How can you know what you want
Till you get what you want
And you see if you like it?
— Steven Sondheim, Into the Woods
“I really want to be a business systems analyst” or “I see myself as a consultant when I grow up” would have never emerged from my mouth as a child or even as a teenager. Of course, I had never heard of a business systems analyst position or even a consultant in my younger years. However, most of us were asked to consider or indicate a preferred professional identity relatively early in life.
Lately, I have been thinking about that long-standing career development initiation question: “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Of course, the answer to that basic developmental question is shaped by what a child is exposed to in the media or in their early family and educational life.
I know that I wanted to have an answer to that fundamental career question quickly…to be clear about the work that I would perform as an adult. When my younger self considered that question, I know that I felt confused and uncertain about not having an answer.
While the following “When I Grow Up” commercial from Monster.com, which first aired in 1999 (the year that I completed my undergraduate studies), displays some biting and humorous wit related to experiences of professionals, it also points to a deeper need to find meaning in work:
As a side note, I noticed that Monster.com’s tagline at the end of that commercial in 1999 was “There’s a better job out there.” Today (10 years later), that tagline has evolved to “Your calling is calling.”
I have observed myself and others still asking that same basic career question in adulthood or making puzzled statements like “I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” Although more daunting, giving attention to more evolved, complex, or revealing questions may better aid adult professional development such as
- “In what capacities do you want to contribute and participate in the world/society?
- What work will support, honor, and help you evolve as an active member of society?
- How can you apply your life experience and insight to enhance your life and the lives of others?
I can see that spending more time with these types of questions can potentially cause more feelings of pressure. However, we can go beyond the tendency to feel pressured and find a place of playfulness, creativity, and engagement with our professional path.
My online research revealed that others use the term “professional sense of self” interchangeably with professional identity. My supposition that identity and “sense of self” are different is supported by the writings of Roberto Assagioli, a brilliant Italian psychiatrist, who was a contemporary and friend of Carl Jung and who corresponded with Sigmund Freud.
Assagioli is considered to be a founding figure of Transpersonal Psychology. This man is one of my heros! In the following passage from The Act of Will, Assagioli (1974) writes that identification involves a narrow focus on only a piece of who we are as a human being:
“Identification with only a part of our personality may be temporarily satisfactory, but it has serious drawbacks….identification with a part of ourselves is usually related to a predominant function or focus of our awareness, to the predominant role we play in life.
A continuing identification with either a role or a predominant function leads often, and almost inevitably, to a precarious life situation resulting sooner or later in a sense of loss, even despair, such as in the case of an athlete who grows old and loses his physical strength; an actress whose physical beauty is fading; a mother whose children have grown up and left, or a student who has to leave school and face a new set of responsibilities. Such situations can produce serious and often very painful crises” (pp. 212-213).
The potential loss associated with professional identity is also represented by the definition of identity that I retrieved from Princeton’s WordNetWeb online. According to that definition, identity refers to “the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity…you can lose your identity when you join the army.” Furthermore, a quick search of the online etymology dictionary, revealed that the origin of the word identity relates to the word “sameness.”
To me, identity implies how a person stays the same over a period time. Assagioli’s writings and definitions and connotations associated with identity make the limitations to professional identity apparent to me. If you can “lose” or grow out of an identity, then maintaining a sense of connection to a deeper aspect of your professional self is vital. Consequently, I think that it’s important to differentiate between my professional identity and my professional self.
Many people have heard of individuals getting laid off from organizations after serving in a professional role for 20 or 30 years. Such a professional loss can have devastating psychological and spiritual impact. One essential question that I have been living with lately is “How can I experience a sense of harmony, maturity, and coherency throughout my professional development that extends throughout and encompasses the different work and potential professional identities that I may take on?
I believe that holding my professional sense of self as my internal guidance system will help provide the experience of consistency that I yearn, which is not found so much in “professional identity” today. My professional sense of self can grow and evolve with me in a way that maybe professional identity can no longer.