Recently I have been interviewing CEOs of variously sized businesses as research for my next book, titled Finishing Well. I was seeking their perspective on what it would look like for them to finish work well and to finish life well – in other words, how much of their identity was tied up in their job. Interestingly, most of them found my question about what they would like to do after work quite confronting. Even for those in their late 50s, life after work was a subject to which most had not given much thought. They could not imagine themselves without their busy role. Some admitted it was a subject they actively avoided.

Work and identity

It makes sense that something you put so much time and effort into will shape your thinking and your life. However, the danger for many business leaders is that they can lose their identity in their career. Since the work is all-consuming, it becomes the most important responsibility in life. Hitting company goals feels like a personal victory. The status connected with the role becomes far more important than one might like to admit. The idea of being a human being without this busy job becomes hard to imagine.

Work is not a bad thing. It is one of our main contributors to a sense of meaning and purpose. The dangers come when work is the ONLY purpose in our life. Busy roles seem to have the power to dominate everything else. We can get all our sense of challenge and achievement – and even worth – from our work. It’s easier to forget everything else, even our life partner’s wishes, than to switch off our need to succeed at work. This seems especially true for men.

Is your identity too tied up with your job?

  • When asked to introduce yourself, do you always mention your name and your company position, as if it gives you more gravitas?
  • Is your overall emotional state up or down depending on what’s happening at work? Is it difficult to be happy when things are not going well at work?
  • Is it hard to take your mind off work and be fully present for other important people and issues in your life?
  • When you have time off work on your own, do you find yourself thinking about work matters, checking your emails and doing small work-related tasks?
  • Do you have a strong sense of purpose for your life outside of your work? Can you imagine your life without being in your role?
  • Do you have any deep passions or interests aside from work?

If you answered yes to some of the questions above, you are not alone. Many busy business leaders struggle with this issue.

How could this be a problem?

  • Your need to succeed at work could be linked to your need to prove yourself as a good person or as a success to your parents, siblings, or yourself. The best leaders are secure and have settled their identity issues. Their work is their work, not a place where they find themselves.
  • Your self-worth can become linked to work performance in a very unhealthy way. You may be a difficult person to be around when things are not going well with a work project.
  • It is unwise. You can give your heart and soul to the company, but the truth is that when you leave, someone will replace you. Enjoy your role – but always be sure to enjoy and invest in your life.
  • It is unhealthy, in the long term – mentally, physically, emotionally and relationally. It’s a vital life skill to be fully present for people and interests on a regular basis outside of work.
  • It’s unhelpful to integrate your work with all that is precious in your life. This can lead to major issues. About 90% of problems that undermine or sabotage business success come from neglected issues in your personal life.

My philosophy is, ‘I work to live, I do not live to work’. Most Aussies would agree. Research shows that the biggest regrets later in life centre around lost opportunities in relationships, not work. No one on their death bed ever said, ‘I wish I spent more time at the office.’ The biggest danger of losing your identity in your work is that you can miss out on so many other beautiful parts of your life – ones that might not wait to be enjoyed later.