What are your professional identities?


We often ask each other, “What do you do?” but have you ever been asked, “What are your professional identities?” Do you even know how you might answer that question?  It implies we have more than one, which nowadays many people do, and hybrid professionals are the best at navigating between them.

Asking people about their multiple professional identities is a new way of thinking about each other and what we do. It’s a concept we should be asking ourselves and asking each other if we want to understand what makes people tick, and, more importantly, thrive in their work.

About six years ago, I was ready to look for a new job.  I was an art teacher, and people saw me only as a teacher since I spent all day, every day in the classroom. Yet, that wasn’t who I felt I was.  Being a teacher was definitely one aspect of my professional self, and a primary one at that, but I knew I was so much more.  The title of teacher was holding me back and limiting my job prospects. The question I faced was how to break out of my teacher box?

That’s when I got the bright idea to expand and showcase my professional identities more directly.  If I wanted people to know who I was, how I saw myself, and what I could do, I needed to tell them and not assume they’d give me a chance or somehow figure it out on their own.  

I began writing cover letters for job applications that started with something like: “I’m Sarabeth, and I consider myself to be an artist/teacher/designer.” Then, I would explain what those three professional identities meant to me and how they would add value to the job for which I was applying.  It wasn’t rocket science; it was just a new way of unpacking who I was and what I felt I was good at since my work experience didn’t scream the story I wanted them to hear.  This did the trick because employers asked me for interviews and saw that I could do more than just teach.  (Side note: this was a turning point that moved my career in a new direction too).

This cover letter lesson taught me three things.  First, it helped me reflect on my professional strengths and passions, which in turn led me to get clear on my primary professional identities (more on that in a moment).  Second, it made me realize that people have multiple professional identities, and if I was experiencing this conundrum, others must be as well. As a result, I’ve been researching and studying professional identity amongst individuals from all career types.  Third, discussing multiplicity, instead of singularity, should become common.  After all, many leaders and celebrities are introduced on TV and in the media as an “author/speaker/founder/creator” or a laundry list of other things.  When pressed to define professional identity, I bet everyone has at least two identities hiding in the wings.

Let me return for a moment to a term I used above, which was primary professional identities.   When I starting researching identity, I found we have primary identities and secondary identities.  Primary identities are ones that are core to us, remain with us throughout our lives, and are present in almost all the activities we do. Examples include brother, parent, woman, Christian, etc.  We also have secondary identities, which are more fluid and flexible.  They can weave in and out of our day to day experiences, coming and going depending on the context, circumstance, or period of our life.  Examples include ballerina, boy scout troop leader, activist, drummer, runner, mentor, student, etc.  Note that you can have multiple primary and multiple secondary identities.

The reason I bring up primary and secondary identities is because the same idea applies to professional identity.  We can have multiple primary and multiple secondary professional identities.  This may sound complex, and it probably requires a little more explanation which I’ll do in another post, but what I want you to take away is that people have more than one professional identity.

There’s no question that each of us wears many hats every day, and the same can be said about our work lives as well.  What I encourage you to do after reading this is to stop asking people “What do you do?” and start asking “What are your professional identities?” and see what type of response you get.  It’s a fascinating little experiment, and it will shift your perspective on your coworkers, colleagues, and new hires.  And, don’t forget to ask this question of yourself first so you don’t get caught off guard when others begin asking it of you.

What are your professional identities? I’d love to hear from you. Please comment below or send me an email.