates an identity that is separate from the “professional you.”

Be Open to Reinventing Yourself

Your job title does not define who you are. It’s your attitude and mindset that will determine whether you go far. You may possess a specific skill set, but you can always attend courses and learn new skills to add to your resume. For example, who is to say that you can’t be a fashion designer? Look at Miuccia Prada. She has a doctorate in political science, was a member of the Italian communist party and studied mime for five years before she took over her grandfather’s leather goods company. Life is not always linear, so never be afraid to reinvent yourself.

While focusing on our careers may not be entirely bad, an over-reliance on a perceived “work identity” may make us more vulnerable during times of retrenchment. So, to withstand any storm that may come our way, we need to be more multifaceted by spending more time understanding ourselves, strengthening relationships and engaging in a wider range of activities.