Here is an embarrassing personal story. My college girlfriend, who was a member of the future national champion crew team, was commenting on the rigors of her practice schedule. She concluded by noting I probably didn’t care since I “wasn’t an athlete.” Reader, I literally cried. I had been an athlete my entire life. I considered it a core part of my identity at the time. My name still hangs in my high school gymnasium where I am in the school’s sports hall of fame.
But she was right. I hadn’t played sports in the two years I had been in college. Without me noticing, a core bit of my identity had slipped away and when it was brought to my attention I was deeply sad about it. In fact I decided to take up a new sport the next semester and even after college would play in adult rec leagues for years to come, to have some legitimate claim to an identity that I cared about.
An even more embarrassing thing to share is that I don’t really enjoy reading books. For years when people would ask if I liked reading books I would say that I loved to. But I don’t. I probably only read one or two books a year. I enjoy it well enough when I do it but if I really loved it then I would probably find more time to actually do it. I prefer essays and blogs. So why did I say I loved reading books? Because I wanted people to see me as someone who loved reading books. Reading books meant you were smart. It meant you were curious. It meant you were virtuous. I wasn’t lying to everyone else; I was lying to myself.
Of course you can be smart, curious, and virtuous without churning through novels and non-fiction. I know that. I knew that then. But the moral of both these stories is that it can be hard to let go of ideas you have about yourself even when you know deep down that they aren’t true. It can be doubly hard when you are worried about how others perceive you. The power of identity is why I think it is good advice to keep your identity small or at least reduce the power it has over you.
I’m sometimes surprised at how often my role as a manager is about helping people see the ways their actions and identities may be misaligned. I’ve seen people fight hard to get a job that matches their vision of their identity only to realize they are miserable once they get it. If they are lucky they figure it out and adapt. More often than not they quit on some pretext just to pursue another mismatch. I’ve seen people bend themselves into knots to justify decisions that made them happy against an outdated conception of self rather than just acknowledging that they have changed.
My first bit of advice is to observe what makes you happy as dispassionately as possible. Perhaps the people who have needed the most help in my experience are those who are primarily motivated by money. In our culture it can be seen as gauche to admit your primary motivation is getting paid more. But there is no shame in wanting to build wealth and enjoy the freedom it affords. Other people don’t care about money or titles at all and just want to work on cool things, but feel guilty for not caring more about traditional career progress. I’ve seen people primarily motivated by what their parents thought of their work, by having a small number of people profoundly impacted by it, or by having a huge number of people mildly impacted by it. Like feelings, all motivations are valid and the first step to having control in your life is to observe them and accept them.
My second bit of advice is to interrogate your identity on a regular basis. Your motivations change as you age and often without you consciously realizing it. You may start out motivated by the opinions of others and grow to find you have stronger intrinsic motivation. You may find that life changes like getting married or having kids realign your interests. One of the best ways to detect this gap is to catalog where you spend your time and what gives you energy and what seems to take energy away from you. Once you accept who you are today you can shift to crafting who you want to be tomorrow.
Finally, show respect for those around you who have different motivations. If you aren’t motivated by status it can be easy to judge those who just as easily might judge you for ostensibly lacking ambition. But the diversity of motivations is one of the great engines of human creativity. Every great team I have been a part of had people with different motivations who were all able to align behind a single goal even if for very different reasons.
As much as I have helped others work through these questions as a manager I still need managers to help me through it when the time comes. When Mark first offered me the job running ads I said no, in no small part because I saw myself as a product person and not a business person. When he first offered me a job working on hardware I initially declined with similar justifications. He really had to push me to accept a broader conception of myself and what I was capable of. I can do more than just one thing in my life and you probably can, too.