Why my work doesn’t define me

After more than two years of being self-employed I was surprised to realise that the more I do what I love, the less it defines me.

For most of my career I’ve been someone who gives a lot to their work, struggling to switch off, pushing for perfection and ultimately, whether consciously or otherwise, prioritising work over my wellbeing. I figured that if I was going to give so much of myself to my work then it should be 100% on my terms, doing what I love for brands that I’m passionate about, and so Old Salt was born.

I worried that I might become all consumed by Old Salt given the prevailing narrative around owning a business (you never switch off etc.!) and my propensity to see my work as a reflection of myself, but I also had a hope that I could create a more satisfying way to work. Turns out, having total control over my working day and being free from internal meetings, politics and pressures was a game changer for productivity (shocking, I know!). When I was working I had more headspace and capacity for the nuts and bolts of my research projects, and before I knew it I was spending less time working but achieving so much more.

By doing what I enjoy (robust, slightly geeky quant research) at a manageable volume (we’re motivated by delivering great work not hitting targets so we never take on more than we can genuinely commit to) I have more time and energy for every part of my life. Work is no longer the all-consuming force that everything else struggles to compete against, but one enjoyable element that sits happily alongside my other interests and priorities. As such, the importance of work in defining myself has lessened.

I think this dawned on me during the third lockdown when I started setting daily commitments for my mind, body and soul to help me stay sane. Some days my commitments for my mind or soul would be work related – the analysis challenge of a complex dataset or delivering a debrief that delights stakeholders. But reading, going for a walk, running, yoga, workouts, colouring, socialising, watching Taskmaster with a margarita and a host of other activities also made it onto my mind and soul commitments. I realised how diverse my days were, and how grateful I am that self-employment allows me to flex my time to live a life that feels truly fulfilling. Writing that last sentence I wondered if it might sound smug, but isn’t living a fulfilling life the least any of us should hope for?

So I love my job but my work doesn’t really define me, how do other people feel? Cue a LinkedIn poll, asking, ‘to what extent, if at all, does your job (your primary source of income when in paid employment) define you?’. The data from a small (n=52), unrepresentative self-selected sample of professionals on LinkedIn shows that 2 in 3 people feel their job defines them (absolutely or somewhat) vs. 1 in 3 who feel their job doesn’t define them (not really or not at all).

Interesting to see I’m outnumbered two to one, but the more I’ve mused on this topic, the more I’ve come to think that it’s less about whether your job defines you and more about the role of your job alongside all of the things that are important in your life. This is obviously not new news, there’s a wealth of literature out there about the importance of work/life balance and the benefits for people and businesses from achieving it. But for me, although I knew the theory it wasn’t until I became self-employed that I was truly able to live it.

The last 15 months have of course been…wait for it…unprecedented times, with the boundaries of work and home blurring for many and the limitations on daily life prompting more of us to reflect on our true priorities. Some may have better work/life balance without their previous commute or as much travel, others may have worse work/life balance as the working day blurs into the rest of the week without a physical office space to step away from. Redundancies, no-longer-ignorable job dissatisfaction or shifting values may have led to a career change. I’m interested to see where this momentum will take us in both the short-term and the long-term, and hope that for myself at least I’m lucky enough to continue doing more and more of what I love and being less and less defined by it.