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Agility & Identity:
“I am a software engineer. Or am I?”

As to how we finance our livelihoods, one common way to talk about it is to state our occupation as a part of our identity: “I am a software engineer.” “I am a teacher.” “I am an accountant.” “I am a cleaner.” “I am a road builder.” As so-called “minorities” we are considered “exceptions to the norm”, and so hardly ever fully identifying with our job(s). That’s why we use the term “minorities” in this context in the first place. And yet, we tend to say it like it is expected: “I am a [insert job title here].” And I believe we often do not mean it the way the “mainstream” does:

As “minorities”, we are not granted the same level of default belonging to a certain profession as the “mainstream”. We had more trouble staying on a specific career path. And we had to first break some “glass ceilings”, and/or it did not occur to us early on that that specific career path was interesting and tangible for us, so we switched careers along the way. Our relationship with occupational identity (or identities) is hence looser than, for instance, if we had the same job as our parent(s).

At the same time, when we’re demographically speaking part of an “in-group” by default, we keep being surprised by the very presence of “others” in our professional circle. The cognitive dissonance is almost inevitable. When we are part of the “mainstream”, and followed “straight-forward” career paths, we went “with the flow”, with a relative ease that we are unable to even perceive.

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

David Foster Wallace, This Is Water, 2005

Our ease when navigating the mainstream unfortunately tends to be mistaken for “natural talent” or competence. There may be a correlation without causation though. Talent is not mutually exclusive with working a job that society readily assigns to “people like us”, of course. Nevertheless, no one succeeded in any domain without some support. And that is coming from privilege: we will always find someone who did not have access to what we had despite their smarts and best efforts. Also, we all needed luck.

Our successes are always rooted in 1) having access, 2) doing many things right, 3) having luck along the way.

Meritocracy, sadly, does not exist (yet?).

Furthermore, being told – directly or indirectly – that some talent is “natural” to some and we’re not “like them” gives us self-doubts. Self-doubts make us more likely to move away from something.

And so, if we do not get the opportunity to merge our work identity with our overall personal identity, we are more likely to not follow the well-trodden paths, avoiding obstacles on our way by going other ways.

The fact that marginalised people are more likely to be career switchers is not only due to us working our way up the social ladder, nor because some obstacles blocked our way forward on “straight” paths. It is also because we are more likely to have learned how to switch gear, how to change our plans, and to adapt to unfamiliar environments.

The more we learn how to get out of hard or even dead-end situations, the more we know how to make drastic changes in our career as well. With a bit of luck, we get more agile.

Bruce Lee Blindfolded Chi Sao (source unknown)

I think it makes sense. Do you?

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