A photo of a woman in a long skirt and sweater walking up the steps to a building

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

Our tiny selves, eyes sparkling with possibility, probably gave a wonderfully outlandish answer. We wanted to be a princess, a superhero or an animal of our choosing. Perhaps given a few years, our answers evolved and took shape. We wanted to be an artist, a veterinarian, a chef, an athlete or even the president.

During our developmental years, we begin to uncover our identity in what we do. Maybe some of that identity seeking is done rightfully so—what we spend 40 or more hours of our week doing is bound to shape and impact us. Yet, in a culture that is obsessed with achievement, we can feel stuck either in a hamster wheel of trying to do more or discouraged that we aren’t enough. We begin to believe the lie that our worth and who we are begins and ends in the question, “What do you do?”

As an overly goal-oriented achiever (yes, an Enneagram 3), I learned this lesson through crash-and-burn. Throughout college, I was chronically overcommitted, taking the maximum amount of credit hours, saying yes to every social opportunity and running the school paper at the cost of my sleep and health. I left my four years behind with a Bachelors, severe anemia and a general aimlessness that snowballed into depression. I was burned out and still determined to keep running, to be impressive, to do the big, sexy thing right now. Anything short of that felt like failure.

I ended up working three different jobs at once—an opening shift at a coffee shop, a closing shift in retail and an all-nighter every so often to pull together creative projects. Oh, and a little freelance.

Unsurprisingly, my striving caused every opportunity to unravel one by one and left me feeling like a failure. It was in this place, lying in bed, that I heard a gentle whisper in the back of my mind, “Do you believe you’re worth more than the work that you’re doing?”

I didn’t.

My burned-out self was not simply a result of an inability to rest or say “no” (though that’s an article in itself). The feelings of burn out were the fruit of a deeply rooted belief that I was only valuable for what I could produce. My identity was fragile-to-non-existent.

The feelings of burn out were the fruit of a deeply rooted belief that I was only valuable for what I could produce.

The years since have been spent getting to the bare-bones of my identity and rebuilding from there. I have been working a good job that, though it isn’t my dream, has provided a resource in stability and a platform for growth that I would have spent years fighting and burning out to earn otherwise.

My creativity became an untethered hobby. I adopted a mantra of “do more cool things, tell less people.” I practiced writing or painting for the love of it and made a rule not to post it. This season hasn’t been the big, glamorous one, but it’s the best thing I never would have asked for. I love the person I’m becoming, talents and skills aside.

The truth I found was this: Our hearts are the most valuable thing we have to offer. Our current resume, dream resume or lack thereof has no bearing on what we have to bring to the table. When we are able to shift from working for identity to working from identity, we will not only find the best versions of ourselves but the best versions of our work. Our work, void of striving, will become an expression of our own joy and passion.

Our work, void of striving, will become an expression of our own joy and passion.

We have all matured from our childhood answers of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” What a freedom in dreaming, taking steps and stumbling along the way. We will rediscover our truest selves and our most stunning work when we know everything we are isn’t hinging on it.

Darling, however brave and brilliant your career may be, you are worth so much more than the work that you’re doing.

Has finding your worth in your work ever been a struggle for you? How have you learned to separate your identity from your work?

Images via Raisa Zwart Photography

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4 comments

  1. So many lines in here I could spend more time really leaning into. Love the idea of keeping some hobbies to yourself. & It is true, no work we accomplish is bigger than ourselves & our foundation.

  2. This is exactly what I needed to hear. I just started in my career, I’m not in a place that I want to be, but it’s somewhere I can start, and I’ve learned so much. It got to the point a few months back, that this was all I cared about. I didn’t mean for it to become that, but I all I would talk about was work, and investing myself deeper and deeper into something that became my life, instead of my job.

    I have since been able to manage it far better, but it’s absolutely a learning process to understand that I am not what I do. I am so much more than that.

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