Careers are becoming more granular. Not only are we changing jobs more often in the 21st century, we are also adding multiple projects and side hustles to our plate — with the hope they’ll help us achieve that elusive and infamous work-life balance.
That poses a question of identity. What do you answer, you modern portfolio-career-professional, when you’re casually being asked, “So, what is it that you do?”
What’s your bold, concise pitch? I certainly struggle with this because I want to embrace a multitude of identities: I am a coach, writer, musician, husband and father, entrepreneur and many other things come to mind.
A client recently reported that she longed to find a sense of self-worth. Make no mistake, she is by any standards a highly successful venture capitalist. But she struggled to pinpoint exactly what was uniquely hers between all the projects, awards and accolades.
You see, success does not immediately lead to fulfilment, self-worth, or happiness. It is 2024 and we need a new way to think about our career journeys and our professional identities.
We cannot tie them to our jobs anymore because, after all, what’s left of that antiquated, monolithic one job narrative?
The next generation of professionals need to win back control over the design and management of their work lives and work selves. I call this career sovereignty: gaining freedom and autonomy of their professional trajectory.
A life’s work
We need to shift out of the tiring discussion around work-life balance and embrace the perspective of a life’s work. In French, you’d call it “oeuvre”, in German “lebenswerk”: the way we want our life to manifest, regardless of whether that runs under the label “work” or “life”.
This mindset shift helps us integrate our priorities and re-evaluate with the bigger picture in mind.
When people ask “what do you do?”, we rarely actually answer with all the things that we do in an average week. But to map our professional identity and understand how and why it will be successful, the best strategy is to actually explore what it is that you, well, do.
So, write them down.
There might be activities that feel distinctly personal but that is fine: later on, we can reclassify those into the wellbeing system. Your personal career flywheel will be built from activities and wellbeing, and some of the activities on the flywheel will carry both labels.
When I started to think about it, I realised that it was impossible to just see through one lens. Here are four ways to identify the activities that currently make up your work life.
Looking inward: Journaling
Block all distractions for the next 30 minutes. Sit down with a piece of paper, your notes app or dictate into your phone: if you think about all the things you do in a two-week period, what comes to mind? Write for 10 minutes straight, without stopping, without editing, duplicates and typos are welcome.
Then, look over your list. Do you see clusters emerging? If you double-click on those, what other activities might unfold in the dropdown? What are the surprising items on the list? Write another 10 minutes as if you were on a procrastinator’s scavenger hunt.
Looking outward: Ask your friends
Start asking people who know you well, then those who perceive you at the fringes (maybe just on social media): from your perspective, what is it that I do all day long?
What are the activities that define me? What activities do you feel I am particularly strong at? What are the ones that are my weak point? Where am I wasting my time?
What are the ones I like and the ones I despise? What am I doing because I am just trying to fit into some image, but it doesn’t really come naturally?
Looking backwards: Calendar
Open your calendar and start colour-coding your meetings and work blockers. Use as many colours as you need. I observed that I differentiate between “free writing” (for which I have a day per week earmarked) and “functional writing” (like social media content, coaching memos and the like), so those go into different categories.
This will help identify what you are naturally doing without having “someone” look over your shoulder.
Looking forward: Time tracking
If you are into productivity tools, you can try to track your time for a couple of weeks.
Consciously tracking your time to discover what activities you naturally gravitate towards is a bit like Schrödinger’s Cat though: your actions will shift as a function of your time-tracking exercise. Use caution!
Where so many coaches and career advisors talk about strengths, I’d like to put your attention somewhere else: all these strengths are like individual rocks peeking out from a river; they will likely not be enough to cross the stream. You need to understand how you can bring these strengths to life.
You need to build systems around your strengths and passions, much like you need to build a bridge atop of these rocks to cross the river. I call these “activity systems” because they map out how your activities build on each other.
The term activity system describes all the things you do that make up your professional identity. I like the concept not only because I am such a sucker for systems thinking, but because it takes pressure off rolling everything about myself into a single identity (“I am a coach”) and instead surfaces the underlying complexity.
My reputational identity may be, “I am a coach”. But my activities reveal more: “I am a coaching entrepreneur who likes to write essays and build businesses and is also a deeply musical person with a love for my family and mountaineering.”
Some of the activities you engage in are not going to be your strengths, at least not in the first place. I would not be the coach I am today without the reflective catharsis of my writing practice, and I would not be the writer I am today without the intellectual stimulation and startup pragmatism from my coaching practice.
But five years ago, if you told me I’d be a writer, I would have laughed. The same would likely hold for my school teachers: writing certainly was not my strength.
It was, however, one of the most important levers to propel my coaching career. I invested in it, week after week, for almost three years now. I hired a top-notch writing coach and worked with many editors. And you know what? I think I might have gotten better over time.
Similarly, not all of your activities need to be your passion. Some activities are simply necessary so your activity system works. Communicating through email and WhatsApp is not something I love doing but it is inherently part of my activity system.
An activity system is a well-mapped and well-executed means: all activities combined create sustainable value. And value is primarily defined through your own holistic perception: is this system energetically, monetarily, spiritually rejuvenating?
Could you continue oscillating between these activities for a good 10 years without burning out from boredom, exhaustion or hypertension? Only if you can answer with a resounding yes will you be able to source enough grit and curiosity from within to stick to your practice. Sticking to your practice means you will become outstanding at what you do.
What about making money?
Activities do not describe how you make money. We made the conscious choice to separate the monetisation question from what you are doing all day long.
One of the biggest misconceptions of the term business model is that it is mainly about earning money. It is critical to separate activities from monetisation.
Otherwise you're quickly being swept up in what makes business sense (your shortest path to burnout) but doesn’t fill your soul (which, in turn, will rarely pay your rent). A well-functioning activity system that focuses on money will spin off its axis.
Imagine an author deeply immersed in the art of writing. In the haste to turn this craft into a revenue source, they might unintentionally bind themselves to an income model that's not inherently rewarding.
But by publishing exceptional books, this very author could unveil opportunities like public speaking or mentoring that might be more direct and potentially yield a richer financial return.
In this context, it becomes beneficial to distinguish the heart of their work — the writing — from their income-driven pursuits.
Such a strategy not only safeguards their authentic passion for the written word but also sets the stage to diversify their earnings without sacrificing what they genuinely treasure.
“Career sovereignty” and “a life’s work” may be a bit overwhelming as concepts when you’re just trying to get ahead in your career. But if you can grab a cup of coffee tomorrow to just write out a little inventory of all the activities you already have in your life — and how they work together — you’re on a great track!