It's weird to think about how devastated I was when I got laid-off for the first time, in 2001. It really messed with my self-esteem. Mind you, it was a six-month struggle, and that period after 9/11 was hardly a feel-good time. When I finally got back to work, I coasted for a year and a half in an awful company with little direction. I got laid-off from there as well, but by that time I had resolved that I would never tie my work to my own sense of worth.
But even in that situation, I kind of knew that separating work from myself was partly a self-defense mechanism. Right at that point I was getting plenty of attention from recruiters, I was learning at a rate I had not been able to before (because that job didn't have much to do), the book I would write was starting to form as a proposal, and my success as a volleyball coach was looking solid again. The challenge wasn't the association of work with my identity, it was the definition of work.
Many years later, I understand that what you do for a living takes many forms. Sometimes you're working for yourself, maybe contracting, consulting, or working for The Man. Even volunteering can be work. There's a pretty staggering range of things you could be doing. It's OK to mingle your identity and work, just keep your definition of work a little flexible.
In college, I figured I would start a radio career and own a radio station some day (absurd considering the salaries in that field). Similarly, a friend of mine landed her dream job in under two years after college, much faster than she expected. Another friend got to her place and stayed there for years before she completely ditched the industry entirely and moved on to something else. The problem with measuring your success and work identity is that you're chasing something very malleable, and ever changing.
These days I do believe that work is a part of who I am. Maybe this comes easier because I've done it on my own terms. Last summer I went back to full-time employment, but what a difference in how you view work when the company respects its people and empowers them to do their best work. As much as I enjoy the freedom of self-employment and consulting arrangements, there's something intoxicating about being a part of something awesome.
I'm not sure what inspired me to write this, other than a song that triggered a memory of those weird days over a decade ago. It's just funny how your thinking about life can evolve like that. First it was, "Career is meaning!" Then it was, "Work, whatever, I won't be pigeonholed!" Now I'm at, "Work is meaning if I want it to be!" Not only is my view a lot more flexible, but I think the scope of it matters less, too. I look at Diana re-entering the workforce, and while it's only part-time, she's a part of something very cool, and there's no question that it's OK to identify with that.