“Do not let the roles you play in life make you forget who you are.” ~Roy T. Bennett
Wherever I go and meet new people, they ask me, “What do you do?”
I love talking about what I do because I love what I do, but It’s not what I’ve always done, and it certainly isn’t all of who I am. It’s part of who I am, but there is so much more.
When we’re young, we’re asked to decide on a career. You know, the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The problem is, does anyone in high school truly know what they want to do for the rest of their lives? I’d venture to say that many high school kids don’t even know who they really are yet.
When I was growing up, I was a straight-A student, a star athlete, a perfectionist, and an overachiever. I learned at a young age that performing well was my ticket to feeling good about myself. My accomplishments garnered the praise and admiration of many and gave me what I needed to feel good.
As a senior in high school, it was natural that I chose to go to college for aerospace engineering. I was interested in aviation, but more importantly, when I told other people what I had decided on, they nodded their heads in approval. A smart girl should choose a “smart career,” right?
Validation and approval drove me forward.
When I got out of college with a BS in aerospace engineering from the University of Minnesota, I went to work for The Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington. I didn’t love it. Part of it may have been homesickness, or the dreary Seattle weather, but a huge part of it was that the corporate cubicle life was not for me.
I thought there was something wrong with me. After all, I had worked so hard to reach this point in my life. I should love it, right? Hadn’t I finally arrived?
I struggled with it so much because on one hand, I dreaded going to work. On the other hand, when I told people what I did for a living, they leaned in and listened a little harder. Even my own father was proud to talk about my engineering career and the fact that I worked for one of the top aerospace companies in the world, but I’ve since moved to less impressive pursuits, he has never once asked me about those endeavors.
My career looked awesome and interesting and impressive on paper, but I was quietly dying inside.
My husband and I ended up moving all the way across the country to Savannah, Georgia, where I worked for another top aerospace company—Gulfstream Aerospace. I didn’t really feel any different about my position there, until I transferred into a group called Sales Engineering.
In this area, I was able to interact and collaborate with sales and marketing to create the technical data they would use to pitch Gulfstream’s fleet to potential customers. I enjoyed the challenge, but I really enjoyed the collaboration with other people that weren’t buried in their computers all day. It was here that I first got a glimpse that I loved connecting with other people.
When my first child was born, I left the aerospace industry. We had just moved cross-country again to Los Angeles, and it made more sense for me to be a full-time mom since I wasn’t the family breadwinner, and we didn’t absolutely need a second income. Plus, I wasn’t enamored with the whole engineering gig either, so in a sense, it was a way out.
Quitting the career that I didn’t love was, on one hand, so freeing. But on the other hand, without that thick layer of validation that kept getting piled on every time someone asked me “What do you do for a living?”, I felt naked. I felt inferior. I felt like I was a failure who couldn’t hack it in the real world.
My identity was wrapped up in my career that looked so good on paper but didn’t feel good in my soul.
My ex-husband is an attorney, and we’d attend events with lots of other attorneys and highly educated people. At these events, I dreaded the question “So, Kortney, what do you do?”
My response was always a little timid, almost apologetic.
“I stay at home with our son.”
There was typically a slow nod, with a bit of feigned interest, as if they weren’t really sure what more to say about the occupation stay-at-home mom.
Because I also had a side-gig photography business, I’d quickly add, “and I’m also a photographer.”
That tended to garner a bit more interest.
“But I used to be an aerospace engineer,” I’d tack on, in a final effort to gain the nod of approval I so desperately sought.
Bingo. Alarm bells sounded. The crowd cheered. People were reeled back into something more exciting.
That good, old familiar friend, validation was back.
I struggled for a long time to find my identity without all the “stuff” on the outside. It wasn’t until I got divorced and had to figure out how I would financially support myself after my spousal support ran out that I even scratched the surface of “Who am I, really?”
Who am I without my career, the accomplishments, the external validation?
All those years, I lived with one foot in the world of wanting to love myself for who I am rather than what I did and one foot in the world of doing more, doing better, doing it ALL.
I lived in between the worlds of self-validation and external validation.
I knew I wanted the former, yet I craved the latter.
In doing the work of figuring out who I really am, learning to love myself fully, and being able to validate myself without any help from the outside, I realized that I was asking myself the wrong questions all along.
As a society, we ask the wrong questions.
Instead of asking our kids, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, I think we should be asking them, “Who do you want to be?”
I asked my eleven-year-old daughter this, and she looked at me in her quizzical mom-why-are-you-asking-me-such-a-weird-question way and said, “Umm, I just want to be me?”
Shouldn’t we all just want to be who we are?
Instead of pursuing goals that are impressive because they bring us accolades and attention, what if we were to pursue our goals because they lit us up and we were truly passionate about them?
What if we started asking our kids questions about what lights them up? How do they want to feel? What things do they like to do that make them feel that way?
Even as adults, we can ask ourselves these questions.
If you’re in a job that doesn’t feel right, you can ask yourself, “How do I want to feel?”
What’s authentic to you? How do you want to show up in the world? What jobs or careers would allow you to show up that way?
This is the work I did after my divorce. I’m in a completely different career now, and believe me, as much as I fought going back to a job in the engineering industry, I had to do a lot of work on my thinking about not having a “smart job” like being an engineer. The validation I craved and was so used to was like a drug.
Through this work, I learned how I want to feel in my life and that guides everything.
I discovered that I want to feel freedom, ease, joy, and meaning in my life.
Going to a cubicle every day didn’t allow me to create those feelings. I want to show up in the world authentically—I want to be able to be a human being who makes mistakes and can share myself with other people. Corporate life didn’t allow me to be that authentic person that I now so deeply love.
Some of you reading this may have corporate jobs and love them. You may be able to create the feelings you want to feel and show up authentically with that type of career. That’s awesome!
The goal is to be able to feel the way you want to feel. The goal is to be able to show up in the world in a way that is true to who you are.
Because how you show up to do the things you do in the world is what really matters.