You want to do work that fits your personality. But what if you've spent so long in a job you hate, you've lost touch with who you are? Natasha shares four starting points to getting paid to be yourself.
"My job just doesn’t feel like me."
"I know there's more to me than this."
"This isn't the kind of person I want to be."
These are the kinds of phrases we hear constantly from our community at Careershifters.
However uncomfortable it might be, our work is deeply intertwined with our sense of identity. It's related to the classic 'small-talk' question: "So what do you do?". We use job titles and career fields to categorise, to evaluate, and to build a wider picture of the kind of person we have in front of us.
The average person will spend approximately 32% of their waking life at work. It's inevitable that who you are and what you do are inextricably linked.
So when what you do isn't aligned with who you are, you're bound to feel some discomfort.
The disconnect between what you do and the kind of person you are inside is like spending your life inside two clashing piano notes. I felt very similar during my own career change. But what was particularly unsettling for me was the fact that I couldn't put my finger on exactly what was wrong. I knew that something wasn't working, but I didn't know enough about who I was to be able to fix the problem.
When I speak to people working in jobs they love, they often say that what has most surprised and delighted them is the discovery of a congruity between who they are and what they get paid for.
"I feel like I’m getting paid to be myself."
And that's great to hear, but I know it's not easy to get to.
Why is it so hard to figure out who you are: what you're great at and what you'd love to spend your time doing?
Because there's a good chance you've spent such a long time trying to be something you're not, you've completely lost touch with who you are.
So how did this happen, and how do you start to undo the damage?
What kind of person are you when it comes to your career?
Maybe you're a people-pleaser, who took a job to make your parents proud.
Maybe you're a status-chaser, and you've spent your career pursuing the next prestigious award or promotion.
Maybe you're a security-seeker, who will put up with just about anything as long as you never feel like what you have is at risk.
Whichever you are, remember: these categories are not innate to human beings.
Toddlers don't care if they're pleasing you or not. They don't spend half an hour jamming a piece of Lego up their nose because they think it'll impress you or make you happy. They do it because they think it's GREAT. They sing at the tops of their voices to the mannequin in the shop window. They try to fit your elbow inside their ear. They take ten minutes to move three feet down the street, because they're having a blast telling every single one of those ants about their favourite set of pyjamas.
Once upon a time, that noisy, carefree, self-expressed little person was you. But, at some point, you decided you had to be less like you in order to survive in the world, especially in the world of work.
You made the discovery that who you naturally were, what you naturally loved, and how you naturally did things weren't the kind of ingredients you could make a successful career from, so you had to try as hard as you could to be something else.
For Katy, one of my clients, that moment was the day her father told her that all he wanted was for her never to have to worry about money the way he did. For Amanda, it was the moment her music teacher told her she was bossy and a loudmouth. For Benjamin, it was the day someone told him that being a photographer wasn't a 'real' job.
And that's what you've spent all your time on ever since. Trying to be responsible. Trying to be funny. Trying to be a lawyer. Trying to be cultured or well-read (or at least to sound like you are). Trying to be a good employee. Trying to be worthy of a promotion. Trying to be interested. Sometimes you even spend hours lying in bed at night trying to be asleep. Am I right?
Katy spent years trying to be what her father wanted her to be. She's now a high-flying doctor. She's well-paid, and utterly miserable at work. Amanda worked hard to tone down her 'bossy, loudmouth nature' and became a nutritionist and massage therapist. She's bored out of her mind. And Benjamin spent years trying to ignore his passion for photography and find a proper job. He's a fundraising manager. He hasn't picked up his camera in years.
Over time, that amount of effort starts to become painful.
You realise that you're a different person at work than you are with your friends (although your work identity is starting to creep into the other areas of your life. Just ask whoever you live with).
You recognise that you never do anything about the issues you say are important to you.
You notice that dreaming about things you want to do is becoming painful, because you know they're never going to happen in reality. You dampen them down, stop reading about them, pretend they don't exist (and, as far as your life is concerned, you're right).
You begin to feel like a fraud.
By now, (like Katy, Amanda and Benjamin) you've spent so many years trying to be 'not-you' that you've almost completely lost touch with what's underneath.
And how in the world are you going to figure out what you'd love to do as a career, when you don't even really know who you are?
If the key to a career you love is finding a way to get paid to be you, it's probably a good idea to get in touch with the person behind the pretence. And that doesn't have to mean throwing your shoe off a bridge like a toddler. It could simply mean doing things that make you smile from your very toes, every single day. Even Mondays. How would that feel?
To open up the possibility of getting paid to be you, you need to start being more you.
How do you do that? Here are four ways to get started:
1. Celebrate your shameful secrets
What parts of yourself are you secretly ashamed of?
We've all got them: habits or ways of being that we've never been able to shake, but that we spend all our time trying to hide. (Remember Amanda, who was told at a young age that she was a 'bossy loudmouth' and has spent all these years since trying to tone herself down?)
For me, it was chronic curiosity and fickleness. I'd fall madly in love with an idea or interest, declare myself committed to it for life, and two weeks later it would be dropped for the newest interest on the scene.
People called me scatty, unable to finish anything I started, and a head-in-the-clouds dreamer. And I hated it. Why couldn't I just find 'my thing' and stick with it?
It was only when I came across the book Refuse to Choose by Barbara Sher that I gave myself permission to be unapologetically enthusiastic about whatever I wanted. To celebrate the fact that I was perpetually in love with new things, and that I had a broad and vibrant set of interests to be called upon and to cross-pollinate with.
I talked joyfully (and unapologetically) to potential clients and employers about how easily hooked I was, and how many different things I'd been involved with over the years. I started to notice how my enormous range of experiences actually benefitted the world around me. I sought out more opportunities to use my natural way of being in constructive ways.
Suddenly, the world jumped open. I started to get work that didn't just accommodate my way of doing things; it was designed for who I was. People began to come to me specifically for my quick-thinking, get-started approach, rather than despite it.
How could you reframe the aspects of your character that you've been trying to hide, and start seeing them as assets rather than hindrances?
2. Seek out your invisible strengths
It's often hard to see what you're supremely talented at. You can look at what you've been good at in the past – your achievements – and the areas in which you've been commended.
But there still may be blind spots in your view of yourself.
It's a frustrating conundrum that our greatest strengths are often the things we do so naturally, we don't see them as strengths. We can't imagine that other people might find them hard.
I have an amazing friend, Emily, who can grasp complex information in about three seconds.
Not only does she grasp it, she then reorganises and explains it, in images and graphics. And she does this without even thinking about it. Sometimes she does it for fun, on her own.
Emily naturally interprets information in diagrams. It's how her brain is wired. Some information shows up, and it arranges itself in clear, useful pictures. How much would you pay for someone to organise the inside of your head like that?
When I pointed it out to her, Emily seemed to have no idea that this was a talent.
The inside of MY brain is a joyful mess of ideas and information and thoughts. I can explain things to people in words, but sometimes I'm dying for a simple image that others can look at and grasp in a few seconds. I'd happily pay someone like Emily to help me communicate my ideas.
But, for Emily, her ability is so natural that she assumes everyone can do it. She'd never imagine that it was a valuable strength.
How about you?
- What do you do so naturally that you don't realise it's a skill?
- What do you bring to the table in almost every interaction?
- What's your default way of solving problems?
3. Do the things you enjoy (without the Fun Filter)
If you want to get paid to do something you love, you're going to need to start doing some things that you love.
It's not rocket science.
But when you're aching for a career change, the thought of doing something 'just for fun' can seem outrageous. You have to figure out what you're going to make a living from. You may love cooking on the barbecue, but that's hardly going to pay the bills, so why waste your time on it?
If you're stuck for ideas on what your dream career might be, the Fun Filter is one of the greatest blockages you'll encounter.
Imagine the Fun Filter to be a huge sieve in your brain. It's made of responsibilities and money and what adulthood looks like and it filters out all the fun stuff.
Take a second to think of something you'd just LOVE to spend all your time doing.
Now, try telling yourself that's going to be your new career direction.
See the filter pop up?
How would I ever get paid for that?
That's not going to pay my bills.
That's a hobby, not a job.
Who would take me seriously?
I'd bet that your Fun Filter has discarded at least five possible dream careers for you since you started thinking about a career change. And because it's got involved in your process, you haven't even started to explore them.
The only way to truly discover what you enjoy and get back in touch with the person underneath the 'trying-to-be' is to start indulging in your just-for-fun pursuits. Start making fun a priority in your life.
Chances are, the results you start to see will go far beyond simply feeling more like yourself. You'll start to see patterns in the things you're drawn to, and be able to add a sense of purpose to your explorations. You'll get in touch with the bigger story behind your interests, and you may discover that the reason you're interested in them is because you have a contribution to make in that area.
Plus, however unlikely it may seem that you can make a living from something you find fun, the reality may be very different. Go to a class, or a meetup, or a conference, or an event, and you'll discover that there are hundreds of other people with interests and passions just like yours. Some of them may even be getting paid to do it all day.
But the only way you'll meet these people (and learn from them how they're making a living from the thing you love) is by discarding that Fun Filter and doing whatever it is that makes you smile.
What would you do if you switched off your Fun Filter?
4. Start with what you DO know
"What if I don't know what I think is fun?"
"What if I don't know what my invisible strengths might be?"
"What if I don't know what my shameful secrets are?"
Start small. Start with what you do know. Dive in and explore, however small your idea might be. You don't have to have all the answers before you start out.
Like an archaeologist uncovering an ancient site, the smallest chink or opening can be a starting point. As you start to dig away at your starting point, more and more of the big picture will begin to emerge.
Which of these approaches could you try to start feeling more like yourself? Let us know in the comments below.
Natasha Stanley is Head of Content for Careershifters and Head Coach for our Career Change Launch Pad. She also currently travels the world as a horse-trainer, freelance writer, and soon-to-be sailor and yoga teacher. Natasha is currently taking on a very small number of private coaching clients: to find out more, drop a line to email@example.com.