I think it goes without saying that you are not your job. But for many of us it doesn’t go without saying, and it makes sense why. You spend more time at work than anything else you spend time with, save your phone and your pillow.
You invest years of your life to your career and your work, which is why it’s so easy to lose yourself in the jungles of your vocation. But as soon as you can see and realize that your work isn’t the core of your identity, but simply an island of your empire, not only will you enjoy your work more and be better at doing your job, you’ll find that life can take on a context much bigger than it currently has.
Why Do We (Collectively) Work?
It may seem like an obvious question, but it’s an interesting one to ask. Why does work exist? And while I’m not a sociologist and have never studied this, here’s my best guess.
A long time ago we worked in tribes. Tribes needed certain things done and so people in the tribe developed roles to make sure the tribe functioned. Our ability to stay in the tribe depended on us playing our role well. If we broke our role we could get sent into the wilderness which likely meant death, so we learned to keep ourselves in line—with things like guilt and shame—when we didn’t do our role.
Our role might shift because of the season and we could learn new skills, but in general the cohesion of the tribe was more important than our individual need or desire. Our role identity wasn’t as important as our tribe identity.
Then life got more complex. Our tribes got bigger. We banded together with other tribes. We made countries, fought wars, survived plagues, and invented iPhones.
The bigger and more complex our world got the more complex our roles became. The types of roles got more diverse but our tribes got less coherent. Tribes began to specialize in certain roles in large societies. The roles themselves became a certain tribe. Our families began to become the thing we identified with, as different other tribal identities became more fluid.
But our need to prove value didn’t change. And understanding value to the tribe or collective got harder and harder to figure out.
So we invented money and commerce and all these other things to try and keep track of value. These systems created their own weird eccentricities where people learned how to create value out of managing and organizing the values other had. We learned how to manipulate value in all sorts of weird ways until we had fantasies and stories built on top of one another.
We still wanted to be in tribes but it was hard to figure out what that meant. So we started feeling like our jobs were a sort of tribe. And our profession. Some of us created tribes around sports teams. Others around comic books we enjoyed. Our once-stable birthright of identity that our tribe gave us became something we had to ‘figure out’ and fight for.
We lost our tribal reference but never really developed an alternative source of self-reference or reference to this innate divine. And so we felt constantly pushed and pulled by all these different tribal alliances that no longer felt safe and assured. They felt unstable, and the more complex society got, the less stable they felt.
So much so that some people freaked out and tried to claw back previous versions of identity. They called themselves nationalist or racial purists, but they were all motivated by this deep desire to feel like they belonged to something. That the deep question of identity was being answered.
Because living into the question of “Who am I?” scared them.
And it makes sense why, because when you ask this question deeply, you begin to see that everything you’ve created and built—from jobs to legacy—is orbiting around a self you don’t really understand and which has no solid core you can identify. There might be a soul in there, but you really don’t understand it and when you look deeply at it, it really doesn’t feel how you think it’s going to.
So Why Do We (Individually) Work?
On one level it’s to make sure we are adding value to our tribe. It’s to assure that the tribe is functioning and that we’re doing our part to make it function.
But on a much deeper level we work because it helps us anchor an identity that the complexity of our world has set adrift. It helps anchor us to this old feeling of belonging and identity that we long for on an biological level.
Our work is an island of identity in a sea of confusion that we hold on to until it sinks beneath the waves.
This is one reason why work often isn’t that satisfying: because it’s a crappy way to create identity.
You long for your identity to be stable. You long to feel that secure belonging of the tribe. To feel like you have a place and you are giving value. To know you will not be put out into the woods because you’re doing what’s expected of you.
But you can’t get this from work. Not if you look deeply. And as you step higher and higher into leadership, as you expand your vistas more and more, the island of identity that work gives you isn’t enough.
First you might have to expand to an identity of purpose and mission, but you may not stop there. You might expand further to an identity of legacy and lineage, but you may not stop there. You may expand to a place where you cease to be. This is what monastics do. The expand to a place where the personal identity is lost in the spacious chaos of the divine, the one bright mind, or whatever else you want to call this transcendent non-place.
But at each stage you see how small the island you were on before truly was. Like flying in a plane above the ocean, we see the tall trees and thick jungles become like a child’s play set. On a voyage reaching out into space, we see our whole planet as a small blue dot in a vast void.
This is the thing no one warns you about in leadership and success. That at some point your expansion will ask you to let go of the security of each island of identity you’ve anchored into in the moment. It will ask you to let go of the safety you longed to create by seeking a bigger and bigger island.
And I just want to remind you that being scared of this is normal. It’s the most normal thing in the world. But I’m also here to remind you that being scared isn’t a good reason to go to sleep. To hope that you’ll forget you’re on a very small island. To hope you can simply be happy with the context that you’ve set for yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with being happy with what you’ve got. It’s an incredible place to come from. But don’t let your gratitude become the sleeping pill for your consciousness.
Instead let it nourish you as you expand how you understand yourself and the world around you. Let the fear of losing your identity to the chaos of truth drive you to expand yourself into a place you’ve never been before.
Don’t just intend this, practice it. Practice stepping back. Practice seeing everything from a larger context. From a context of a year instead of a week. 25 years instead of one. A millennium instead of a lifetime.
I know you’re afraid to leave your island of identity. But there is a bigger you and a bigger truth you can anchor to. One that can draw out the kind of leader and person who creates transcendence in everything they touch and feels deeply into the heart of every moment.