What is professional identity? How do we find it and maintain it? How do we bring it around in our multiple moves?
A few days ago I led a group coaching session for the participants of my online course to build a portable career. I shared my insights on professional identity.
I always like to start my reflections on identity sharing a passage of the beautiful book of Amiin Malouf, On identity, 1998:
“How many times, since I left Lebanon in 1976 to live in France, have people asked me, with the best intentions in the world, whether I felt “more French” or “more Lebanese”? And I always give the same answer: “Both!” I say that not in the interests of fairness or balance, but because any other answer would be a lie. It is precisely this that defines my identity. Would I exist more authentically if I cut off a part of myself?”.
I love this passage because it explains very clearly that our identity is made of several parts. It’s not a single monolithic whole, but a dynamic unity, open and permeable to life’s events and situations.
Indeed our identity is the continued elaboration of what life puts in front of us. We are the result of our acceptance, refusal or negotiations of what crosses our path, and through these three – often subconscious – actions, we define who we are.
Mobile life accelerates this process. It prompts us to delve deeper into ourselves. Because the pace of things to solve and discover when we relocate is faster, the process of evaluating and then deciding what stand to take multiplies. The result is that, though we might feel at times lost, our identity widens to embrace new concepts, values, ways of thinking and living.
We have thus already highlighted the fact that identity forms and evolves in response to life events. There are, however, other important considerations to bare in mind before we move to talk about professional identity:
- you need to stay in touch with yourself to always be able to identify all the changes that occurred in your identity;
- identity needs to mirror in difference to affirm itself, while at the same time belonging to a group that strengthens it. We exist as unique individuals because we are different from others, but we need to feel that the actions stemming from our identity are socially accepted and praised;
- the choice we make when we have to explain who we are can change according to whom we have in front.
This last point is particularly important. If I were to introduce myself in a welcoming association in my new host country, I would probably say I am Italian, a long-time expat, a mother, an accompanying wife. These attributes of myself are all true, but I would rather not use them if I were to introduce myself to a potential employer. In this case I would say I am multilingual, a coach, an intercultural trainer and a flexible professional.
What this tells us, is that we are made up of several and different identity dimensions, that all cohabit within ourselves. We can say that our identity has:
- an affective dimension (I am single, wife, fiancé)
- a social dimension (I am a friend, networker, leader)
- a family dimension (I am a mother, sister, daughter, cousin)
- a professional dimension (I am a teacher, manager, psychologist)
All these dimensions can become predominant at specific times of our lives, sometime to our joy and satisfaction, sometime with a big frustration. If I love my job but find myself unable to practice it because I can’t work in that specific country for reasons linked to my husband’s work, I’ll probably feel angry and sad, and won’t be able to canalise my identity in concrete representations. If I become a mother and decide to stop working to be with my child full-time, for as long as this lasts, I’ll be the stay at home mummy (in my eyes and in the eyes of others). And so on.
The point is that when embracing a nomadic lifestyle, we have to be prepared to be extra flexible, because our professional identity will need to adapt to ever changing situations. We shall constantly have to shift from “what we are” to “what we do”. Maybe my professional identity is clear and complete, but I won’t have the chance to express it when I relocate because of working permits, or because my children are going through a tough time and I have to put in on hold. Or I’ll have to change the nature of my work completely, because the new cultural scenario has no space for my professional activity.
When living a mobile life, shifts and adjustments in our career happen all the time. The multiple layers of our identities undergo a simultaneous adaptation, and some may gain more space or visibility than others. We might find ourselves to have to sacrifice one dimension for a while.
However, if we learnt that all of our identity dimensions feed each other for our global growth, and that reinforcing one sphere of our identity benefits the others, we might face the periods of professional inactivity with less frustration and stress. The example I always give comes from my professional story. In Peru, I became an intercultural trainer, and started working with relocation agencies and organising my own cross-cultural workshops. When we moved to Jerusalem, I quickly realised that providing intercultural training there was just too delicate and complicated. I was very unhappy, until I decided that I could use that time to become a coach. That was the best decision I ever took, but I wonder what had happened, had I been able to keep on with my work as planned. As it is, despite having to revert to that identity area that I had happily abandoned towards the end of my stay in Peru, I ended up adding an incredible plus to my professional identity.