My default answer to this question is, “I’m a software developer”. Yet, every time I answer that way, my soul rebels.
The incongruity that arises when I reduce the whole of my being to a job title feels worth exploring. How come I answer a question about what I “do” with a statement about who I “am”?
The thing about this question is that it can be interpreted in a few ways. We can receive it as an inquiry on how we earn money, how we spend our days, or even what our passion is.
The interpretation that we choose will shape our answer. For example, a few years ago, I was at a retreat by myself, and I struck up a conversation with my Tipi neighbour. “What do you do?” inevitably came up, and after I divulged my job title, she replied with:
“Well… sometimes I paint, and sometimes I draw. Then there are times when I watch TV. OH! I also like picking flowers.”
I had no idea how to respond to this. It made me uncomfortable that she was not following universally accepted small talk protocol. In my mind, my rigid answer outed me as a square as opposed to the free spirit sitting beside me.
With hindsight, I’ve started to appreciate her perspective on this question. Answering literally with the activities that filled her day, she refused to tie herself to a pre-defined identity. She would not be reduced to a societally accepted label.
The power that the language we use has on shaping who we are has become salient to me recently. If we repeat enough times that we’re a developer, a scientist, or a stock-broker, on some level, we’ll start to believe that’s all we are. I admire her response because she would not forsake the multitudes within her.
In the spirit of my wise and kooky Tipi neighbour, here’s how I’ve been filling my days over the last while:
Implementing beautiful designs
I’ve been building out the user interface on Audrey. It’s the first coding project I’ve been a part of where beautiful design is a top priority.
Beauty and elegance are values close to my heart, so this alignment between my aspirations and my work fills me with joy.
I meditate for one hour daily. The specific flavour of meditation I practice focuses on the connection between mind and body. Lately, I’m amazed at how much insight and intelligence the body holds, so deepening that connection has become a central focus in my life.
I’m a habit nerd, and the one that I’m trying to embed at the moment is writing. So far, it’s been like training a wild animal; progress is slow and intermittent, and at times it feels hopeless. Yet, every now and then, there’s a breakthrough that makes my writing dreams feel a fraction of an inch closer. That’s all the encouragement I need!
Writing is important to me right now because it’s a vehicle for self-expression. For a long time in my life, I believed I had to keep my head down and not be seen. It’s only recently that I’ve realised that I don’t need that protection any more and that I can come out into the light. Writing is a part of that cathartic process which makes the struggle worth it.
I discovered online education early last year, and it feels like I’ve been on a course ever since. This pursuit satisfies my insatiable curiosity and my need for intellectual stimulation. Without a course or book that’s challenging my view of the world, I’d go a little crazy.
I run without headphones. It’s an oasis in the middle of my day that allows me to put my brain down, rest my thoughts, and recharge by connecting with my body and surroundings.
It’s a vital constraint because I often don’t know my limits. I’m stubborn and think that if I keep pushing, my intellect will figure it all out. Burnout often ensues.
I could go on, but I’ll stop there. Of course, there are many more activities that fill up my day, but even choosing a select few feels more authentic than the standard response to this question.
Listing out the constituent parts of my days feels like progress. Yet, there’s still something missing. When we ask someone what they do out of genuine curiosity rather than politeness, we’re trying to understand them. Rightly or wrongly, we see it as a shorthand into the other person’s essence. We hold an implicit belief that knowing how the other person spends the majority of their waking hours will allow us a glimpse into their inner being.
So, what makes me me? What is the thread that ties all the activities I listed off?
Contemplating these questions, I observe some discomfort in my body. A sure sign that to answer them truthfully will require vulnerability. “What do you do?” feels safe. Perhaps that’s why it’s society’s default. The other person can reveal as much or as little as they want. “What makes you you?” is another matter — a more risky one. And an infinitely more interesting one too.
Here’s an attempt at an answer (which I reserve permission to change whenever it doesn’t fit me any more!):
I’m a verb rather than a noun. I’m happiest when I’m becoming. Every day is a chance to evolve and to discover something unexpected about myself. I start with the premise that I don’t know myself at all and that my job is to discover who I authentically am.
It’s not perfect, but it’s good enough for now.