When you’ve been doing something for a while, it’s natural that you become known for it. People think about you in the context of what you do for a living—whether they’re conscious of it or not.
You may even be deriving some comfort in this yourself. Perhaps your job, profession or career has become like a comfortable cape you put around your shoulders. Just like the cape of your favorite superheroes, yours identify who you are and what your super powers are to the world.
To change your career is like deliberately casting aside that cape. It is to say, “I don’t want to wear this anymore.”
For a bright moment, this feels great and oh, so bold and daring.
And then the clouds come and the doubts creep in. “If I’m not this person anymore, who am I?”
In this installment of the continuing series, Reinvent Your Career, we dig into an often unspoken fear that plague people who are considering making a change.
How do you let go of your old identity while embracing your new one?
Where Our Labels Come From
Some of the labels we carry with us are those that we grew up with. Not surprisingly, those are the ones that are the hardest to let go. Drilled into our heads when we were kids, we’ve come to believe them and have never gotten around to discarding them.
If you’re lucky, you grew up with empowering labels. Others aren’t that lucky. Their labels act as self-fulfilling prophecies of inadequacy, disappointment, and failure.
Other labels are developed as we go about our lives and are shaped by how we experience the world. They are what we have proven to be true about ourselves based on our experiences (or others’ experiences with us).
Maybe you have demonstrated that you stick to schedules, honor timelines, and keep your promises. So you tell others (or others tell you) that you are a reliable person. Over time, you get comfortable with it and it becomes part of your story.
Job Title: The Most Common Label
For many of us, our labels are connected with our chosen profession. Our job title is the most common label out there.
It’s so acceptable in America that we use this label to introduce ourselves. (I am told by non-American friends that this practice is not as common elsewhere in the world.)
Someone’s a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher, an accountant. Someone’s a businessman, a consultant, a writer, a painter.
And when we’re surrounded by others of our kind, we add a qualifying description that puts us in an even clearer box, lest we get mistaken and misclassified. I’m not simply a writer anymore. I’m a fiction writer, a nonfiction writer, a journalist, a freelance writer, a blogger, etc.
Labels Tell Our Stories
Often, labels are shorthand for the story we want to tell others about ourselves. Each of these labels has a conventional image that goes along with it.
Let’s test this out. What image comes to mind if I say I’m going to introduce you to a race car driver? Or a surgeon? What about a Wall Street trader? Or a college professor? I don’t know about you, but I come up with pretty distinct images in my head for each of those labels.
These labels and images, in turn, come with their own stories. If we like the story that goes with our label, we adopt it for ourselves. Embodying the stereotype, we conform to the characterization of the label. We abide by the natural story line that goes with it. We dress according to the norm and carry ourselves as one might expect someone in our profession would.
Our job title is the most common label out there. It’s so acceptable that in America, we use this label to introduce ourselves.
Changing Careers=Changing Labels, Changing Labels=Changing Stories
Not all career changes are the same. Some follow a straight line and may not result in significant changes in how others perceive us or how we think about ourselves.
Other career moves are transformational. These can create a shift in our stories and the way we show in the world.
In my book Break Free: The Courage to Reinvent Yourself and Your Career, I showcased five individuals who changed their career directions for different reasons. Some of them, like Graham Bell and DeAnne Aussem, followed paths similar enough to their previous tracks. Others, like Emma Galland and Blanka Vun Kannon, were truly transformational.
Transformational career changes can be scary because they likely mean letting go of the basic story line we’ve been using to relate to others.
What do we replace it with? How do we now talk about ourselves?
As scary as it may be for us, it can be even worse for our family and friend. They relate to us within the context of a story they have always known to be true.
If that story shifts, they have to reorient their thinking in order to make sense of the new us.
Roberto Fantauzzi used to be a music executive and was a veteran of the music industry. When the music industry began dramatically changing, Roberto decided to go back to his first love: art and design. He went back to school, and in 2010, he graduated with a design degree from Parsons School of Design. Today, he owns his own company that designs a line of gifts, toys, and home accessories.
I didn’t view myself as a designer right away. It took me a while to embody that career and the new role, even though I knew I could do it skill-wise. It took me some time to figure out that I am that. I had to accept it first before others could see me in that role too. The more confident I became, the more secure I felt. And the easier it became for other people to see me and accept me as a designer.
As Roberto pointed out, you can help others understand the change that you’ve undertaken by being comfortable with it yourself to begin with.
When you fully accept the shift in your professional identity, you project a level of self-assuredness that people around you pick up on and respond to.
It starts with you.
The way to get comfortable with letting go of your old labels is to have a clear vision of who you want to be or what you want to become.
The clearer this picture is to you, the easier it gets to release your hold of the crutches you’ve been using.
This doesn’t mean you should always be talking about your vision to everybody and their uncle. That gets boring pretty quickly.
Even if you’re not painting the picture for everybody else, though, simply having that clear image in your head influences what you say about your career change when you do talk about it.
When you embody that new label, you act accordingly. And people feel that intuitively.
Focus on where you’re moving toward.
Sometimes, the fear of losing identity is borne out of focusing on the rear view mirror instead of the road ahead.
People may be more worried about what they might be moving on from, not realizing that what they’re moving on to is what they should be focusing on.—Graham Bell
Whenever you feel yourself feeling disoriented and unsure about your new career direction, remind yourself to focus on possibilities and new experiences.
Try your best to ignore the call of nostalgia. The time will come, soon enough, when such reminiscing will bring you fond memories, instead of making you feel wishful of old familiar grounds.
For now, focus on the road ahead.
How do you feel about letting go of your old identity (supplied by your old career) and the labels that went with it?
Break Free: The Courage To Reinvent Yourself And Your Career is now available on Amazon, in print and Kindle versions. It is all about helping you “be brave” and make the critical decision that can change your direction and create the career you want.