“What do you do?”

February 24, 2011

I seem to run into a somewhat unexpected issue when confronted with this very typical question.

My default is to say, “Oh I’m an audio engineer,” and launch into the narrative I’ve developed over the last several years — what it means, where I work, my aspirations, sometimes my philosophies surrounding sound and picture (depending on how receptive an audience I have). It’s a lovely little spiel that invariably satisfies and often even impresses the inquirer.

The problem is that it’s actually quite reductive, in an increasingly restrictive way.

Yes, I am an audio engineer. But I’m also an aspiring writer. I am a major part of running a small business. I’m a casting director, an intern educator, a client wrangler. I practice yoga. I run. I bike. I read. I explore the life around me and think about abstract things. I spend a somewhat inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to make the world better.

But beyond all of this is the fact that none of these things I do indicate why I do them or what my guiding philosophies are. There is no arc, only facts.

I value education and consider it to be one of the most empowering forces in the world, but believe most people don’t receive the education they deserve. I care very much about economic inequality and its repercussions throughout society. I love people and want them to be content, but am often frustrated by them.

I adore a good cup of tea, homemade bread, and Christmas trees.

There is so much more. I am complex.

Roughly 3% of even this much comes across when I reach for my current script though. I recently spoke with someone who exists as I currently only aspire to; who does amazing, selfless, world-changing work. But when he asked me about myself, I once again defaulted to the usual, and completely missed an opportunity to establish a connection that could have been tremendously valuable as I navigate my transition from a world like mine to a world more like his.

So I’ve come to think about how we’re so seldom encouraged to actually specifically put together an identity. It’s ridiculously easy to come up with a general outline that covers the socially-accepted big bases — Job? Check. Kids? Nope. House? Nope. College? Check. Spouse? Nope. Adhering to this simple checklist of sorts will satisfy just about everyone every time.

But it is an undeserved simplification. We’re all more.

Break out. Right now. Take a few moments to summarize yourself. Your activities, your beliefs, your goals, your accomplishments. It’s a powerful exercise because it sets the building blocks of our selves completely out in the open. Maybe you spend your days at a job you hate, then go home and veg — but don’t realize it. It doesn’t feel like you’re wasting your days away, so you don’t really consciously recognize that that’s what’s happening. Or perhaps you’re on the other end of the spectrum, constantly on fire, moving from one activity to the next and the next, but never take a moment to look at all you’ve done and give yourself a modicum of credit.

It’s wildly easy to move through one day without being bored, without considering anything but your moment-to-moment existence. And one day leads to another… It’s one of the great conveniences of our time, actually: there’s ‘always something else’ — another book to read, cause to support, person to befriend, food to taste, hobby to try. And time continues to pass, with or without our input.

So just take about three minutes — seriously, three — and you don’t even have to write anything down. But figure out what defines you: activities, beliefs, goals, achievements. Establish a bit of a narrative: where you came from, what has happened in your life to produce your most ardent ideals, where these ideals will take you.

And reassess every once in awhile, very specifically looking at yourself in abbreviated form from an outsider’s perspective. Do you present yourself the way you want to be seen? In a way that accurately depicts who you are? This identity should evolve over time, so be careful to accommodate the growth instead of sticking to an old script — the new stuff is often the most important stuff, and it’s okay to let go of some of the old stuff.

Introductions and short summaries of one’s entire life may be inherently reductive, but they’re your gateway to new relationships and connections that will help you achieve your goals. Don’t be shy or dishonest, just be briefly thorough. And even though you’re inevitably more complex than this short summary, it’s good to have it in your pocket as a home base to return to. It’s a syllabus by which to assess your development, and a jumping-off point for anything you do.

Just develop it consciously and actively — don’t let the outside world do it for you, don’t let it become obsolete. You deserve your perfect little story.

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