How often do you think about your own identity?
Probably not often enough.
How do you form your identity? Where do “you” come from? Which collection of experiences makes up who you are? Is it one thing or many? Is that one thing big and important? Are those many things small and compounding?
When was the last time you gave this any thought at all?
Most likely you reflect on your own identity when it falls apart.
When you peg your identity to one thing and that thing collapses your identity collapses too. Like a business, a big project, a certain way of dressing or a band that you love. You are a goth, you are a Foo Fighter’s fan, you are a Manchester City supporter, you are an entrepreneur, an accountant, a lawyer, mom, dad, brother, etc, etc, etc. One thing often defines us more than the others.
I am constantly on the lookout for things that define my identity. These things help me fit in or stand out, and help me feel a little more like myself or at least a newer, updated version of myself.
For two decades I have self-identified as an entrepreneur.
I spend my time refining my craft by reading books about business and biographies of the great business people of the past and present. I listen to interviews and podcasts with entrepreneurs who have done great things and try to eke out learnings wherever I can. I surround myself with other entrepreneurs and thinkers who could push me to be a better entrepreneur at every turn. I have written two books about building businesses (and my third one comes out in 2022). Everything I am, everything I have done since the age of 16 has been in service of entrepreneurship.
Then, one day near the end of 2019 I decided to leave a destructive startup and co-founder/CEO and take a break from building businesses. I exited the company, sold my shares and took a full four weeks off. I was severely burned out and a little bit depressed. This was the first month-long break I had taken in nearly ten years of building startups and it was glorious… until it wasn’t.
I finished the four weeks completely energised and completely lost.
Without a business to run, who was I?
Without investors to update, who was I?
Without a team to lead, who was I?
Without customers to sell to, who was I?
Without a product to refine, who was I?
I was nobody and anybody all at once. I could be anything I wanted to be but I was nothing without my entrepreneurial branding. I was lost. My identity was gone because my businesses were gone. For the first time in 21 years, I wasn’t building a business and I could not define myself as an entrepreneur.
I discussed this at length with my psychologist over the next 6 months and have come to realise something fundamental about my life up to that point; I defined my life as a success if my businesses were succeeding and I felt like a failure if my businesses were failing. This is a brutal way to live and one that sent me on an hourly rollercoaster ride of self-loathing or self-recognition. I loved myself and then hated myself. I was proud of myself and then embarrassed by myself. I was happy and then intensely depressed. I was on top of the world and then buried under ten feet of mud.
This is what it looks like when your identity is tied to what you do.
After a lot of self-reflection, reading, observing other entrepreneurs, reading more and engaging with my founder friends I’ve come to understand one key principle that I am hoping will free you from this curse as it has freed me.
Your identity is doomed if it hinges on a single experience.
You need to have interests other than your business.
Your business needs you to have other interests.
Your life needs to be about more than just one thing or accomplishment.
If all you do all day is work then how else could you possibly define your identity? Working on your startup 18 hour days, 7 days a week, 360 days a year means you have nothing else to integrate into your identity. When people ask you to introduce yourself and all you can say is that you are the founder of XYZ business, you have a problem whether you can admit that.
Diverse interests lead to a diverse identity.
Diverse interests lead to a stronger identity.
Diverse interests lead to a more resilient identity.
I believe that smashing together unexpected things makes people interesting and engaging. Your work benefits from diverse interests, unique hobbies, different reading habits or, say, an interest in foreign cinema. Just learning a new language can give you new words to use to describe things in your life or at work.
Now, I am not saying you need to be the kind of person who tinkers on everything to 20% and then moves on. Not at all. I’m suggesting that your talent and skill will benefit from trying new things, experiencing different foods, engaging with different people, stepping outside of your industry and bringing together this haphazard collection of interests into a new and coherent way of thinking.
If all you do is work and your work fails then you will undoubtedly feel like a failure. But if you have other things in your life that you can draw pleasure from, you can find joy in different places when your business struggles (and it will). You won't feel like a failure because your business is failing.
This is how you cope with the struggles of being an entrepreneur. This is how you manage the extreme highs and devastating lows of building a business. This is how you survive when your business doesn’t make it.
Right now you need to make a decision to prioritise diversity in your life. Try new things, experience new people, engage in new hobbies, find passions other than “build a unicorn startup”, read books that have nothing to do with your business and meet people who aren’t like you.
Failure can be devastating. I speak from experience when I say that if have a full and diverse life when your business crumbles and you’re standing alone in an empty room where your startup once lived you’ll be able to pick up and start again with less trauma and a more well-rounded sense of self.
Start to consciously uncouple your identity from what you do and improve your self worth by diversifying your interests.