Finding myself under seven hats

I spent my entire post-MBA, pre-PhD career working for one employer, and in the course of those twelve years, became quite the “company man”. I built a large network of friends and colleagues, represented the company at countless external conferences, and even had a terrifying collection of company-branded swag. (At one point I was forbidden from bringing any more branded things into our home, under threat of divorce.)

So imagine how difficult it was for me to say goodbye to that company and set out on a new path about a year ago. The timing was right — I’d finished my Ph.D., and had just dealt with my father’s death and my own ensuing health struggles in the aftermath — and I was ready to have a fresh start, personally and professionally. When presented with the opportunity to do something different, I stepped into a world very different than my usual. I started working as a part-time consultant, helping new clients every few weeks, and began teaching as an adjunct faculty member at several universities. I was embracing the notion of the gig economy, where workers take short-term assignments with little job security but a lot more flexibility.

I’ve certainly enjoyed the flexibility: I love the idea that I can decide to take an impromptu trip overseas when a ridiculous airfare sale appears. I relish the freedom to decide that I’m going to attend a conference, because I want to, and I don’t need to ask anyone’s permission. And I confess, I’m a little smug that I almost never set an alarm clock to wake me up in the morning. (Working for yourself has its perks.)

This comes with its own challenges, of course. I’m struggling to remember the last day that I didn’t put in at least a couple of hours of work. With teaching multiple courses simultaneously from different universities, it’s tough to keep track of where I am in any given school’s academic calendar. And the consulting work has sometimes been feast-or-famine, where I’ll spent a month or two desperate for assignments and then find myself buried under several at once. Still, it feels like meaningful work, and I’m happy with the contributions that I’m making.

My daily work life

There’s a bigger concern, though, which has only recently started becoming apparent to me. I’m struggling with the notion that, professionally speaking, it’s tough to know who I am. After twelve years of firmly identifying with one employer, having seven of them currently (between teaching and two different Diversity & Inclusion organizations) is keeping my head spinning. Even the tiny logistical things like which email address to use and which business card to give out is difficult.

I’ve taken some steps to try to limit this. As I noted in my recent post Adjunct Paralysis, I’m now only actively teach at three universities (declining new assignments at the other two). I’ve had to regretfully tell one of my D&I organizations that I just don’t have the capacity to reliably get them the content that they are looking for. And I’m trying to build a stronger focus on the gigs that make the most sense for me, professionally and personally.

In a Harvard Business Review article published last week, the authors of “The Hardest Thing About Working in the Gig Economy? Forging a Cohesive Sense of Self” share a few practical tips for how to go about keeping your professional sanity in this kind of work structure. Some of their content doesn’t really apply to me — I don’t, for instance, struggle with discouraging feedback from people who don’t appreciate the independent contractor lifestyle. But their advice about focusing on each job individually until you feel strongly engaged, and then finding common threads between them, resonated strongly with me. (My LinkedIn profile header says it all: Diversity & Inclusion practitioner and educator.)

Ultimately, though, it’s their third piece of advice that really struck me: embrace having multiple professional identities. I focus on this not so much because I like it, but because I realized how strong a negative reaction I had to it. Sure, this is probably great advice for many people, but I recoiled at the notion, and that spoke volumes to me. Clearly, I have a strong need for affiliation, the desire to feel a sense of belonging with a an employer or a group. For my career, I’ve concluded that this means I really need to have a “primary” organizational affiliation, rather than a series of multiple scattered ones. At least, that’s what I feel that I need at this point.

I hope to have good news to share soon, about the potential of focusing my work attention on one employer. Yes, I hope to keep the occasional “side gig” of D&I consulting or dissertation coaching, but I see this as complementing, rather than contradicting, my professional identity. More on that in the coming weeks, hopefully.

For now, though, it’s time to get back to work… just as soon as I figure out which hat I’m picking up next.

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