In a discussion in one of my EdD classes (Organization Theory and Development, I think), the seminar got into a discussion about how passionate professionals sometimes over-identify with their profession to the exclusions of themselves as a whole person. Talking about this phenomenon in class brought up all the problems inherent with this – in particular, that there seems to be a high incidence of burnout in non-profit workers, public administrators, and human service personnel directly linked to this strong identification of what we do with who we are.
This hit pretty close to home; I identify strongly with being a librarian. (See the phrasing? “Being” a librarian. Puts me in mind of the difference in Spanish between the two “to be” verbs, estar and ser, where estoy usually refers to a temporary condition.) When someone asks me what I do, I do not say that I participate in the actions of librarianating (though when pressed for details I start talking about managing personnel, projects and services, serving on service desks, and planning). I just say “I am a librarian.” I say it the same way I say “I am a woman,” or how I might respond “I am white” or “I am 32” on a demographics survey, without thought and with as much certainty of the statement as fact. I’ve wrapped it up into my identity, and I’ve worn librarianship that way since I started library school back in ’05. Because librarianship is not just what I do, it is what I love, I have adopted it wholesale into my persona.
But if I lost my job (gods forbid), I could just as easily “be” a creative writing professor, or a secretary, or any number of other things. Being a librarian should not feel as all-consuming as I’ve let it become. It’s my own fault, I blame it largely on being a graduate student for so long, with the freedoms and easy selfishness that come to someone without a family to care for – my experience trained me to essentially submerge myself in whatever it was I was studying. (With few distractions, there was no reason not to Do The Thing All The Time, especially since Doing The Thing All The Time led, by and large, to greater success.) Only by making librarianship a profession, I never really came back up for air the way I do with an academic subject once the degree is done. If it’s possible to train oneself into obsessive compulsion, I may have done it.
One wise woman in class noted that one of her mentors in a high university administration position always answers the question of “What do you do?” with “I serve as [Job Title].” She said he claimed it reminded him (1) that his job was not his entire identity, (2) that a job is temporary, not a permanent facet of his personhood. He said it helped him keep a healthy perspective on the fact that this may not be what he does forever, and that while he can love his work, it should not consume him to the point that he loses everything else about himself. And while most of you are likely nodding your heads at this, thinking How very commonsensical and unremarkable, I was really struck by it.
I’ve been mulling this over for a few weeks, in light of some medical issues that have me parsing my professional life from my personal life more carefully as I strive to strike a balance that works for me, but allows me to remain successful as a professional. Being a librarian for all my waking hours is no longer a model that works for me. I know this. My friends know this, and have been asking me to make these changes for a long time. My boss and colleagues know this, and have recommended making these changes for a long time. Being ill is just a precipitating event forcing me to actually make the change that has been needed all along.
So now I am working on a certain separation of powers, if you will. When I am librarianating, I focus entirely on that, to make sure I am being the best librarian I can be. But I am also now a woman who needs 8 hours of sleep, to make sure that I am also a Rested and Healthy Colleen. I am a student, and when I do that I am Studious Colleen. I’m working on improving my Downtime Colleen self by taking at least one day a week and dedicating it to anything not school- or work-related. (To date this has taken the form of cooking and football-viewing on Sundays; once football season ends, I am going to attempt to develop some hand-eye coordination via Skyrim and perhaps juggling, and pick up my creative writing habit again.)
I am more than my job, even if the skills that make me good at my job leak into other areas of my life. I’ve even changed the most recent bios I’ve submitted for publications, changing “Colleen is the Head of Access Services at UTC” to “Colleen serves as the Head of Access Services at UTC.” It’s a small change. Nobody but me (and perhaps you, now that you know about it) will notice the difference. But it is helping me remember that I am allowed to take off my librarian hat and nurture different sides of myself, rather than spilling all my energy into my work. I’ve habituated myself to revolve everything around work – my friends, my conversations, my thought patterns, my free time, so it’s not an easy transition. But I’m working on it.
I would like to know: what does your non-work self (or selves) look like? What do you do to maintain a healthy balance of energy? How do you – or do you at all – draw a dividing line between your work and your self?