Two years ago, I left a company that I’d spent seven years working to build. Until then, when someone asked what I did for a living, I had a well-rehearsed response: “You know that app you use to buy coffee, Hey You? I started the company.” When I decided to leave the business, I felt afraid. I was nervous my next project might not work and worried I wouldn’t be able to make the same income, but my biggest fear was of losing my identity. I’d no longer be “Rebekah from Hey You”. I’d just be “Rebekah”, and who’s going to be interested in her?
Over summer, I read Jodie Fox’s memoir Reboot: Probably More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Starting a Global Business. Fox’s account of building and closing her business Shoes of Prey is intimate and fascinating, but it was her description of how it felt to lose her external identity that resonated with me the most. “Up until 28 August 2018, any time I walked into a room I was Jodie Fox from Shoes of Prey. From 29th of August onwards, I’ve just been Jodie Fox.”I started to notice how much I use “brand association” to determine credibility. Last week, I met with a personal coach and felt my eyes scrunch with scepticism until she mentioned that she works with teams at consulting firm KPMG and Commonwealth Bank. It was as if my brain ticked an imaginary box: OK, you’re someone I should listen to.I decided to learn why we think being attached to a brand name is so important. I spoke with Fox to hear more about the challenge and benefits of letting go of her business identity, and to Adrian Kelly, who works with people in career transition as managing director at Outplacement Australia.
The hard part
“I remember being at a dinner party just after the business closed, and someone asked what I did,” Fox says. “I didn’t have a clear answer and it felt confusing. I could tell the person was thinking: ‘What do you mean you don’t know what you’re doing?’ I think people use ‘what someone does’ as much as ‘name’ and ‘where you’re from’ to decide if they can relate to you. If you don’t have an answer to one of these questions then there’s an inconsistency, like you can’t be trusted.”Kelly says people transitioning out of a job or business often find the hit to their self-esteem much harder than any financial loss. “We see this more in people who are older; they might have been in an organisation for a long time. Their self-identity is wrapped in the identity of their role. Little things like not knowing how to introduce themselves in a social situation or having nothing to write on an airport customs form can be really upsetting.”
How to recover
“People are moving jobs more often than ever before,” says Kelly. “Our advice to anyone who has come out of a role is to view yourself as a set of experiences and achievements, not as a former job title from a particular company. Your identity is your set of skills; that slight shift in perspective can feel quite liberating.”
Identity can hold you back
“As well as redundancies, we coach people who are looking to make a career change,” Kelly says. “It’s surprising how many extremely capable people hold themselves back from taking a leap because they’re unsure of what life might be like without their current job title.”From my experience leaving Hey You, I can share that it was difficult. I remember standing among strangers at a child’s birthday party and feeling like I didn’t have anything interesting to say. The story of my business was a crutch that I used to connect with people.But in time, it felt strangely pleasant to form new connections without any discussion of work. Not having a brand with which to associate forced me to think of myself, to describe myself differently. I realised that I hadn’t been using my work story to connect; I’d been using it to keep myself separate – to establish my little plot in the world as being important and distinct from everyone else.Fox also discovered an upside to life without a job title: “I’ll admit: for the first few months I found it hard to introduce myself as being ‘in transition’,” she says. “I realised that I was driven to be busy. I needed to be able to say what big things I’d achieved at the end of every day, so I started setting tasks for myself. I wrote a book in four months!“But after a while I realised that having a blank canvas as an adult is an extraordinary gift. It’s actually a gift that everyone has, but people don’t realise it because we feel like we’ve got to be doing something – as if being productive is the goal.“Now when I meet people for the first time, I’m quite comfortable saying that I’m taking time to figure out what I’d like to do next, because I am, and I’m proud of it.”