“Don’t let work define you” sounds like a nice idea, until you dig into it a little more. People repeat this advice with the best intentions, but risk devaluing something precious in the process. For, the right kind of work or vocation has the power to bring real meaning to your life! To truly ‘define’ you in a deeper sense. But first..
What does “don’t let work define you” mean exactly?
These words are meant as a warning against unhealthy status comparisons. And, this is an important reminder when so many are desperately chasing career achievements to find their self-worth. Achievements that so often come at a great cost to psychological and physical health. The advice is meant to challenge the toxic belief that if you aren’t ‘somebody’ in your career, then you are nobody! So far, so good — it makes sense. Well, at least I have tried to make as much sense out of it as I can.
The danger with this advice is that it neglects an inescapable truth. The truth that what you do is a big part of who you are. So, work does define you! But, not in the vain and superficial way that status comparisons are done. The key then, is to know the difference, so you can inform your life choices accordingly.
If status is a superficial distraction, it’s your deep interests and values that go to the very core of who you are. These are the innermost truths that inspire and give you purpose. Dumping status isn’t at all about giving-up on work that aligns with your deep interests and values, because these really do define us. Yet, that’s precisely what a simplistic framing like —’don’t let work define you’— can lead to. We may set the bar far too low!
We may accidentally ignore the importance of deeply connecting to what we do. The pioneering psychologist and thinker, Abraham Maslow coined the phrase ‘self-actualising people’ to refer to those who seek a deep sense of purpose and connection in all that they do, including in their work.
“Self-actualising people are, without exception, involved in a cause outside their own skin, in something outside of themselves. They are devoted, working at something, something very precious to them — some calling or vocation in the old sense, the priestly sense.” – A. Maslow, The Further Reaches of Human Nature, 1971
He describes an altogether different relationship to work — and it’s really a way of being.
Don’t let work define you, become one with it
Maslow’s research finds self-actualising people to be in vocations that “fit like a glove”. As if the work was specifically designed with the person in mind. And, it’s at this point that the very idea of ‘being defined’ by work starts to lose its meaning. For, if someone is entirely and wholeheartedly one with an activity, in what sense is she ‘defined’ by it? We could easily say the person defines the work.
The reality is that each relies on the other to find full expression, such that it becomes meaningless to separate the two. In the same way that a skilful pianist needs a high quality instrument to fully express himself, so does the quality piano need a skilful pianist. Such that we might say that the two are inseparable. This is what we mean by being ‘one’. And, this same principle can apply to whatever work, vocation or project you, as a self-actualising person, undertake in life. That is, if you choose to do so!
Work can either be something disconnected from you, or something that enables you to more fully become who you are, by allowing your deep interests and values to find expression.
Opening up to yourself
While I have focused on our specific relationship to work here, the self-actualising approach applies to all of life, in our many personal and professional roles — whether as spouse, parent, friend, employer or employee.
Self-actualisation is not some ideal ‘out there’ that one aspires to reach in the future. Rather, it is about a certain sensitivity to yourself. A sensitivity to your deepest interests and values, which you can then allow to emerge. And, that enquiry can start today!
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.