How the Things We Value Shape Our Identity 

Each of our companies has a set of values. These are listed on our websites, shared when new members join our teams, and put on posters around our offices. Those values guide us and shape the identities of our companies.

For instance, at GAN we have the value of “celebration”. When we describe the value we say that we “pop a cork when people reach greater heights – after all, getting stuff done doesn’t mean you have to be boring.”

When something deserves to be celebrated, we celebrate. We’ve been known for having 100 balloons randomly show up at our office and sending too many things to our colleagues’ homes. Our neighboring tenants get annoyed at the noise and frequency of our celebrations, telling us that it looks like we’re “always celebrating” to the point where we’re known as the “loud ones who seem to be happy a lot.”

This value of celebration guides our behavior—it tells us what to do when something good happens. Do we stop and “pop a cork” when something deserves to be celebrated? Yes.

This value also becomes part of our identity—how we’re known to others. Do our neighboring tenants find GAN characterized by celebration? Yes. 

And, while the idea of company values is something that we all know well, there is this idea of personal values that I don’t see referred to as much, if at all, especially in the startup world. Yet, we’re all characterized by the things we value. 

A Story of How The Things I Valued Were Revealed

Last July, I was sitting at a bar with David, one of my closest friends, when I just started crying. It was one of those ugly cries, where you don’t want anyone watching you. And yet, David and the bartender were able to see amazing tears come down my face.

It was brought on by something David asked. We were talking about work, and I was sharing how much I liked it and felt good at it. It felt like a really positive season. I was on my A-game and loved it.

But then, David, for whatever reason, said, “Pat, I know you’re good at your job. And I know you like your job. Do you also know that you’re loved?” 

My response was a mix of disbelief that he would ask something that simple (David, of course I’m loved – why would you ask that), followed by a deep response that came in the form of tears and a shock at how my body got emotional because of this question.

He had hit a nerve.

Digging In

Whenever I experience a deep emotional reaction, I wonder, “what’s going on here?”, and usually find myself talking with my counselor.

Over the last year, I’ve dug into this question of identity and slowly started to personally realize something that I came to understand years ago about company values. It’s that our values drive our behavior and slowly become our identity and that this is true for both our company and personal values. 

You see, at the time that David asked this question, I was feeling amazing about my work. I was hustling. I was performing. I was respected.

I was being known for all of the external things I was doing.

And yet, when David asked this question, he was really asking another question: Are you finding your worth outside of any of the external things you’re doing in the world? Are you known for something outside of what you do and how you’re perceived?

Unintended Consequences of Our Jobs Being Ultimate

For many of us who are high achieving people, I see this happen over and over again. We’re doing our jobs and we’re doing our jobs well. We find deep fulfillment and joy in our work. 

The problem is when our jobs (i.e., the external) become the only place we find fulfillment. At that point, our jobs quickly become something they were never intended to be—the ultimate (or main) source of our self-worth and identity. 

Unfortunately, whether we realize it or not, we’re using our jobs as a crutch and the thing that helps us feel loved and important. A Gallup Poll found that 50% of American workers find core identity in their job, and I would argue that number is higher.  

The problem is that it’s hard to separate our work (and how we show up in the world) from our identity because: 

  • We all ask each other what we do for a living. Especially in the knowledge economy where our worth seems to be tied to what our minds produce. 
  • We spend a lot of time at work. 
  • We’re graded on our performance and constantly evaluated at work. 
  • Bonuses and compensation are typically tied to performance. 

Then, we begin to have a talk track in our heads that sounds like, “once I get this raise, then I’ll be ok. Once I get that promotion, I’ll be ok. Once I have this person’s approval, I’ll be ok.” 

Slowly and subtly, our identity and worth become tied to what we do. And, we start thinking things like, “if this thing ends, does that mean I’m worthless?” 

This leads to many unintended consequences:

  • Deep anxiety when it feels like we’re not doing well at work or our job is going to end for whatever reason.
  • A focus on ourselves and the notion that we must find the strength within ourselves to persevere.
  • A firm hold on our jobs and responsibilities at all costs (relationships, time, etc.) 
  • Working many hours and burning out.
  • Mood affected by how good or productive the workday was. 

A New Way to Define Identity

That evening with my friend revealed that I was placing my identity in my work and the things that come with it. My identity was becoming rooted in external things like how I’m showing up for work, instead of internal truths that exist outside of my work performance. 

To get to a healthier place has required me to intentionally define what I truly value (outside of work), and what that says about who I am as a person. For me, this has meant believing that I am loved by a higher power and that I am a person on earth with a bigger purpose as a husband, dad, and friend. Work is a part of this larger picture, but it’s not the ultimate thing. 

I’ve become a different, lighter person through this process. I’m able to love other people much more because I don’t need their love to validate me. I’m able to be a better CEO because I don’t need GAN to provide a sense of worth that it was never supposed to provide in the first place. I’m able to hold my work, friendships, and marriage much more loosely because I’m not using them to fulfill a need I have to be loved.

That leads to me being able to love others and do my work with freedom, allowing each of the spheres in my life to get so much more of me than they would have ever had before.

How To Discover Your Personal Values?

If any of this resonates with you, I invite you to do the following as I’ve found this to be incredibly helpful for me personally.

1) Ask yourself what you value. The way you spend your time, money, and anxiety is a good indicator. Another way to think about it— if I lose ___, will I be ok? For example, if you lose the respect of your friends, will you be okay? If you lose your job title, will you be okay? If your answer is “no”, that’s probably where your identity is placed. 

2) Then ask, what are the lasting things that you value? Spend a good amount of time asking yourself where you can place your identity that will never go away. For me, it’s being loved by something bigger than and outside of myself. For you, it may be the realization that you will be loved by a spouse or friend if everything else in your life falls apart or fails. Or, no matter what happens, you still have unique gifts to offer the world. Defining what this looks like for you will make it possible to achieve so much peace amidst the ups and downs.

3) Remind yourself of that over and over again. As you start feeling anxiety over jobs, relationships, etc. it’s vital to keep reminding yourself of this. As these feelings come up, stop, take a breath, and remind yourself where your core value and worth lies.

4) Share your journey with someone else, whether that be a friend, partner, coach, or counselor. You will most likely be amazed at how receptive they are to hear what you’re working through.