Athlete. Runner. CEO. Manager. Top employee. Star student. Published writer.
We tend to define ourselves by one thing. Which means that if we stop playing soccer after college, can’t run anymore because of bad knees, sell our company, get demoted or get fired, fail a few tests, and stop being published, we are shattered.
We are deeply disappointed. We are devastated, and we see this devastation as permanent.
As James Clear writes in Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, “When you cling too tightly to one identity, you become brittle. Lose that one thing and you lose yourself.”
(Atomic Habits is an insightful book, but be aware that there are examples of dieting and weight loss. Ugh.)
Clear understands this first-hand, because for most of his young life, a significant part of his identity was being an athlete. He writes, “After my baseball career ended, I struggled to find myself. When you spend your whole life defining yourself in one way and that disappears, who are you now?”
Maybe you’re telling yourself stories like I am no one. I am nothing. And along with that you start questioning your self-worth. Because if you’re no longer an athlete or a manager or an exemplary student, are you even still worthy? Do you even still matter?
When a role we’ve played for a very long time disappears, we aren’t doomed. In fact, it can be a good thing. It can be an exciting time.
Because, according to Clear, we can redefine ourselves. Instead of clinging to a single, specific role, we can get curious and delve deeper into the traits that make up that role. What does being an athlete include? What characteristics does it consist of? Which characteristics do you identify yourself with? How can you channel those qualities into something else? Into different areas? Into other roles?
Clear shares these powerful examples in Atomic Habits:
- “‘I’m an athlete’ becomes ‘I’m the type of person who is mentally tough and loves a physical challenge.'”
- “‘I’m a great soldier’ transforms into ‘I’m the type of person who is disciplined, reliable, and great on a team.'”
- “‘I’m the CEO’ translates to ‘I’m the type of person who builds and creates things.'”
As with anything in life, the key with our identity is to be flexible. The key is to be able to adapt, to pivot, to bend. The key is to be curious, to ask questions, to rethink and reframe, to dig.
Clear includes a quote that speaks to this from the Tao Te Ching:
Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.
You are not one thing. You are not a single role. You’re not a runner, or a soccer player. You’re not a CEO or a manager. You’re not solely a student.
You are complex and complicated. You are multifaceted. You are many, many, many things. Which means that if you lose the job, or get bad grades, or can’t run at all, you are still OK. You are still you.
And you can channel those wonderful traits from those past roles into different wonderful things. You can build and create all kinds of things—from a different career to a collection of poetry. You can find other ways to be physically active, to be physically (and mentally) challenged, other ways that also provide meaning and ignite joy.
This doesn’t have to be a shattering loss. Yes, you might grieve the end of a certain role. Acknowledging and processing our feelings is always vital.
But the end of one role also means the beginning of another. And another. And another. So this can be an exciting, interesting time. It can be an opportunity. It can be whatever you make it.