The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 162: Don’t Let Your Career Define You

Imagine you're invited to a friend’s house for a party and you find yourself chatting to a total stranger. If they were to say to you "So, what do you do?" What's the first thing that pops into your mind?
Go on, what do you do? Do you swim? do you play cricket? Do you party?
Of course, we all know that what they really mean is "What do you do for a living?" It may well be simply small talk just to get a conversation going but what someone does for a living is the usually the first place people tend to go when learning about someone else. And I think it's worth questioning whether that’s appropriate, because there's more to us than our job.
Our job shouldn't define who we are, or at least it shouldn't be the only thing that defines us.
It even starts before we begin going to school. Within a minute or two of chatting to a friend’s child we're onto the peculiar question of asking a 4 year old “What do you want to be when you grow up?" As if they should know by now. It always makes me think of a Charlie Brown cartoon strip from 1960.
What doesn’t help is a 21st Century habit of comparing other people’s career successes to our own, as a way of validating our own sense of self-worth.
One question I ask people often is this:
Imagining that there is no change to the economy or the price of goods, which of these two scenarios would you prefer?

1. You and everyone else in the country gets a £10,000 pay rise.
Or 2. You get a £15,000 pay rise but everyone else gets a £30,000 raise.

Whenever I ask people this you can see it torture them. On one hand option 2 gives them an extra £5000 per year but it also puts them on a lower salary than maybe everyone they know.
It’s this sort of critical thinking that helps us to see where our priorities are and whether they could create further problems down the line because it's really important to develop a sense of self-worth that does not depend on your career.
If your job becomes too tightly entwined with your sense of self-worth then it can be out of your control, it's why that guy from the film The Full Monty couldn't admit to his wife he'd been made redundant, and she only found out when the bailiffs turned up.
His inner critic was telling him he was an absolute failure for being made redundant because his self-worth was so entangled in his job, it was the only place that he could see pride.
In order to build up and maintain a decent sense of self-worth it’s important to understand how you view yourself. We all have an inner critic in our head that looks at the worst version of us, that's quote normal, but it shouldn't be constant. If your inner critic is constantly putting you down then we need ways to override it.
First of all it's ok to have an inner critic, we'd probably struggle to be decent people without it, it's normal. In fact it’s accepted by most experts that there’s nothing unusual or unhealthy about there being many “parts” to our personality. Most of us have a part that wants to eat crisps and watch TV and also a part that wants to be fit and energetic.
What can help is using our imagination to train ourselves to think and react differently to our inner critic. One technique is to imagine all these multiple parts to our personality attending a meeting together and sitting in a circle. Maybe the inner critic is the loudest and most vocal of the group and shouts things such as:
“You’re rubbish! You'll never be a success in life! You've got no reason to be proud at all!”
But there’s also an inner advocate, a part of you that thinks the exact opposite to the inner critic. Let the inner critic finish what they're spewing out and think about the inner advocate standing up and acknowledging the critic but finding evidence to the contrary. The advocate would say things like:
"I can see why you'd think that way. It makes sense why you'd assume that there's no reason to be proud, but I think it's unfair to overlook all the other things that we do well.”
Imagine the advocate defending you politely and with understanding of why you’d think so harshly in the first place. Eventually the inner advocate gets stronger and dominates the meeting and the critic can sit quietly mumbling to themselves and no-ones really listening.

You are not only more than your job, but you are also more than your thoughts. Your thoughts are not your reality, anyone that’s ever seen a CBT therapist will have constantly heard that, because it’s so easy to forget that your thoughts are just your thoughts, not actually real life.
If you find that a part of you is being cruel and belittling, stop for a moment and ask yourself questions like this
“Would I speak to someone else this way?”
“Is this fair?”
“What would someone else say about me?”
Doing this can wake up a part of you that thinks more logically, rather than emotionally, and allows you to look at evidence that will deny those criticisms rather than confirm them.