I was recently having a conversation with a talented and driven young business owner. We were discussing some of the challenges of leadership and how it often leads to burnout and exhaustion.
At one point in the conversation he made the comment, “It is who you are because you’re the President.”
My response was, “No, Phillip is WHO I am; President is just WHAT I do.”
He looked at me with an expression that signified that he wondered if I was making a distinction without a difference.
So I elaborated, “Perhaps the distinction is subtle, but I have found it important to recognize that the titles we are given in life aren’t “who we are” they’re just descriptions of the kind of work that we can do to help the people around us; and these descriptions are temporary, they come and go in phases of life. I make the distinction now, because there was a time in my career that I did not. In fact, there was a time when I allowed my title to be a core piece of my identity. I believed falsely that it was who I was and why I was valuable.”
Then I paused, and took a deep breath, before I continued…
“And then I lost that title. I left the company I founded because of extreme burnout. And as a result of the unhealthy way I looked at my own identity and sense of worth; I felt a sense of hollowness so profound that it almost crushed me. What’s worse, is I have seen countless others harmed by this mindset as well.”
He looked at me and smiled with a look of understanding.
The paradox of allowing our professional titles to shape our identity is that we inherently know there is a day coming when we won’t be able to hold on to it.
So I continued, “The paradox of allowing our professional titles to shape our identity is that we inherently know there is a day coming when we won’t be able to hold on to it. The insecurity and fear this creates within us causes us to drive ourselves to exhaustion in a vain attempt to try to hold on to something that we are only meant to carry for a little while. When we drive ourselves this way rather than prolonging how long we can be effective in a role we often cut it short.”
Then I said, “Friend, can I offer you some advice?”
He said, “Absolutely.”
“Look at your title just as a description of the kind of work that you can do to help others. Don’t let it tell you something about who you are and don’t let it become a part of your identity. Let it be a horse that you ride to do good for others and then on the other side, when you no longer have it, you will still be whole.”
Written by Phillip Stoller