Do you love what you do? Are you compelled to do it, almost like you have no other choice? Then it’s likely that you identify with your work and business far more than most.

I’ve worked exclusively with people who love what they do and identify strongly with their work since starting my business in 2008. I’ve worked with people who become self-employed not because they want to earn a million dollars and enjoy luxury homes on every continent, but because they are compelled to do what they love.

But when the pursuit of your life’s purpose turns into self-employment, and especially when you’re doing highly interpersonal work (such as health or healing), where a keen rapport with clients is essential, then it becomes hard to separate our identity from our work.

Which is fine. Until it becomes a problem.

Rites of passage

“You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth,” says Khalil Gibran, “for to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession, that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.”

Pursuing a profession is a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. Never before has it been so easy to create your own business, to become a free-range consultant or freelancer, small business owner or project manager. Nowadays, it’s typical to cycle through numerous jobs across different industries, pursue a variety of different higher education, travel far more widely than our grandparents would dare to dream of, and try on different identities as we settle into our skin.

Our sense of self, or identity, is mostly composed of multiple external indicators which form an internalised view of who we are. Our job or career is crucial to this, even when we define ourselves against it – as someone not interested in building a career. When self-employed, our work becomes an even larger piece of the identity puzzle.

Over-identifying with your work

The question “what do you do?” can cause massive angst – we may believe we’re wasting our potential, we may not identify with our jobs, we may have a rich and active social life apart from work, we may be taking a career break to parent full-time. This simple question can provoke uneasiness – surely we are far more than the sum of our job?

For those working in self-employment, particularly freelancers without an office, we are frequently met with misunderstanding, confusion or the general sense that we are not serious with our work. This can be doubly confusing when the freelancer repeatedly wonders why their employed counterparts don’t hurry up and quit their jobs already so that they can enjoy the freedom, flexibility and creativity of self-employment.

Your identity in your actions

I’m increasingly fascinated by the role our identity plays in the actions we take. What we do with our time, how we prioritise our business – or not – the risks we take, how we juggle our competing responsibilities, our level of resilience and the joy and satisfaction (or lack of) that we derive from our business – much of this comes down to our sense of identity.

When we’ve received good advice and counsel and have the tools available (and most of us with internet access have business and marketing tools readily and freely available), what makes us act? Why do others defer, dither, procrastinate and oscillate? Why do some forge ahead and others lag behind? What makes some resilient and others less so?

Success in business is the sum of countless actions taken over time. To do so, we need to develop good habits. To create good habits, we need to have the appropriate identity. This can be simple: “I’m an action taker” to complex “I’m not ever going to make much money in my business because my mentor is far more talented and doesn’t make much.”

It’s extremely difficult to make significant changes to our behaviour if our self-belief opposes this. To make these changes enduring, we must also work at changing our perception of ourselves – not only what we are capable of – but as a person who has the everyday habits needed to get where we want to go.

Getting comfortable with failure

Failure is a byproduct of action; it’s unavoidable. Most of what we think of as failures in our business are actually just misaligned expectations: we expected an outcome that didn’t eventuate.

The problem with failure is that it often inhibits us from trying again. We tried, we failed, we internalise this and make it part of our identity narrative. I don’t need to tell you that this is a huge setback for success. We shrink into shadows of ourselves – scared to act, seeking safe and predictable situations, curtailing our dreams and suffocating our potentiality.

The flip side of this is not lack of failure – that’s fantasy. The flip side of failure is resilience: where our past setbacks are viewed not as negative but as part of the vast richness of experience which makes up our story.

Recalibrating expectations

In the last five years, there’s been a surge of people starting their own businesses. Sole traders now make up the majority of Australian businesses.

And with this surge has come an accompanying growth in online business training and promises of money, freedom, creative self-expression and meaningful, purposeful work. We have created unrealistically high expectations of what self-employment involves.

When the promised land doesn’t eventuate, it’s easy to internalise our perceived failure and see ourselves as the problem rather than the dominant narrative. In the pursuit of the hallowed “six figure income”, we may work at the expense of free time, family and friends, sleep, creativity and weekends.

Life away from work

Work is not the whole story. Especially if we are a beautiful little business of one or have a small team, it’s imperative that our emotional wellbeing is as buoyant as possible as this directly impacts on our business’s bottom line.

To thrive at work requires a rich life away from work: strong, supportive relationships, full weekends, time alone, plenty of sleep and, ideally, hobbies and interests that have little to do with work. Relationships outside of work mean that your sense of identity and self-esteem are far less dependent on your work and its outcomes.

A rich life outside of work could be your business insurance policy. Learning to thrive through failures and setbacks builds your emotional resilience – imperative for a long career. An active life away from work is vital to your work.

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