Identity Beyond Career

Between the economic recession beginning in 2007-2008 and into this new presidency, American jobs have been on the forefront of most discussions of national concerns. The demise of the manufacturing industry, once the backbone of the national economy, is in large part due to technological advancements, especially with the development of robotics and computerization. In fact, it is believed that in the next 20 years, as high as 47% of America’s workforce will be replaced by machines, according to an Oxford University study from back in 2013.

For much of the workforce, their identity is tied—almost inextricably, as it would seem—to their jobs, and jobs that are at risk of disappearing. While the decimation of jobs is a dire forecast, there are still opportunities for workers if they would be willing to adapt to this new globalized (and computerized) climate; however, these workers often don’t identify with this new world, as their identities lie firmly with what they’ve known and done, probably for years.

Extreme dedication to work has its roots in the European Protestant ideal that hard work can purge the soul, which the aristocratic classists and other Toryists were more than happy to reinforce.

But without their career, many workers find themselves suffering from depression and even a kind of hopelessness, stemming from a life without the job that can provide meaning and self-worth. This is equally applicable to workers who have become disabled due to physical injuries, as well.

Two paths promoted as the most practical approaches to finding a more transcendent meaning to life, beyond the career, are pursuing acts of kindness and charity and achieving mastery within a certain field.

The first, engaging in charity, may be a hard pill for some workers to swallow, especially those who may not feel so charitable if they’ve been out of work (or have seen a decline in their work opportunities) and may be suffering financially. Still, the ability to give time and energy as an act of kindness is a type of empowerment, and even small acts of kindness and compassion can go a long way toward a meaningful self-satisfaction.

But more than kindness and charitable acts, the pursuit of mastery is perhaps the greatest means toward achieving meaningfulness, even more so than finding it with work. Diving headlong into a project for no other reason but the satisfaction of doing it has been shown in multiple studies, and reported by many people to psychologists, to have a profound improvement on personal wellbeing.

This phenomenon is hardly new. Even two thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote that mastery was the key to a meaningful life. And the specific act doesn’t matter as much as the ability to lose oneself in the pursuit of mastery. This is what leads so many people to become “addicted” to marathons and triathlons; aside from the endorphin high from the exercise, it is an endeavor that requires a form of mastery to complete, including daily practice and specific training for endurance and time improvement.

Others may lose themselves while playing an instrument, or pursuing another artistic field such as painting, sculpting, photography, woodworking, or writing. These require training and

practice, as well as a devotion to craft. Suddenly, those who delve into these fields to achieve mastery find themselves identifying with this pursuit. Because this isn’t for income, at least not purely, the motivations aren’t loaded down with necessity. The pursuit to be mastered belongs purely to the pursuer.

Once people identify more with their own pursuits than with their work, the difficult transitions and disappointments of the jobs climate will be more manageable, and changes to the work or career field won’t feel as personal. What’s personal should not be dictated by any outside source, and that is true empowerment.

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