Living with your work-identity

In a play being staged in Italy, the actor was hooded and being hanged. Something went terribly wrong and he was being strangulated for real. There was a medical practitioner in the audience who noticed his bodily struggle and rushed in. The actor died in the hospital later on. Without the medical practitioner, he would have died on the stage itself.

This got me thinking about our work identity – to what extent is it a part of our social life. For doctors, there is almost no social life independent of their work identity. Everywhere they go, they stay doctors. Once upon a time, they were invited to mark themselves as doctors on rail ticket requisition slips. This is very handy in times of a medical emergency on board the train; or a flight for that matter. Doctors might be on a honeymoon, but their Hippocratic oath will take precedence over their wedding vows if somebody needs immediate medical attention. Such is the nature of their work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is an intelligence agent, more commonly understood as a spy. Intelligence agents live with a secret work identity to the extent that their immediate family members may not even know where their office is, let alone what they are working on. They are themselves monitored and they know it. If they have a social life, it is a managed facade that protects their work- secrets and sometimes furthers their work. Forget a social life, these guys do not even have a truly personal life. They wear a mask, but not the type Jim Carrey could have fun with.

A politician or a celebrity is always at work. They want to cement their positive impressions all the time in a social setting. They exercise a choice in maintaining their work-identity in their social life. And most, if not all, choose to let the work-identity dictate terms. They are always smiling, shaking hands, posing for snaps, giving positive sound bytes, and looking presentable. In other words, they too wear a mask.

A trainer or a coach aims to improve people’s lives. In their social life, trainers and coaches are always alive to the serendipity of learning. If they go to shop and encounter service worthy of an anecdote, they love it. Even if the service was bad. Because they know they will milk it for what it is worth in the training room. Depending on the situation, trainers or coaches will decide to showcase or play down their identity. But they know, their social lives are learning laboratories.

A writer is always in search of the muse. Writers are forever on the hunt for inspiration and subjects. In their social life, if something interests them, writers become stalkers. Some are deceptive enough to do it discreetly while others are not bothered about how they are coming across. Fiction writers can have a very interesting take on social lives as learning laboratories. Fiction writers know their stories and characters to be more real than the stuff that is happening off the printed page. For them, a social life is an escape from the real world they inhabit – the world of elfins, and goblins, ghosts and serial killers, vampires and thrones. They do not look at social lives as learning laboratories, but more as lavatories. Writers will play around with their identity and social life in pursuit of their words. Which is true for all creative artists. They will follow the trail or create one and make use of everything on the go.

The socially defined perception of work plays a key role in how people carry around their work identity. A wait-staff at a five-star restaurant might be earning more than a deputy-collector in a government office. But the wait-staff will rarely wear their identity around the sleeve even as the deputy-collector will show off their id card even on a foreign vacation.

People who are in multi-level marketing or network marketing get to purposefully align their work-identity and social life.  Many people are attracted to the business concept, but dread the idea of people staying away from them just because of their line of work. People are not sure whether an enquiry about their health is a polite greeting or an entry-point for a health-related product. A friend of mine said this to me, ” X is the only person who diligently asks about my asthma every time we meet and the only person who is genuinely sad every time when I say it is all fine!”Social activists are not so different from the multi-level marketers in terms of the response they evoke from people unsympathetic to their cause.  At least in their case unlike that of multi-level marketers,people respect the commitment but do not want to be involved.

A judge stays aloof from too much of social life because the impartiality of the position demands less interaction. Interestingly, Alfred Sloan of General Motors believed a CEO’s job required the same impartiality and the same level of aloofness. A kinder-garden teacher becomes so used to simplifying talk that she ends up speaking with adults outside the class room in much the same way. Teachers preach the gospel of values and character. They talk about the emancipatory power of education in their social life. They remain teachers, and the great teachers double up as role-model learners as well.

Our work-identity seeps into our social life in interesting ways. And the result thereof goes back into reconfirming our work-identity or agitating it in some way. At a high school reunion,you meet school friends after a couple of decades. When you go back to work, whatever it is, nothing looks the same. Something has been agitated!



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