Our livelihood has been tied to our identity for a long time. Surnames such as Baker, Smith, Cooper, Cook… literally come from the label given to some ancestor who was in fact, a baker, a smith, a cooper, a cook.
The question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” might as well be, “who do you want to be when you grow up?”
Small talk very often begins with, “What do you do?”
Do you really want to know what I do? I daydream. I wash dishes and fold laundry. I listen to podcasts (a lot of them). Sometimes I write or draw. Sometimes I binge Netflix. I have thoughtful conversations with the love of my life.
Oh…and I get paid to coach people in fitness.
I could say I “am” a fitness coach. But I also “am” a writer, an artist, a musician, a philosopher, a teacher, a lover, a housekeeper, a friend, a father, an entrepreneur, a podcaster (currently between podcasts), a cook…
What we do is only a reflection, not a definition, of who we are.
Why does this matter? Well for starters, I’ve dealt with a lot of insecurity creeping up over the years with this tying of identity to vocation. Because if I say that I’m a writer, but I don’t get paid for it, I feel like I’m a failure as a writer, and by default, I “am” a failure. And by that standard, I’m a failure at almost everything I do or want to do.
Even if I take the financial equation out of it. We can look at production or quality and we still play a dangerous game of self-worthlessness. I’m an artist, but I’ve only drawn about a dozen times this past year. I’m a musician, but the last song I wrote is not great. Hell, I started writing it 10 months ago and I haven’t even finished it yet.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve sought a life of freedom. But what does that even mean?
The first time I can remember being asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I answered with a question, “What’s it called that Jacque Cousteau does?” I remember being glued to the T.V. every time one of his specials was being broadcast. He would traverse the dark depths of the oceans, discovering amazing creatures in previously unseen terrain. I was told he was a zoologist. So my answer became, “I want to be a zoologist.” Here’s where I was steered wrong: I didn’t really want to “be” a zoologist. I wanted to have the freedom to explore.
I might have just as easily said I want to be a starship captain. Picard was as much a role-model for me as Cousteau, but I knew the Starship Enterprise wasn’t real. It’s the freedom to explore I was after, not the identity of the job title.
Do I want to be an artist, musician, or writer? No. I want to create.
Do I want to be a fitness coach, a course leader, or a podcaster? No. I want to teach.
So where is my identity? Who am I? Who are you?
Is what you do the definition of who you are? If so, what happens when you change careers? Do you become someone else?
I suppose. But we are constantly becoming someone else. We are not static. That’s one reason we take photographs and keep journals. To be able to look back at the person we used to be. Last year’s me doesn’t exist. The job has little to do with that other than the amount of thought and time invested into it.
It’s a tough dichotomy. As a creative person, you put yourself into your work. The things you do are little pieces of who you are. But what if we turn the tables a bit? What happens if we look at it this way: My work doesn’t define me, I define my work.
Now all of a sudden I can take responsibility for what I create without it defining who I am. I’m free to fail without being a failure. If I draw something that sucks, I can take responsibility by learning from it to improve on the next one, but I need not define myself as an artist. Otherwise, I might be tempted to say, “I’m a failing artist who sucks at drawing.” Because that would be a lie. One masterpiece does not a master make. One shitty mistake doesn’t create a loser.
I wrote this piece back in December of 2018. I think it still holds true. We might benefit from detaching our identities from our occupations or vocations. But I will say one thing about your confidence and faith to pursue your vision for the future: Speaking about things that have not yet come to pass as if they are inevitable can be a powerful tool. A few months back, when people would ask what I’m “doing” now, I began to reply with; “I’m an author”.
It felt foolish, sort of show-boaty, and maybe even dishonest. But within a few months of telling people I was an author, I published my first book. If you’re practicing The Lyceum Method, you might play with this idea and begin to share some of your vision with people as if it’s already come into being (or, if it’s more honest, at least speak as if it’s imminent). If you’re not yet practicing The Lyceum Method, you can learn about it for free here, or buy my book here.