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  • Aaron Zaslofsky

Wrestling with my professional identity

“Is this actually happening?” was a question I asked myself repeatedly. I had just completed the Hudson Institute of Coaching program to refine my skills as an executive coach. And I kept feeling I had lost something rather than gained the deep expertise, practice, and community that made Hudson’s training so special.

Here I had invested considerable time and money in service of the coaching clients who trust me with their vulnerabilities and career growth. And I had lost the connection to my proud identity as a self-taught coach. (I would voice the last sentence in my head over and over – sometimes with a ? and other times with a !)

I had reveled in being one-of-a-kind as a coach who hadn’t formally trained and forged his own path. I was going on instinct, how I was raised, and the power in questions I had discovered early in my career. I was fiercely proud that large companies hired me to coach senior executives based on my ability as a coach, not formal education. This was an ethos I admired from my time at McDonald’s, which tasked some without college degrees – let alone advanced degrees – to run billion-dollar P&Ls. McDonald’s wasn’t about formal credentials, and neither was I. That’s what I told myself.

But now that I had formal training and International Coaching Federation certification, I didn’t know who I was as a coach anymore. What the hell was going on here?

As I worked with my own coach, I came to realize that my identity was changing from being a self-taught one-of-a-kind to one of thousands with the same training. I hadn’t agreed to this change, but it was happening either way :) As an aside, others didn’t feel this way, but I certainly did. The head and heart are places of complexity and contradictions, after all.

The movement in my identity required a change in how I understand myself and tell my literal story. I now needed to tell my story as a self-taught coach AND as a trained coach. To my great surprise, I rediscovered my one-of-a-kind by combining two compelling stories into one. It wasn’t one or the other, which I had convinced myself of initially. It was both, and also easier said than done.

Serendipitously, I found affirmation in a book I read during my coach training: Working Identity by Herminia Ibarra. She said, “we really only know someone when we know their stories – the underlying narratives that lend meaning, unity, and purpose to their lives. The same is true of knowing ourselves.”

To be sure, my new identity and the story behind it really matters. It determines whether my business prospers or falters, along with my family’s financial fortunes.

Upon quiet reflection and loud experimentation telling my new story, I channeled something I tell our three kids. “The same is boring – be different.” Much to their chagrin, I say this to Nora, Julia, and George often. My intent is to make being different not only acceptable, but appealing in a world where the same is safe and, I thought, boring.

Now I was giving this personal identity advice to myself as I reclaimed my professional story as a one-of-a-kind. I’ll spare you how I differentiate myself so this doesn’t read like a pitch.

My job from here is to live the mantra I share with our kids: the same is boring – be different. Although now I realize the mistake in thinking that being different is the only way to avoid being boring. There’s power in sameness when it’s special like the Hudson training I undertook. There’s also power in what makes me unique as a self-taught coach. But the real power is in combining the two identities, and stories from each.

Because as Herminia Ibarra said, “change always takes much longer than we expect because to make room for the new (identity), we have to get rid of some of the old selves we are still dragging around and, unconsciously, still invested in becoming.”

Identity lesson learned for myself and for my clients.

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