"Being" vs. "Serving As": My Job Is Not My Self

In a discussion in one of my EdD classes (Organization Theory and Development, I think), the seminar got into a discussion about how passionate professionals sometimes over-identify with their profession to the exclusions of themselves as a whole person. Talking about this phenomenon in class brought up all the problems inherent with this - in particular, that there seems to be a high incidence of burnout in non-profit workers, public administrators, and human service personnel directly linked to this strong identification of what we do with who we are.

This hit pretty close to home; I identify strongly with being a librarian. (See the phrasing? "Being" a librarian. Puts me in mind of the difference in Spanish between the two "to be" verbs, estar and ser, where estoy usually refers to a temporary condition.) When someone asks me what I do, I do not say that I participate in the actions of librarianating (though when pressed for details I start talking about managing personnel, projects and services, serving on service desks, and planning). I just say "I am a librarian." I say it the same way I say "I am a woman," or how I might respond "I am white" or "I am 32" on a demographics survey, without thought and with as much certainty of the statement as fact. I've wrapped it up into my identity, and I've worn librarianship that way since I started library school back in '05. Because librarianship is not just what I do, it is what I love, I have adopted it wholesale into my persona.

But if I lost my job (gods forbid), I could just as easily "be" a creative writing professor, or a secretary, or any number of other things. Being a librarian should not feel as all-consuming as I've let it become. It's my own fault, I blame it largely on being a graduate student for so long, with the freedoms and easy selfishness that come to someone without a family to care for - my experience trained me to essentially submerge myself in whatever it was I was studying. (With few distractions, there was no reason not to Do The Thing All The Time, especially since Doing The Thing All The Time led, by and large, to greater success.) Only by making librarianship a profession, I never really came back up for air the way I do with an academic subject once the degree is done. If it's possible to train oneself into obsessive compulsion, I may have done it.

One wise woman in class noted that one of her mentors in a high university administration position always answers the question of "What do you do?" with "I serve as [Job Title]." She said he claimed it reminded him (1) that his job was not his entire identity, (2) that a job is temporary, not a permanent facet of his personhood. He said it helped him keep a healthy perspective on the fact that this may not be what he does forever, and that while he can love his work, it should not consume him to the point that he loses everything else about himself. And while most of you are likely nodding your heads at this, thinking How very commonsensical and unremarkable, I was really struck by it.

I've been mulling this over for a few weeks, in light of some medical issues that have me parsing my professional life from my personal life more carefully as I strive to strike a balance that works for me, but allows me to remain successful as a professional. Being a librarian for all my waking hours is no longer a model that works for me. I know this. My friends know this, and have been asking me to make these changes for a long time. My boss and colleagues know this, and have recommended making these changes for a long time. Being ill is just a precipitating event forcing me to actually make the change that has been needed all along.

So now I am working on a certain separation of powers, if you will. When I am librarianating, I focus entirely on that, to make sure I am being the best librarian I can be. But I am also now a woman who needs 8 hours of sleep, to make sure that I am also a Rested and Healthy Colleen. I am a student, and when I do that I am Studious Colleen. I'm working on improving my Downtime Colleen self by taking at least one day a week and dedicating it to anything not school- or work-related. (To date this has taken the form of cooking and football-viewing on Sundays; once football season ends, I am going to attempt to develop some hand-eye coordination via Skyrim and perhaps juggling, and pick up my creative writing habit again.)

I am more than my job, even if the skills that make me good at my job leak into other areas of my life. I've even changed the most recent bios I've submitted for publications, changing "Colleen is the Head of Access Services at UTC" to "Colleen serves as the Head of Access Services at UTC." It's a small change. Nobody but me (and perhaps you, now that you know about it) will notice the difference. But it is helping me remember that I am allowed to take off my librarian hat and nurture different sides of myself, rather than spilling all my energy into my work. I've habituated myself to revolve everything around work - my friends, my conversations, my thought patterns, my free time, so it's not an easy transition. But I'm working on it.

I would like to know: what does your non-work self (or selves) look like? What do you do to maintain a healthy balance of energy? How do you - or do you at all - draw a dividing line between your work and your self?


Andromeda said…
I don't. But having a kid -- while it has made me *better* at my career -- forces me to regularly be other things, too.
T Scott said…
It took me some time over a number of years to try to figure out why the phrase "work-life balance" bugged me. I finally realized it's because I see the work that I do that I get paid for to be just one part of my total life. So what I look for now is an integrated whole. I look at it this way -- I've been a library director for over 20 years and that's a 24/7 responsibility, but I'm not doing library director stuff all the time. I'm a husband, a step-dad, and, for the last 6 1/2 years a grandfather who is very involved in his little girl's life. I'm an amateur musician and my band is very important to me and I take it very seriously. But when I shift my attention from one to another of these roles, I don't stop being the others. So I'm a musician 24/7 and a grandfather 24/7 and yes, a librarian 24/7. My responsibility to all of these roles is to be sure that I do the things that feed them all in appropriate ways. So I don't look for "balance" as if there was "work" on one end of the scale and "life" on the other -- I pursue an integrated life.
Coral said…
I have been pondering this same issue, though from a slightly different angle. There are so many "me"s that I don't have time for any of them to feel as fulfilled as they could; I need more time to get my library work done, to do my professional reading, to do my fun reading, to craft, to cook, to work out, to garden, and so on. It varies a lot from week to week, what I have time to do. (No gardening, this time of year, for sure.)

But I value my identity as a librarian, maybe the more so because I have changed careers. I used to tell people "I was an engineer before I was a librarian," but my husband would correct me; "You're still an engineer," he would say. He's right, of course. I didn't lose all of that training.

But I'm more a librarian than I was an engineer--I care more about it and identify more strongly with it, and I find myself expecting the same of other librarians. I spend some of my spare time reading and writing librarian-things. I sign petitions about freedom of expression and the freedom to read, and I give to the ACLU. I go to conferences on my own dime and volunteer for professional organizations' committees. I encourage friends and family to get (and use!) library cards. I introduce myself as a librarian at community events, and I look stuff up for people I know. And I consider all of this (except maybe the ACLU bit... and certainly the number of conferences) part of being a librarian, and I would be disappointed in a colleague who didn't do these kinds of things. It sounds like you do, but maybe more than you should, for balance--which can also be really hard. I'm forced into a certain amount of balance by having another person in my household; that helps (and hinders, too). And I have too many interests/hobbies to ignore them all for very long, which also helps.

When I get stressed out, I put the computer away and then either 1) exercise, 2) make some tea and work on a fun craft project, 3) veg out with some Netflix, 4) do household chores, or 5) try to somehow combine those activities. It makes me feel better to decide "I am doing something else" and to go do it.

(I'm not sure if any of that made sense. I feel like I wandered away from your central point, there.)
Colleen said…
T. Scott - I completely understand - it's not like you can turn things off and on. To date I've failed at integrating everything well - when it comes to prioritizing, work *always* comes first, and it's the first thought I have before I even consider doing anything else. That's the habit, more than anything, I want to change.
Coral said…
I like the idea of "an integrated life."

I still think there's room for the concept of balance--but it's balance of activities that I seek, not balance of roles, or balance of "work" and "life."

I would hate to think that my work isn't part of my life, anyway.
Anonymous said…
I am glad to see a well-respected and fairly well-known librarian write this. It needs to be said. Too often, I've bumped against attitudes from other librarians because I am not completely consumed by my job. When working in social services, I learned the very hard lesson of the toll my job can take on my health if I allow myself to BE the job. When I changed careers, I was determined not to allow that to happen again.

When my work day ends, my work stays at work. Sometimes I do the reminder that I work as a librarian. While there are things that sometimes require immediate attention, I am not saving lives. It's a gentle reminder for me to keep perspective. While I am willing to do some committee work for groups not directly associated with the college, anything that is directly connected to my job gets my full attention when I am there, but usually no more time than that.

Personally, I've had to put together a to-do list of sorts of things away from work. Maybe it's a sign of age or too much going on in my brain, but I need a nudge sometimes to remind myself of other things I enjoy doing and to take time to do those things. While I get satisfaction from my job, it can also drain my energy and mental reserves. The "outside" activities help me recharge, unwind, and keep me from being a boring, one dimensional person. Even if it sometimes takes effort to get me out the door to do something other than work, it's always well-worth it.

As a result, I am stubborn about having time when I don't think about work. In the end, all areas of my life benefit.
Colleen said…
@Anonymous - One of my mentors and good friends often says that - "We're not saving lives. Nobody's going to die if you don't get to it." It's certainly a shot of reality that I appreciate (and need to remember!). I'm working on my non-work to-do list, which I think is an excellent idea.

I also have to say that I have a wonderful boss and colleagues who are supportive of my moving in this direction, which is terribly helpful.
Anonymous said…
This topic is one that doesn't get much attention because a lot of people are afraid to talk about it for fear they will be perceived as less dedicated to the profession.

I do not mean to stereotype an entire generation, but the attitude that work should be all consuming is quite common among Boomers. I am not sure why that is the case.

Work-life balance is an odd phrase and one that I am not entirely comforatable with. I tend to look at my life like a mosaic with all integrated parts. I would argue the fact that I am also an athlete and a novice jewelery artist both influence my work as a librarian and vice versa.

I am also tenure-tracking for the second time around in a more demanding environment(voluntarily left MFPOW after 4y). My current supervisor is very old school (near retirement) and there is an expectation that all my research be conducted on nights and weekends. It reminds me of the few times that I overstudied in college and ended up with a mediocre grade on an exam--diminishing marginal returns.

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