How to survive an identity earthquake

Imagine you could build your identity using Lego bricks.

One component at a time.

Ivy League degree? Ya smart cookie!

Marathon runner? What a resilient fella!

Board member? Soooo charitable.

TriBeCa apartment? Cha-ching.

Now let’s smash it to the ground with sledge hammer.

Are you OK?

The curious case of Andrew Luck

Andrew Luck had all the bricks in place.

He’s the son of an NFL Quarterback.

A Stanford Degree.

The Number 1 Overall Draft Pick of the 2012 NFL Draft.

6 Playoff appearances.

A surefire pick for the Hall of Fame.

Until he took a sledgehammer to his identity during his 7th year in the NFL.

Have you had an identity quake?

Blowing up your identity is not for the faint of heart.

Identities are the scaffolding of social relationships and status.

They let you scream to others “I’m smart” or “I’m rich” or “I’m powerful” – without ever opening your mouth.

So when you blow up an identity – the aftermath is gonna be painful and disorienting.

Imagine going from Partner to Laid Off Partner.

Or from Stanford GSB Grad to Stay at Home Parent.

Or from Managing Director to Newsletter Writer.

Who am I (without football)?

“How do you fall out of love with something you loved?”

Andrew Luck loved football.

Or he thought he did.

But it also brought out his worst instincts.

First, he wanted to control a game that was full of randomness. And while that worked in college, it did NOT work in the NFL.

He ran offensive meetings as a pseudo-coach.

He went to bed at 9:52 pm on the dot.

He turned down lucrative endorsement deals fearing they would detract from his motivation.

He had a flip phone (in 2013) to minimize all distractions.

In one of his few interviews after his retirement, he told ESPN reporter Seth Wickersham:

“To play quarterback, you’re not allowed to worry about anything except the task at hand. And that seeps into other areas of life. It’s not the healthiest way to live.”

When the juice ain’t worth the squeeze

But that wasn’t it. It turned out that the juice may not have been worth the squeeze.

As was the case with his quarterback brethren Tom Brady, football was impacting his marriage.

Like many high-performers, Luck had a trusted tool in his psychological toolkit: shutting down emotionally.

Despite feeling scared, panicked and anxious about football — he’d put up emotional guardrails between him and his wife Nicole Pechancova.

And she was losing patience.

“I didn’t have a place to contribute because Andrew wouldn’t communicate,” Pechancova said.

Heading for the exits

Eventually, the injuries to Luck’s throwing shoulder would take too much of a toll on him. He couldn’t take it anymore. And at the ripe (and prime) age of 29 he quietly considered retirement.

The identity earthquake.

He told Wickersham that the spotlight of the NFL made him squirm, made him want to break out of a “story that felt written,” he says. There was a media narrative that he led a limitless life — that he could have been an architect, or engineer, or scientist, if he wanted — when his life was actually fiercely constrained.

He was trapped in a prison of his own making.

And it was time to pull the plug.

One day during training camp, he confessed to his teammate Anthony Castanzo that he’d been ruminating on the deeply philosophical question, “Who am I?”

Luck was realizing that he was much more than an elite football player.

He was a husband. A father-to-be. He had a degree in architecture. He had experienced the roller coaster of praise and criticism — enough to know that neither of those things really mattered.

Castanzo reflected on this conversation with Luck:

“It was admirable that he was able to see the bigger picture. For him to continue on in his life as a quarterback, he would have essentially expected it to be Andrew’s World, and every relationship in his life would cater to Andrew’s World, which is not the person he wanted to be.”

As a retired NFL quarterback, Luck still works through the process of rebuilding his identity.

With the help of therapy, he’s tried to break out of the narratives he has about himself:

Why did he derive so much of his net worth from football?

What did it mean to be tough?

Was his retirement exemplar of a lack of toughness?

Or was it actually courage few could imagine?

Luck’s still grieving the loss of his football identity – whilst having the “clarity that [he] doesn’t need more clarity.”

Will he ever get full closure on this chapter?

“I doubt I will ever find the answers,” he says. “All of them. Or any answers.”

Are you having an identity quake?

If you’re an executive or founder undergoing a career change – you know that an identity quake loomsApply to our coaching programs for frameworks, accountability and a peer group to help you navigate this transition.

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