top of page

Post #10 (VaYishlach) - "Your name shall no longer be Jacob" -- Finding your career identity

"The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are." - C. G. Jung

"Said he, 'Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed.'” Genesis 32:29.

On his journey back to his father's home, Jacob feared Esau's making good on his threat to kill him 22 years earlier. Preparing for this anxiety-ridden reunion with his brother Esau, Jacob pulled out all the stops: He sent generous gifts ahead to Esau, divided his family and entourage into two camps to minimize potential losses, and prayed fervently to God, reminding Him of His promise to protect him when he returned to his father's home. Jacob was again anxious, partly because he feared he might no longer be worthy of God's bounty.[1]

Jacob had a long history of difficult transitions and an inclination to flee from confrontation. He had been the perpetrator as well as the victim of devious means to survive and advance. In fact, the night before encountering Esau, Jacob appeared to be backing out, preparing to retreat with his family and possessions back across the Jabbok stream.[2] When alone, Jacob found himself accosted by a mysterious "man," who struggled with him until daybreak.[3] Just before dawn, Jacob had the upper hand, despite having sustained an injury in his thigh. Before Jacob agreed to release the stranger, he was determined to extract a blessing from him. The man then informed Jacob that his name would no longer be Jacob but, from now on, Israel because he has "striven with beings divine and human and have prevailed."[4]

This mysterious encounter has been interpreted in many ways. Some assert 'the man' must have been God's messenger (depicted in many biblical paintings as a winged angel), perhaps a messenger affiliated with Esau, or God's way of intervening to block Jacob's retreat and compelling him to proceed to face his brother. Others see this encounter more deeply as Jacob struggling with himself, seeking to resolve the complexities of his own identity:

  • Would Jacob's survival always depend on fleeing from threats and avoiding confrontation?

  • Was this to be the profile of the leader of the Hebrew nation?

  • Would Jacob's intelligence and creativity be used only to deceive his opponents rather than confront them directly and take charge?

Overcoming his opponent in this physical struggle seemed to have given Jacob the confidence to recognize untried skills and an enhanced self-image to his repertoire, even though it cost him a limp. Thus, even coming out on top when confronting life's challenges can't always guarantee surviving without a scratch.

This event was a watershed moment in Jacob's career as a leader. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees the enigmatic narrative surrounding Jacob's encounter with his brother Esau as a path to determining his identity: "It is as if the man said to him, 'In the past, you struggled to be Esau, In the future, you will struggle not to be Esau but to be yourself…Now let go of Esau so that you can be free to hold on to God.'"[5]

Perhaps Jacob's triumph, along with incurring his injury, was symbolic in that throughout the remainder of the Book of Genesis, "Jacob" and "Israel” are used interchangeably, sometimes even in the same verse![6] Being true to one's authentic identity carries many rewards, but it may not always be cost-free. We are left to speculate if these switching monikers are symbolic references to different aspects of Jacob's complex identity.


We've certainly heard the adage: "Choose a job you like and you will never have to work a day in your life!" This quotation has been ascribed to Confucius, Mark Twain, Tony Bennett, and 'unknown,' among others. Our career identity can be acquired and strengthened over time and modified over the years as our interests and external conditions change.

I have met many career clients who were frustrated with their work situation and sought retraining. After a bit of probing regarding how their initial career decisions were made, we often find they made a quick decision without fully exploring other options. One young man came to me asking what careers are in demand now. I told him the truth--over the past couple of years there has been a growing demand for multilingual legal secretaries in Tel-Aviv (we were speaking in Jerusalem)! After noticing a couple of raised eyebrows, we both came to realize that other factors unique to him would need to be explored to make a career choice. Indeed, career decisions, such as what and where to study, are frequently made (too) quickly to ease the distress of mulling over several options.

Many internet tools can help individuals through career deliberations and sharpen their considerations of the components of their ideal or optimal job. For instance, the nature of the work sector may be as critical for the individual as the job responsibilities (clerical work in a hospital differs in many important ways from clerical work in a garage). Individuals who thrive on directly helping people should politely decline a "promotion" to manage or supervise others, as the new position would distance them from their true love--interacting with clientele.

One tool I have found helpful in career counseling and coaching, especially for mid-career clients, is Edgar Schein's Career Anchors concept and questionnaire.[7] A career anchor is based on work motives derived from one's experience, proven skills, self-concept, and other factors, comprising the work value one would be loath to relinquish. This concept can be advantageous when having to compromise on employment options so that even individuals who may want to "have it all" will be able to focus on the "must-haves." Another conceptual advantage in the context of our turbulent job market is that these anchors are not necessarily tied to specific job titles. Thus job titles and formats may come and go, but one's anchor can remain relevant in the long term. In this approach, Schein identified eight key anchors:

  • Technical/functional competence These individuals enjoy cultivating their expertise in specific tasks and content areas and are happy to advance their competence.

  • General managerial competenceThese individuals enjoy assuming responsibility for staff and work processes. This anchor can be applied in a variety of content areas.

  • Autonomy/independence These people trust themselves and need to be trusted without imposing too much direction or interference.

  • Security/stability These individuals value stable jobs and like to avoid change and turbulence. They usually don't look over their shoulder for better opportunities.

  • Entrepreneurial capabilityThese people enjoy opportunities to express their creativity within an organization or start their own. They can lead a team and explore innovations.

  • Service/dedication to a cause These individuals are motivated to help others. As people-persons, they can be valuable for direct contact with colleagues, customers, employees, and other served clientele.

  • Pure challenge – These individuals enjoy being continually challenged to resolve problems and obstacles. They may be an asset to high-change organizations and could tire in a stagnant workplace.

  • Life StyleThese individuals value their non-working hours with family, travel opportunities, and hobbies. They seek workplaces that facilitate integrating these values with job responsibilities, such as valuing a workplace requiring only a minimal commute.

Points to Ponder:

  • Exploring career anchors at mid-career is particularly valuable as a tool to help derive insights from your work history, thus facilitating making better career decisions in the future. For example, as you review your job history, has it been critical for you to become a go-to expert and advance in some skill close to your heart (technical/functional competence), or has it been enough to be associated with an organization committed to enhancing others' well-being (service/dedication to a cause)? Take seriously others' feedback to you, especially when they repeatedly turn to you for a particular skill. Take note of what you are doing when you feel the time zipping by. Identify patterns in jobs you have enjoyed or projects you felt excited about. Those 'highs' will help you pinpoint the anchor you want to maximize in future employment.

  • A key aspect of these anchors is that they focus on one's meta-skill or value rather than on particular occupations. Thus, a person valuing general managerial competence would enjoy being given the responsibility to lead a staff or a department. That person, then, would able to transfer their managerial competence to other departments or organizations without having to be tied to a particular subject area.

  • Try this: Once you have identified your career anchor, you may find that your anchor is not fully congruent with your current job. Short of changing jobs, you may seek ways to modify your position to allow you to exercise those job functions closer to your anchors. For instance: 'Service/dedication to a cause' individuals in the 'wrong' job could take up protecting the rights of the cleaning staff or offering assistance to new mothers during their maternity leave. A 'pure challenge' individual could volunteer to explore solutions for a seemingly impenetrable obstacle raised at a recent staff meeting. A 'security/stability' person could ask to be tasked with ensuring all employee guidelines are broadly disseminated and consistently enforced. You get the idea: Seek to re-design your job by engaging in activities that may not have been in your original job description but can produce a win-win situation, with all parties benefiting.

[1] Gen. 32:11. [2] Gen. 32:23–24. [3] Gen. 32:25. [4] Gen. 32:29. [5] Sacks, J. (2009). Covenant and conversation: A weekly reading of the Jewish Bible. Genesis-The book of beginnings (p. 227). Maggid Books and the Orthodox Union.

[6] "God called to Israel in a vision by night: 'Jacob! Jacob!' He answered, 'Here I am.'” Genesis 46:2. [7] Career Anchors Questionnaire:


bottom of page