Generations ago your vocation was fixed for life. Few entertained the idea, or had the opportunity and means to change careers. Now both are commonplace. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average fifty-year old today has changed jobs eleven times since they entered the workforce. While it’s unknown how many of those changes involve new careers, rather than a change of employers, experts suggest the number of substantive career changes could be as high as seven in a life time.
That’s a lot of change. And it affects how we think about ourselves. Dee Hock, the Founder and former CEO of VISA, said, “Change is the thief of identity. We can never be sure of our place or value in a new order of things.”
Visit with anyone in transition, as I often do, and you’ll see that uncertainty right away. They’re more comfortable telling you about where they’ve been and what they’ve done than they are about what they want to do. When I pressed that question with one unemployed executive I met with, she quizzically replied, “You mean, what do I really want to do?” as if everyone else she’d met with had naturally assumed she would want to keep doing what she’d been so successful at.
Putting on a new hat, even if avocationally, as a writer, painter, dancer, tax advisor—you pick it—is uncomfortable. It’s so much easier to tell people what you used to do, rather than what you are aspiring to do. Telling someone you’re a playwright, for instance, seems to invite evaluation of your success in that fledgling endeavor. “Oh. What plays have you written?” is the feared follow-up question.
So, we skirt the question by not wearing our hats out in public. Yet, there’s good reason to proudly cultivate not just your next identity, but multiple ones. “A single fixed identity is a liability today,” Gail Sheehy wrote in her NY Times bestseller, New Passages, “It only makes people more vulnerable to sudden changes in economic or personal conditions. The most successful and healthy among us now develop multiple identities, managed simultaneously, to be called upon as conditions change.”
In challenging times, as Sheehy observes, it’s good to have multiple lines in the water. But thinking about and describing ourselves multidimensionally has other benefits too. Sheehy cites research that suggests that those of us with multiple career identities are happier and more able to ward off mental and physical illness. Perhaps that’s because those who practice wearing more than one hat aren’t so unnerved when the one they’re wearing is suddenly lost.
What are some of the identities that you wear?