A few years ago, I would go out frequently during the weekdays with friends and enjoy a Mojito (or twelve). This began to change once I started running longer distances and training for a marathon. Suddenly, I’m a marathon runner and a frequent mojito-drinker—although as you can see these two identities were a little bit at odds. To take this running stuff seriously, I had to cut down on my daily dose of minty rum.
But what I probably feared more is leaving what the Mojito represents: going out with friends, drinking on weekdays, and ‘having fun.’
We all hold multiple identities: friends, employees, parents, volunteers, singers, runners, football players, weekend warriors, and all the other digital identities and personas we’ve created on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn. The difficulty arises when one of our identities clashes with another that is seemingly incongruent, or threatens another.
Being married means you can’t go to the Chicas Bonitas strip joint like you used to with the boys. Being a mom with 3 kids means you give up on the prospects of winning the Sexy Beach Bod of the Year Award because you’ve got no time for morning pilates, goddammit! Being promoted to manager means you’re no longer part of the Water Cooler Gossip Crew — you can’t talk shit about other managers anymore.
An identity clash (and the accompanying behaviors you’ll need to change) is at least one reason all of the above are approached with some level of trepidation— marriage, children, moving up into a leadership role. Achieving these goals and hitting these milestones, while desirable and worthwhile goals to pursue, challenge who we are. When we have to change our identity, or when another commitment might threaten our current one, we can withdraw.
As a recruiter I often witnessed people turning down job offers that had the potential to be life-changing. One marketing candidate, Sarah, received an attractive offer with a 30% bump in salary for a role that had greater responsibility. We both agreed that this would set her up to achieve her long-term goals to become a Chief Marketing Officer. She didn’t accept the offer, arguing that it wasn’t quite attractive enough and thus not worth the move. Instead, she would stay at her current company, where the situation “could get better in the future,” even though she acknowledged that it would undoubtedly be a much slower climb to reach her goals if she stayed.
It’s possible that she harbored a concern about her prospects of success in the company that wasn’t brought forward. But she came off as extremely confident. Based on her results and references, both myself and the hiring manager had no doubt that she would excel in the role. It seemed that rather than a fear of failure, it was a fear of success.
Success — in this case of accepting a new job offer and a bigger role — comes with a few strings attached. For starters, changing jobs is one of the biggest identity changes of all! New colleagues, new processes, new office — pretty much new everything. It means added responsibility and heightened expectations. The new job could require her to temporarily sacrifice doing things she loved like playing tennis every evening. Generally speaking, she’d be required to do a bunch of stuff she’s not doing right now, even though it would be positive for her career.
How do we get past this fear and cross the chasm? The closer we can envelop ourselves in the new identity we want to adopt, the easier it will be to make the shift. In retrospect, as a recruiter I should have arranged for Sarah to spend more time in the new office. I could have also suggested that her, the manager and her prospective teammates spend some casual time on the weekend — these activities would bring her closer to feeling like she’s part of the family and visualizing life in the new job.
Even taking time to mentally visualize our new lives can make a transition easier. Dr. Joe Dispenza shares the following research:
“According to research on mental rehearsal, once we immerse ourselves in that scene, changes begin to take place in our brain. Therefore, each time we do this, we’re laying down new neurological tracks (in the present moment) that literally change our brain to look like the brain of our future. In other words, the brain starts to look like the future we want to create has already happened.”
In the case of learning a new skill or habit (and preferably, starting with a system), more powerful than visualization is joining a club or group, and why we shouldn’t try to achieve all of our goals alone.
When learning a new instrument, rather than just taking 1-1 lessons, join a weekly group lesson. When starting to meditate, don’t just use the Headspace app, but find a meditation meetup.
When aiming to move up to a director-level position, you can get a feel for the job (and boost your confidence) when you spend more time shadowing people in that role. This will all help your new identity sink in, and make you less likely to quit when the going gets tough.
Lastly, we often forget that we can hold multiple identities, yet we often give ourselves false ultimatums (‘I can’t have kids and be an entrepreneur, so I need to choose one’ etc.). For example, I once started a side business. We had a few orders coming in, but I didn’t fully commit myself to it. At the time, I was building my profile as a writer, working on a book and committed to writing daily. My identity as a “writer” had started to become part of me. Once my business started doing well, I woke up with cold sweats. Am I a writer or a business owner? Surely, I can’t be both. The dual-identity was too much for me to bear, and I put the business on hold to pursue writing. Later, I realized that I could have more than one identity, and now I’m magically incorporating writing into my business.
Okay, the newly married guy can’t go to the strip club — some identities are truly incompatible — but he can start a Tuesday Poker night and tell dirty jokes, or find another activity that the boys like. The mom can ask the dad to help out and still go to the gym; she can be both active and a mom. The manager can still hang out with his subordinates – while he may not badmouth his manager peers, he can relate to both sides.
In sum: The more you’ve anchored yourself to your new identity —through visualization, joining groups, and simply surrounding yourself with people in the new environment— the easier it will be to reach that goal and not give up too soon. And while it can take time to develop, don’t forget that you can have more than one identity.