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Get Clear: Who Are You?

By Nan S. Russell

We often forget this basic truth.  A job is what you do, not who you are.

It’s easy to get these mixed up. Many of us do. I know I have. We tend to define who we are by what we do, often equating our value as a human being with the money we make, the responsibilities we have, or the results we achieve.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that losing our job can feel as if we’ve lost our identify; lost ourselves.

How to answer this question

This mixed-up thinking about identity takes on new meaning during a personal job loss, getting in the way of recovering career prosperity. Without a clear sense of who you are with or without a job, your foundation, confidence, and self-esteem can be shattered or derailed. Consider these questions:

  • Is my self-worth tied to getting a paycheck?
  • Without a job, how do I respond when someone asks, "What do you do?"
  • When who I am is not what I do, then who am I?

The labels you apply to yourself tell you about the roles you have, not the person you are. So, who are you as a person? This is not semantics. How you view you should be the same with or without a job. Take these steps to get a clearer view:

Step 1: Take inventory

Make a list of who you are without any role or title attached to it. Consider your whole life. Inventory your strengths, talents, and characteristics in all aspects of life. Are you good at building relationships, making things, envisioning the new, planning, nurturing, doing? What are your top talents or gifts? Most prominent characteristics or traits?

Step 2: Eliminate confusion

Cross off everything you just listed that only applies to the position that you lost. If you can’t use a particular strength, talent, or characteristic anywhere else in your life but on that particular job, eliminate it from your list. Not much crossed off, right? That’s because you are so much more than a job. As columnist and author Dave Barry put it, “You should not confuse your career with your life.”

Step 3: Look deeper

If you could ensure that one sentence went forward to the future about you to be read by your great-grandchildren or relatives, how would you capture the essence of who you are for them to know you? Write it down. If it has a job title in it, look deeper; capture who you are, not what you did or do. Now put that sentence where you’ll read it frequently (perhaps as a screen saver or taped to your mirror). No matter the challenges we face in life, it’s always helpful to remind ourselves who we are at the core level.

Why it matters

Only when you step away from the job titles, labels, past positions, and tasks completed, will you be able to see yourself clearly. In doing so, you’ll rediscover your core self. It’s that person – the one full of promise, talent, persistence, resilience, dreams, and aspirations that should drive you toward your future, not someone tethered to false thinking that your worth and identify come from the outside.

When you get clear about who you are at a core level, and what you’re capable of withstanding, learning, creating, and evolving, you’ll rediscover your inner essence and the strength that makes you who you are. In the words of Benjamin E. Mays,

"It is not your environment, it is you – the quality of your mind, the integrity of your soul, the determination of your will – that will decide your future and shape your life."

About this author...

Nan Russell

Job Loss Recovery Expert Nan S. Russell discovered a Stanford degree didn’t protect her from being fired from her first professional job. From minimum wage to Vice President of a multi-billion dollar company, she learned the hard way. Now she helps others with what does and doesn’t work at work. The author of three career books including, The Titleless Leader, Hitting Your Stride, and Nibble Your Way to Success, Nan is a national speaker and work issues consultant. More at; and her job loss seminar: Rebooting After Job Loss.