I often wonder in other countries and time periods if “So, what do you do?” is the first question anyone asks when they meet someone new… because in 2018 America, it sure is.
It doesn’t take a well-trained sociologist to say why, either: Our culture is OBSESSED with work, for better or worse, and so much of our identities are wrapped up in our careers. As a result, we’re desperate to know what everyone else is doing with their time.
And when you decide, on what may seem like a whim, to upend your own identity overnight and switch careers in a very open way, you feel like you lost a big part of yourself.
(I’m saying you but, really, I mean me.)
In that switch, I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the toll that dropping the one, solid, foundational identity I had built for 3 decades would take. As I peeled back the layers and really examined how I defined myself before, a few somewhat ugly themes emerged:
- Success was very, very important.
- Intelligence, and the prestige that comes with being intelligent, was also very, very important.
- How other people viewed me – as successful and intelligent – was the most, most, most important.
Those beliefs most likely come from being a gifted, naturally smart kid who didn’t have to work too hard and who was told, by everyone, that my future had no limits… I could do whatever I wanted. And what I wanted was influenced by what all of those people, and everyone in general, deemed successful and important: an impressive career in business, law, etc., like I saw on TV, read about in books, and internalized. Being smart was, above all else, the best way to be… and I had to live into that state of being to be valued.
Woof. Right? That’s a lot of pressure.
(A quick aside here to say that I have 2 very, very loving parents who never pressured me to be anything other than myself. They let me quit sports, dance around the house in tap shoes, cover my dollhouse in stickers – not really, I got in trouble for that – build imaginary playhouses in trees, read books and watch tv in equal measure, eat Lucky Charms for breakfast and apples for snacks, study what I wanted in college, and move in the world in the way that suited me best. That pressure to achieve was all of my own doing.)
What they don’t tell you about changing your life to “follow a dream” and become a new, better you is that it’s really hard to give up the person you were, even when you know it isn’t making you happy. It doesn’t happen the moment you take the leap, or when you walk out of the office for the last time… it certainly doesn’t mean the old you isn’t always just below the surface, not-so-patiently waiting to climb back up and make you feel safe and secure. She’s the voice who whispers in your ear when you’re trying to sleep to remind you that for all the brave, confident faces you wear and things you say, you’re actually still mostly terrified. Because without all of the things you worked so, so hard to do, you aren’t really sure who you are.
(Again, you… but, really, me.)
But, ah, there’s the truth of it: I don’t want to be defined by all of the things I worked so hard to DO and ACHIEVE. I want to be defined by who I AM BEING out in the world. And while they are linked, they aren’t the same.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’ve enrolled in a course to become a certified wellness coach and begin a new venture of helping others create the lives they want to live. As part of the course, we spend 20-30 minutes a week doing practice sessions with the other coaches in training, meaning I get to be coached by an array of compassionate, thoughtful fellow students regularly – and it’s awesome.
I often enter a session not really sure what’s on my mind, and by the end I’ve broken down some scary wall that I didn’t even know was there. Last week, as I babbled about stressors and time management, what actually came pouring out was this real hang-up I still have about telling people what it is that I do. (See, the opening had a point!)
When I had a corporate job, it was easy to answer “What do you do?” There is no vulnerability in saying you’re a marketing strategist and analyst. But now, when I meet new people, often colleagues of my engineer husband, I stumble through some combination of “I quit my marketing job in June to pursue other interests… I freelance write and edit for online media… I still work part-time at my old job… I also teach yoga and fitness classes, which I love… yadayadyada.”
It’s dumb. Why do I do that? (Oh right. See above for all the reasons and wave hello to the old me who’s smiling maniacally just out of frame.)
If I’m going to ask my clients, and my students, to give up their insecurities and replace them with strength and confidence, to walk into their lives with heads high and hearts open, then HOLY SHIT I SHOULD BE DOING IT MYSELF.
There is absolutely, positively no room for shame in following your dream and building the life you want to live… none.
All that pressure I put on myself to be important and impressive, by doing and achieving things according to other people’s standards, ends today.
In that big, beautiful coaching moment, my coach and I brainstormed answers to the question: “What do you do?”
As a well-documented “doer” (Enneagram number 3, through and through), I wanted to be able to answer with tangible things: I write. I work. I teach. All non-messy actions that anyone can accept and understand.
But as a person trying to live authentically, I really need to answer to that question as “Who are you?” instead.
What we came up with, in no particular order:
- I am a habitual follower of my passions.
- I empower people to follow their dreams.
- I’m not defined by my title.
- I am learning to redefine myself by who I am.
- I teach people to live authentically through leading by example.
I am not defined by my title or the amount of my paycheck or affirmations from other people that what I’m doing is acceptable. I am, at my very center, a human being who is just trying to let the spark inside me shine. I’m choosing to find a way to empower others through powerful inquiry, yoga, meditation, and coming home to their bodies, through writing, through expressing myself creatively, and, through expanding my own knowledge and intelligently sharing it with others.
On my vision board (yesssss) are 3 of the most powerful words I want to live by: Do and Be. I want to be able to answer “What do you do?” in a way that really reflects both: Who I am informs what I do, and what I do reflects who I am.
Do and Be.
And next time someone asks me what I do, instead of apologizing for being myself, I’m going to say: “I am following my passion as a wellness entrepreneur, building my own business of coaching, teaching, and writing. I empower people to create their own happiness and live authentically in my own.”