A common motivational phrase that helps people understand who they are is: your work doesn't define you; your work is not who you are. But is that entirely true? I get it, what you do for a living is not the only thing that is worthy of praise in your life, you also have family and friends and hobbies that are outside of work. But what if your work is your life?
For probably millions of people, the day starts with thinking about work, followed by working all day, and ending the day with family time, but also talking about work and thinking about all the things that need to be done, said, and stressed over. While I get that there must be a balance, it's all too easy to get so wrapped up in achieving success, accomplishing goals, meeting deadlines, and climbing the corporate ladder, that without a doubt, the scale tips more to one side.
This was especially true for me.
While I was the person who would often quote that your work doesn't define you, I spent ten years of my life, day in and day out, strategizing, goal setting, working hard, succeeding, and showing the world that this little Asian woman was more than the stereotypes. I decided early on that I wanted to show people that Asian women can be leaders, they can be loud, they can be successful, and they can also be gay!
In every interview, every coaching call, every monthly meeting, I was determined to prove my abilities and share with people the hard work that goes into being successful. I would go above and beyond my role, surpass weekly goals, and push everyone around me to level up, all while preaching about balancing your work and life.
As a leader, I was obsessed with my role.
The people in my life were in the same industry as me. In my downtime, I was around them and we were talking about work while our spouses sat in a corner talking about sports, rolling their eyes knowing that hours of drinking will go by and we'll still be talking about work. And even while I would be on vacation, I would stay connected with my team whether it be through group chats or social media. I was always corresponding with them.
And then the pandemic came along…
Like everyone else in the world, everything changed after the pandemic. Even the term pre-pandemic is becoming a thing to say when referring to the lives we had before masks and vaccines became the topic of conversation. The peak of my career happened just as Covid was detected in the U.S., and the downward slope materialized at a much greater descent than how it was all achieved.
At an unfathomable rate, my whole team was practically torn apart from furloughs, layoffs, and restructuring of positions. I was part of the big changes that corporations had to make to appease shareholders, which eliminated my job position across the entire company, followed by taking a position that was quadruple the work for a few pennies more. Ultimately, the pressures that were being felt at the top of the pyramid were unbearable at the bottom, and in April of 2021, I decided to leave it all behind and call it quits. Although I already had an exit tragedy that included my published leadership book, my resignation was fueled by the duress of the global pandemic.
Lucky for me, I was able to transition smoothly into a working-from-home situation as my wife's admin and marketing coordinator for her commercial real estate team, and I had more time to write. It seems perfect, right?
With all the extra time on my hands, the lack of a corporate thumb holding me down, and a pandemic that is keeping everyone indoors, something else happened to me that was unexpected.
I started to grieve.
Somewhere in the pile of success, ambition, covid 19, entrepreneur, writer, and wife was the realization that I had let my work define me for so long that I had forgotten about myself. I was consumed by my work, and without the work, I didn't know who I was anymore. Sure, I know what I'm capable of and I know that I've done great things in my life, but working without the immediate gratification, without the need to please, without the constant moving and motioning to the world that I AM HERE! I became utterly lost and consumed with grief.
I've heard that when people who have worked in careers for thirty or forty plus years, upon retiring they end up dying of a heart attack or something, and then people say, well, they lived a good life or something like that. I haven't done any research to see whether there's any truth to this, but I can definitely empathize.
When you let your work define you, what will you be when the work is done?
It feels like an impossible task - to not let your work define you. While I'm sure there are psychological answers out there, here's what I can tell you as someone who is not quite on the other side of the valley, but I'm getting closer.
Find what makes you happy and do a lot of that.
Whether it's working on cars, creating miniature houses, developing a non-profit organization, or being a great mom who makes dinner and dessert every day, having something outside of what pays the bills can help balance the scales. For me, I love writing and it's what I do as a hobby, and now, I make a living from it!
Get active and start moving your body.
Even though I haven't started doing this, I'm writing it because I know that it's the most important thing one could do for their life. After being in an industry where I was on my feet for eight-plus hours a day to then work from home and sit for eight-plus hours a day, I can say that the lack of movement has most likely contributed to my feelings of loss. So, get moving!
Keep learning and growing.
I've started to read more self-help and motivational books along with my novel reads, and it's giving me a bigger perspective on the world and tools to help me navigate the road ahead. Because the only constant in life is change, it's becoming even more important to learn how to adjust, adapt, and grow through the changes that are going to happen whether you want it to or not.
Lean on someone who fills up your cup.
Lastly, although I have had to grieve the loss of people who are no longer in my life, a career I'm no longer in, and the teams that I no longer lead, I was also able to get closer to the one and only person that is always there for me. In a world where there seems to be so much noise, so many distractions, and the ever-consuming ridiculousness of scrolling on social media for hours, there is always at least one person in your life that you can count on. That person is my wife.
I'm fortunate to have a partner in crime, a ride or die, a best friend, and my person to also be my wife. She's stuck it out with me on my emotional roller coasters and has continued to root for me even when all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and stay under the comforter. Whether your person is your spouse, your friend, a family member, or even your coworker, make sure you spend time with them.
You only need one person to fill up your cup when it's empty and depleted of all resources. And it is through this support that you can hold on and find out and become the person that everyone else knows you are, but you haven't quite seen for yourself. Now is the most important time to dig your feet into the ground and plant your roots. Work on not letting anyone or anything rip you from your foundation and start building all the branches that are uniquely you.
Even if you are in a place where your work is defining you, just start to find all the other things that define you too. Eventually, you will get to a place where you will know your value without needing anyone else to tell you about it. And in that place, you will know that you are not alone, and there are countless people who are cheering you on, including me.