Identity is tricky.
In fact, I had to look up the definition to make sure I would not write about the wrong thing. (The characteristics determining the fact or being who or what a person or thing is – for those wondering.)
There are so many things that people find their identity in, whether it be sexuality, cultural, career, relationships or anything else. Growing up I was always taught to not find my identity in sports, academics or friendships, as these things shift, change and are too inconsistent for something as important as a foundational identity.
I had always thought I had a healthy sense of identity, that is until I left my job to go back to graduate school.
“What do you do?”
It’s a question that has started to make me cringe when asked. In fact, it even makes me nauseous when I find the words leaving my own lips. We put so much stock in that one question.
I watched the film Across the Universe the other day when a conversation caught my attention. There’s a scene in the middle of a family dinner when the son, Max, admits that he wants to drop out of his Ivy League college. His father doesn’t take the news well, as he wants to know what Max’s next plans are – what is he going to ‘do’ with his life. Max responds by inquiring why it’s always about what someone does when, “the issue here [is] who I am?”. His uncle speaks up saying, “Maxwell, what you do defines who you are.”
One of my biggest fears in adulthood has been allowing for my career to define me; the “what do you do” question being translated into “what you do is who you are”.
When I left my job and went back to school, it was a tough transition. I hated telling people that I was a student – it felt like I had backslid and lost my ‘adulting’ card. To top it off, I found myself not being very good at being a student.
With that piece of my story in mind, let’s get back to the movie. Max addresses his uncle by saying, “Who you are defines what you do”. I’ve always thought this to be true, but what is said next stopped my train of thought. Max asks his new friend, Jude, to affirm his statement. Instead, Jude awkwardly disagrees, “Well, surely it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it”. I love that.
When I find myself in the depth of my doubt and allowing what I do for a profession weigh in on who I am as a person, there’s a few practices that I put into place.
Identity is important, and so is how we spend our time. However, our identity should not be woven into what we do, but instead our identity should influence how we do it.
Something that I’ve been doing since high school is keeping a memory box.
I place all of the notes and words of encouragement in this box. I have recommendation letters, notes sent to me from friends, and even pictures from moments when I think, “This. This is why I do this”.
Write yourself a note of encouragement. Remind future you how great, important, and awesome you are. Keep these uplifting words for the days that are hard, when you wrongly believe that your identity is wrapped up in what you do.
Another thing I try to keep in practice is that of community.
Finding your tribe is so important. There are days in which we forget who we are. We believe the lie that we tell ourselves – that our failures define our worth, and we sit in the muck and anxiety.
Community is hard because it take effort and intentionality. It takes investment and vulnerability. Sometimes we need our people to jump in the ring with us, to encourage us, sit with us and remind us who we are.
I got a B in art in high school. No, this sentence isn’t in the wrong article. Because of this grade I began telling myself that I wasn’t good an artistic person and I stopped crafting. Through this experience I began to believe that I wasn’t good enough to participate in the creative process. Thankfully, a few years later I met an artist who gave me permission to tap into the art of creation and I haven’t looked back since.
Art and creation is powerful and empowering. In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown explains creating as, “the act of paying attention to our experiences and connecting the dots so we can learn more about ourselves and the world around us”. Get out there, create something.
Believe in yourself. Let yourself grow and learn. Be careful to not allow the weight of what you do drag you down, causing you to forget who you are.
You are more than what you do, but chase your dreams and love what you do.
On the days in which you don’t love it… Remember: you are more than a job, a work shift, or even a career. You are the totality of the quirks, the gifts, and the things that make your spirit shine.
– Photo by Cassidy Kelley