This is the second of the things I've learned in the last 18 months that my younger self would deny. We've just gone back in time and shown her the list, and she's insulted. "I don't think I am my job. Please. I like my job, but I have a ton of outside interests. Don't be silly." And she'd be right -- she did have a rich and happy life outside of her job.
But what I've done that she hasn't is walked away from my job. And when I did, I got to see the parts of my identity that wanted to cling to it. A lot more of me than I expected. Really, she would never have predicted how attached she'd become to being a lawyer, to using it as shorthand to convey some things to people: intelligence, maturity, responsibility, financial independence, education. Suddenly my calling card was gone (and my source of money!) and the discomfort that caused me was unexpected. Would people still listen to me in board meetings, me, the unemployed chick? Would people shift uncomfortably at cocktail parties when I didn't have an easy answer to their question, "What do you do?" Would people think I wasn't working because I wasn't competent?
I went through a bunch of phases as I worked through my discomfort and relaxed into myself. I found ways to insert things gratuitously into conversations -- mentioning job offers I'd turned down, or recalling for no good reason how nervous I'd been before I quit my job. Yes, yes, I was in control, it was my choice. Maybe I'd find a way to bring up Yale. Obnoxious stuff, probably, and I apologize. I was grasping and clutching, unsure of who I was and whether I'd be valued outside of the marketplace.
And through this discomfort I began to realize that people do listen to me when I speak up. They don't walk away from me at cocktail parties. In fact, I had some of the best cocktail parties ever when I answered the "what do you do" question with, "I left my job and don't know what I'm going to do next, actually, and I'm happy but scared." The respect I get from the communities I belong to didn't seem to depend on my job title. (18 months ago, I would have said I didn't think it did. To my younger self, I say, I know this a lot better than you do, because I've seen what I am without it.) My former colleagues still seem to value my opinion, even though I'm out of the game. My blog readers didn't depart in droves. My friends kept describing me as "successful, smart, confident, capable" even when I didn't know what on earth they were talking about.
I found myself saying this to someone last night. You keep your personal integrity, your leadership, and your intelligence. Your personal characteristics stay with you. Even if your job made it easy for people to recognize these traits in you, they don't go away when your job title does, in anyone's eyes.
And in the time I wasn't working I did so many interesting things, some of which I wrote about here, some of which I haven't and won't. But the idea that people who aren't working are sitting on a sofa watching Oprah and eating ice cream out of a carton, or that a job is the only way to be engaged with the world. It's just not true. I learned how to structure my time, how to dive into projects, how to engage my own curiosity, how to make room to read and exercise and write and look around at things. In all of these ways I am not my job. I was never my job, my 18-month-younger self knows there's much more to her than her job. But now I know what I have left when I have no job at all. And it's the whole package. That, my friends, is a really big lesson.