Working a job just to earn a paycheck is an idea of the past. Society places importance on finding meaning and purpose in our work. How many times have we heard the saying “do something you love and you will never work a day in your life”? Today’s culture places a lot of pressure, especially on men, to find meaningful and purposeful careers. Messages portrayed through media, culture, and society tell us to hold a position of power, to make a lot of money, to be the breadwinner, and on top of it all to love your job. This leads to men finding identity in their careers. One of the first questions we ask strangers is “what do you do for a living?”
I have felt these pressures significantly in my young higher education career. Early on I knew I wanted to work in Higher Education. My father has worked his way up to a senior level administrator position at a large public university and I wanted to follow his footsteps. Like many other professionals in higher education, I started as an R.A. and was highly involved on my undergraduate campus. Additionally, I had great mentors and knew a career in student affairs was the right path for me.
My love for student affairs has allowed me to pursue a rewarding career, but with this passion comes a tendency to find my identity in my work. I have been Brian the RA, Brian the Hall Director, Brian the Orientation Grad Assistant, Brian the Recruitment Coordinator, and now, Brian the Admissions Coordinator. In student affairs, we know that our job extends beyond the typical 8 to 5 work day. Our job title often becomes our identity, partially because we are taught to always be “on”, that once we leave the office our titles follow us out the door.
Finding identity in work happens to both genders, but I see it happening more to men in our society. Men often place their value in the successfulness of their career. As a graduate student I only thought I could find value in my work if someday I obtained a position of power, becoming a college president, a dean of students, or a chancellor. The support system around me in high school encouraged me to go to college so I could be my own boss someday and in college that message changed to going to graduate school so I could be my own boss someday. As a result, I struggled to see the value in entry-level positions and quickly thought ahead to the next steps up the ladder. I didn’t place much worth in my first role out of graduate school or in who I was as a new professional, but rather, who I would be in 5 or 10 years.
Higher education is an interesting landscape. The field has many women a part of it, but most of these women are not found in senior level student affairs positions. The titles and positions (Deans, Chancellors, Presidents) I looked up to were filled by men, yet the offices I worked in were mostly staffed with women. I am hopeful that the landscape in higher education is changing and more women will continue to permeate senior level professional positions.
Three things really helped open my eyes to the importance of finding my identity outside of my work: my faith, my wife, and the women I’ve been fortunate enough to work with. I have worked with female rock stars in both student affairs and enrollment management. These women were great examples of maintaining a healthy life and work balance and they helped to teach me how to find my identity outside of my profession. The ability to find my identity outside of my work has made me aware of the dangers of placing my identity in my profession.
The danger of finding identity in our profession is that when we face struggles or fail (both are bound to happen), the foundation of self that has been created begins to crumble. We can be quick to lose passion for our work and possibly begin to search for work outside of student affairs. I’ve seen plenty of men leave student affairs in search of a higher meaning, more money, a better title, etc. I mentioned earlier the changing times of the role of work. It is uncommon to find many people in student affairs that have held the same position for longer than fifteen years. Higher education graduate students are taught to spend 3 to 5 years in a position. I encourage you to find your identity in something that will last more than 3 to 5 years. This will allow you to pursue your career with more freedom and live your life with a greater sense of purpose.
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Podcast With Josie Ahlquist on Digital Identity, Social Media & Leadership