In the first few years of my career as a software developer, I found it very easy to derive a deep sense of identity directly from my work. I studied hard, I worked hard, I learned a lot, I built a lot of things, and that made me feel very good and very useful and very productive.
Eventually, the idea of being good at my work somehow got replaced with being “successful” at my work, which is a very different beast. I chased recognition, approval, acknowledgement for my skills, and the glimmer of a strong reputation.
Down that road I found the gates of hell. Because down that road, you start doing what you are known for being good at rather than that which helps you grow, or that which helps you be a better person.
It turns out, at least for me, that after a few years of chasing success in a career, it gets very boring and also soul crushing.
And because of that, the last couple years of my life dropped me head first down into that world of figuring out who I am outside of work. Figuring out what things bring me joy, what things bring me a sense of purpose that have nothing to do with my vocation.
It has been terrifying to go down this path of introspection. But because of it, I feel as if I’m more able to approach my day job with a sense of equanimity and openness that wasn’t possible before.
The less you bake your identity into “what you do for money and recognition”, the more it becomes acceptable to be wrong about things. The easier it is to learn from everyone around you, whether they’re a CEO, a CTO, or a new hire who wrote their first line of code six weeks ago. This isn’t the reason why it’s important to become “more than what you do”, but it’s a nice side benefit.
In any case, to be able to honestly say “My work may be where my mind is most useful to others, but it is not where my heart lives” is no betrayal, it is a simple acknowledgement of human nature.
Of course, both of those words are scary. To be a human in nature is to be vulnerable and uncertain and messy and weird and a bit lost and often a bit lonely even when you’re surrounded by people you love, doing things you love.
Sometimes I pine for the days where I confidently declared myself “Gregory Brown, Ruby Programmer” and felt like that meant something. But I also know that I’d find that guy quite boring if I met him on the road today.
And maybe that’s a sign I’m growing?