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Losing Your Identity

Back in 2009 our economy experienced an economic calamity that no one had seen since the 1930s. During that time I remember reading an interview with a man who worked in the commercial real estate business. His business had tanked and he was severely depressed. He was talking about how his happiness and self-worth as a man depended on how well his business was going. The individual conducting the interview then asked:

“So, does that mean you are only as worthwhile as your performance?”

The man responded, “Well I don’t like looking at it that way.”

“Is it true?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

In this very difficult time we are in, with our jobs, careers and businesses at stake, we must ask ourselves a key question. Does our self-worth rise or fall based on how well our work is going? With today’s economy cratering maybe this explains why so many adults are experiencing mental health problems.

Recently I read a wonderful little book that gives great insight into this issue. The title is Chop Wood, Carry Water. It is a fictional story about personal growth and development.

The main character in the story is a young man named John who has had a life-long dream of becoming a samurai archer. When he turns eighteen he buys a one-way ticket to an ancient city in Japan, intent on fulfilling his boyhood dream.

Upon arriving he learns that he is considered an apprentice and he meets his mentor, a wise old sensei named Akira. He also is stunned to learn his apprenticeship takes ten years.

John seeks to be the best archer in his class and outworks all of those in the program. In the process, his muscles do not get proper rest and he eventually suffers torn muscles in his shoulder. He must discontinue his training for eight weeks to give his shoulder time to heal. Of course he is devastated as this will put him far behind in his training.

Akira then imparts some very wise words to John. He asks:

“John, who would you be if everything you do was taken away from you?”

“What do you mean, Akira-sensei?”

“I mean that right now, you are not an archer. You can’t even shoot. So, who are you?”

John thought for a moment, becoming frustrated as he realized: he didn’t have a good answer.

Akira nodded, understanding. “Do not worry. Even I fall into this trap, John. It is so easy for me to get caught up in the results I get from working with people, to get lost in the work or in the response from my archers. I constantly have to remind myself that my value comes from who I am, not from what I do.

It is easy to feel like your value is much greater when your teams win, when you make a lot of money, when you experience great success in business. But it is just as easy to feel defeated and depressed when your teams aren’t winning, when your business is failing, and when it feels like you are failing at everything.

The truth is that your value is constant, it is priceless, and it never truly goes up or down based off of results or your performance. Your value comes from who you are, not from what you do. Every human being is infinitely priceless.

You are more than an athlete.

You are more than a parent, a brother, a daughter.

You are more than a coach.

You are more than a CEO.

You are more than a fast food worker.

When your identity gets wrapped up in what you do, it clouds every decision you make. It is easy to see some of the reasons that a person would make very compromising decisions when their identity comes from what they do. You must fight that instinct.”

John nodded, realizing the truth in his sensei’s words.

Akira stood to go, leaving John with this: “Here is my challenge for you during your time here, John. Find your identity in something that cannot simply be stripped away in a moment, but instead do the hard work of reminding yourself that your value comes from who you are. For me, and it took me a long time to grasp this, but my identity comes from being a child of God, and that He recklessly and unconditionally loves me.

Sociologist Charles Cooley said in his theory about the looking-glass self that a person gets his identity in life based on how the most important person in his life sees him.

What do you think would happen to a person’s life if Jesus Christ were the most important person in that person’s life? What if Jesus Christ were the audience we sought to please most? It would truly transform our lives because Jesus understands we are each of incredible value. We are of infinite worth to Him. He loves us with an everlasting love.


Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.

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