Problem: worrying or anticipating the changes to your identity or sense of self when you retire, exit your business, change careers, or make other major changes in your life.
Philosophers, theologians, psychologists, and neuroscientists and plenty of regular folk like you and I have wrestled with their sense of self: Who am I? I need better Self-Esteem, I am and always will be the same person, what is this "self" thing I'm supposed to know about? Before I get too deep into it, let me be clear; I'm no psychologist or specialist in constructs of the self, nor am I playin one on the internet. I am, however, trained in philosophy and self-examination and am a continuous learner. I've exposed myself to a wide variety of sources in this arena and so want to share some of the insights with you here. Take them with a grain of salt and seek professional help if you're truly struggling with your sense of self, identity, or fears about how those may changes with an upcoming life transition.
Fundamentally, I believe the "self" as most people hope or believe is an illusion, as does neuroscientist, philosopher, and podcaster Sam Harris and others. I believe, rather, when examined to the core, the self is a set of varying states of being, that change according to circumstances, the relationships we're experiencing in the moment, and changes over time. Preferably, these changes and states are improvements on the previous ones and in some ways we can call this continuous learning and personal growth. Other times, the self is dramatically altered when we experience tragedy and other loss in our lives but also changes when we experience positive changes (hopefully!) like getting a new job, having children, getting married. What I want to address in this post is the anticipated changes to the self and "identity" as they relate to the work one has done for most or all of ones adult life.
Some people feel a rush from the prospect of reinventing themselves into something new and exciting and transitioning to a new place in life. However, others feel a sense of dread, anxiety, or fear associated with the prospect of no longer identifying as the business owner, professional, or other title with accompanying responsibilities/activities they've lived as for so long.
Below are some examples to illustrate the problem and what people can feel in this situation:
Example 1: Sarah has worked for 15 years and expects to work for a lot longer. She doesn't believe she'll ever stop "working", at least for some amount of income, because she loves to feel productive and valuable in the endeavors she chooses to work on. She studied Journalism and Foreign Policy in college and has been working as a field journalist in varying capacities and levels of prestige. After 15 years she's really feeling the grind on her, at a deep level, because of her exposure to so much hardship, struggle, and suffering in the world. As a journalist, she's well aware of the numbers that in a lot of ways, suffering is lessening in the world and she sees a great many things improving. However, the tough and sad times have made her decide she needs to reinvent herself. When really digging into the idea of making a major shift in her work life, she starts to feel uncertainty, fear, and even spouts of anxiety given that the field journalist lifestyle is full of a lot of stimulation, changing environments, meeting new people, and sharing her experiences with the world through her writing. She's not sure how any change will truly be successful and help her be more aware from the drawbacks she's been feeling about her career.
Example 2: Frank worked as a miner for 30 years. He toiled day in and day out and did the best he could do. He was well respected by his peers and he rose through the ranks of his outfit over the years, eventually making it as a foreman and then senior supervisor which was rare for folks like him. He loved the mining business and felt it was essential to his community and to the country as a whole. He still loved to get into the work with his employees and solve problems as they came. His work was his life and his life was his worked. His children were nearing the age where they could start working around the mine as an accountant and a human resources professional. They were miners. When he had an accident and wrecked his knee, he wasn't able to really get around the mine like he used to even though his boss said he could maintain his work at his office. This wasn't mining, this wasn't real work to him. All of a sudden the prospect of not "being a miner" anymore hit him and threw him for a loop he hadn't expected. He'd seen enough people come and go and retire to know he'd get over it but for some reason there was this looming feeling he got about never going back to being a miner anymore.
- First step is to recognize all the varying aspects of your identity and self. Understand the roles you play across all dimensions of your life. Perhaps that's as a miner, father, friend, business associate, football coach, etc. etc.. These roles are ALL part of who you are and none of them tells the whole story. Really exploring this notion, and talking to other people about how they see you and your roles in their lives, will help to expand your sense of self. Knowledge of self is power in this case or as the Oracle at Delphi would say "Know Thyself"
- Engross yourself in "others" lives in some way. Perhaps that's as simple as diving into those books and documentaries about your favorite historical figure like Einstein here, really going all in to understand who they are/were. Perhaps it's really focusing in on a loved one and growing that relationship in a lot of knew and exciting ways. This experience of exploring the "other" can have tremendously powerful effects on your own sense of self as you expand the awareness away from what's typically thought of as the "self as center" in the world and get's you into another shoe's and creates a "relationships as center" world for you.
- Prepare for changes to your life and work ahead of time, if possible. Explore deeply where you've been, why, with whom, and where you think you're going, with whom, and why. These explorations will also expand your sense of self and how you relate to yourself and the world as a whole
- Take mini-retirements away from your work before you fully retire or leave your business. Explore new places, experiences, or engross yourself in preparing for the next great endeavor you've been planning to take. PivotPlant, Encore.org, and other organizations can help you do to just that.
- Go through the Next Callings Experience, schedulable on my SERVICES page, to explore the next stage in your life and create a world of new possibilities and Time Well Spent.
- Reinventing You by Dorie Clark
- The Road to Character by David Brooks
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Job Kabat-Zinn
- Waking Up by Sam Harriss