Why do we seek permission to change our professional identity?
Let’s pretend that you want to be a photographer, but nothing about your college training, career choice, or anything for that matter has truly prepared you for it. It’s a hobby, a passion, and something that drives you, not to mention, you’re quite excellent if you don’t say so yourself. You’d be a photographer if only somehow you could make the transition. In reality, there’s only one problem, only one thing in your way: You.
Let’s say you’re an accountant and a very skilled one who handles the books, scrubs the finances, and makes your company tick. But when you’re not counting beans, you’re out capturing life’s beautiful moments. It’s a hobby – a love – and you’ve even started a collection. It’s not just your friends who tell you how good you’re getting, but even strangers. But you’re not a photographer. You don’t have any official training, no official certification, and far be it from you to give yourself the promotion of your dreams.
However, one day while on a much needed vacation, you strike up a conversation with a stranger. Eventually, the stranger asks, “so, what do you do?” Feeling a little rebellious you bravely blurt out, “I’m a photographer!” “Oh really!” the stranger replies, ‘how awesome!” (a totally different reaction than had you said “accountant”), “can I see some of your work?” You play it cool, go along with it and say “sure!” while you load up some pictures from your snapfish account. The stranger looks, you tell the stories, and the she is clearly impressed. The stranger asks if you have a card; you don’t, so you exchange e-mails and part ways. 3 weeks later, the stranger meets with her friend who is getting married in 5 months and mentions that she still needs to hire a photographer. Immediately, the stranger chimes in “I just met the most fantastic photographer while at a lunch last week. I have her contact information, you should really consider hiring her. Her stuff was amazing!”
And, voila! You just became an official photographer.
This didn’t happen when some university decided to credential you. It didn’t happen when someone promoted you. This happened because you promoted yourself in a way that you can back up. And, true, whereas you aren’t as good at it now as you will be in the future, that moment leads to all future success and opportunities that await you.
We live in day of identity, where everyone and everything achieves an easy label, whether good or bad. In college for example, declaring a major in anything is an easy identity shift. Majoring in English? Be prepared for everyone to ask you how to spell something even though you can’t spell worth crap. Majoring in engineering? Be prepared to be asked how to fix everything even though you’re really studying titanium’s chemical properties. Counseling? You’ll have to listen to all of your friends’ problems as long as they don’t have to listen to yours. And, because people typically enjoy identifying with their interests, we usually play along because any failure to live up to expectations for something we so strongly label ourselves with (and pay money for) would be a failure of our own competence and our own self-worth.
In short, we seek others’ permission to create the person and/or profession we want to be. Instead, it is us and us alone who control our own identity, and our real brand value is then determined by how well we follow through.