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From a very young age we are asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” As adults we get asked all the time “What do you do for a living?” It seems that in our society we are constantly under pressure to identify with our job and use it as the primary way we define ourselves. Throughout our years of schooling and at every step along the way of our careers there is never any room for doubt about our chosen path. That is, until life steps in.

The economic hardships that have overwhelmed the country in the past year have also wreaked havoc on individuals who have lost their jobs, been demoted, or had to deal with major restructuring in their work environments. Carefully constructed identities have been dashed to pieces, leaving hundreds of thousands of people feeling lost and insecure. Coping with life transitions, even those which we can see coming, is a challenge. Human beings tend to seek stability, routine and security. When things change it can be a terrifying experience.

However, if you look at changes the right way, they can end up being catalysts for personal growth and development. Even the most intelligent people can fall prey to society’s superficial ideals. We become attached to exterior things and identify with possessions, income or success. But if those things are suddenly lost we find an opportunity to connect with something deeper within us. Coping with life transitions can end up being more than just making it through a rough patch; it can be about evolving into a better person.

So many times we find ourselves working so hard in one direction and never have the chance to question whether or not we’re really happy. When we have changes in our lives—things like losing a job, getting a divorce, our kids growing up and moving out, or relocating to a new city—we have an opportunity to shift our paradigm and re-evaluate what we really want out of life.

Living Life Outside-In

Let’s face it; we live in a world of mega-advertising. Everything shouts, “Buy me!” As kids we “needed” to have the most fashionable clothing with “right” labels, the latest technological device, the most popular CDs, DVDs, etc. As adults we have to live the best neighborhoods, the classiest car, and the same label-consciousness that we had as kids. We define ourselves by our stuff. I remember when I was a teenager back in the 1950s when boys defined themselves by the car they drove; we used the term “4-wheel personality”.

We strive to be part of the “in crowd”, to be popular, to be similar to the celebrities whom we admire, carrying the belief that if we have the same stuff that they have, we too will be admired. Or at the very least, we will not be outcasts. We carry this idea forward to our careers and jobs, defining ourselves by the work we do, “I am a physician, lawyer, plumber, contractor, artist.” We are what we do. But what happens when we no longer have a job or when we cannot perform the work due to an injury? What happens when we cannot buy the stuff we so cherish or covet? What happens when we lose our income or our possessions? Who are we then?

When we define ourselves by the money we earn, the jobs we hold, the car we drive, the clubs to which we belong, the clothes we wear, we our living our lives from the outside-in. These things define who we are. Often, without them, we feel empty or lost. We don’t know who we are. The danger of living our lives outside-in is these things can easily and suddenly disappear. They can be taken away.

Witness, for example, the economic debacle that began in 2008 with the virtual collapse of the banking industry, the housing market, and the stock market. We precipitously fell into a major economic recession dubbed “the Great Recession of the 20th Century.” What happened to all of those people who lost their homes, their cars, their jobs, and their wealth? People of all economic levels, educated or not, lost everything. When we define ourselves outside-in we are putting ourselves in a precarious position. Perhaps that is one of the lessons we could learn from the Great Recession.

We’d like to believe that we have absolute control over our lives, but in reality, we do not. The only thing we have control over is how we respond to the world outside of ourselves.

How We Got There

UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders, said “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” He was trying to motivate his players to give their all to winning the game. His approach morphed over the years to mean win by whatever means possible and that if you did not win, you were a loser. Athletes began to focus on winning at all cost. Less emphasis was placed on the concept of sportsmanship and how one played the game, with more emphasis being placed on the end result.

Since men ruled the economic world in those days, sports metaphors became legion in industry. The winning game became all important as companies competed with one another for the consumer’s dollars. The golden rule became, “he who has the most gold wins.” Corporations began to focus more on the bottom-line and less on the quality of their product, less on the integrity of the company, and less on the needs of their employees. This transformation did not take place over night. It was a gradual shift in values occurring over decades, culminating in a society that put more emphasis on living one’s life outside in than on the human qualities and social values that had previously defined us. Movie stars were elevated to celebrity status rather than being simply theatrical performers. They became among the highest paid workers. We admired their wealth and their stuff. We wanted to be like them. What could be more outside in than being in a costume, wearing makeup, and reading scripted lines written by someone else to define a character? Rather than admiring and wishing to emulate people of great moral, intellectual, or spiritual character who literally change the world for the better, we elevate actors to the highest levels.

It seemed that only persons who were still thinking about such concepts as human values, morality, sportsmanship, building character were our clerics. The ministers, rabbis, pastors, and priests of all religious persuasions preached about the importance of living a righteous life, the importance of living a life based on who we were on the inside, rather than defining ourselves by the material we own. They were teaching us to live our lives inside out. They were trying to tell us that who we are mattered more than what we were going to be when we grew up. But we seldom listened to this sage advice.

Living Life Inside Out

Clerics, philosophers, and recently, psychologists have been trying to teach that a healthier, and in the long run, more productive way of living our lives is to so by living according to an internal compass provided by a set of values. These values, they teach, should be based on principals that honor the self and contribute toward creating a more just society.

Most people would agree that the when building a house you should do so with a complete set of plans. A carefully designed and maintained house has a greater chance of surviving the elements over the course decades. People would also agree that the foundation is the most important part of a house. A house built on a solid foundation will endure. A beautiful appearing house, built on a weak foundation and without careful planning, will be nothing more than a facade likely to crumble at the first tremble of the earth.

Similarly, when we consider building a life we should start with the foundation. Developing a set of principles to which we are committed will serve as a guide and become part of the foundation. These principles along with an attendant set of values that we honor become the core of our self-definition. We can define ourselves by these pri
nciples and values which permeate every aspect of our lives. This core affects how we live our lives, what we do, how we interact with the world, our relationships, and even influence the career or job we choose. When we define ourselves in this manner, no one can take who we are away from us. We can give up our core if we choose to, but no circumstance can take our core away from us. This core will determine how we respond to adversity and to circumstances outside of us.

Victor Frankl, MD, in his classic work, Man’s Search for Meaning, a powerful, little book describing his experiences being an inmate in the concentrations camps of Germany during WWII, tells us that the Nazis can take away our food, clothing, our possessions, and careers, but not our dignity as human beings. Our attitude about our circumstances and how we choose to deal with them is within our control.

Returning to my analogy to constructing a home, this core set of principles and values become the foundation of our life and define us. We then can build a life based on this foundation. Such a life, similar to the rooms in a house, might include personal and intellectual growth, spirituality, health and fitness, recreation, community service, family and friends, career/job, and finance. Each of these rooms of our life is empowered by and connected to our foundation or core. No one room defines us. Rather, each room becomes an extension of our core in the world and represents our core in action. The core is stable over time, like the foundation of the house; the rooms can be re-modeled.

Living our life from the inside out is empowering. You go to a party and someone asks, “What do you do?” You respond by describing what you do in the various rooms of your life, beginning with those over which you have the maximum control. Even if you have a an empty career/job room and an empty finance room, you still have a life. And your core is intact. Who you are matters!

[Please add your thoughts and experiences on this topic in the comment section of this blog.  This blog is intended as a forum for folks to raise issues, share experiences, and promote dialogue on important issues of contemporay life.   Please sign up as a Facebook Fan at www.docdreyfus.com/fanpage. For additional information about me and my practice, please visit my website at www.DocDreyfus.com. ]