Hello. Nice to meet you.
How are you?
What brings you here today?
Where are you from?
What do you do?
The inevitable question. The dreaded query. There’s so much weight, so many assumptions, and so much at stake riding on the answer. What will people think when I tell them? What will people think if I have nothing to say?
I’ll be one of the first to argue that you shouldn’t answer a verb question with a noun. But, we’re all (myself included) caught up in chasing the ideals of identity, making a verb answer terrifying and a noun answer, at least in the short term, safe.
When we answer “what do you do?” with an “I am …” statement, we are doing more than naming an occupation. We are declaring who we are.
Saying “I am” implies identity. It provides a safe, simple, and concise way of proving our worth based on a standard that, frankly, I’m not sure we closely examine anymore. Doing good work is something a value; doing ‘work’ is not. Being busy can no longer be a measure of worth, being busy about something can begin to uncover the purpose behind our quest for progress.
Saying “I am” also declares finality. We have accomplished something. We have arrived, we have made it, and we are successful. There is no mess in a title or a category – it, like us, is neatly defined and well-packaged. We are not a mess. We have it figured out; we know where we’re going because we’ve already gotten there.
Wrapped up in our quest for finality in our identity, is a great fear of uncertainty. We crave certainty for ourselves, and want to appear certain in the eyes of others. How do we explain transition without discussing failure? How do we tell tales of trial and tragedy without sharing missteps, errors, and embarrassing moments?
We all know the stories. Great tragedy = great triumph. It’s the easiest equation (and this is coming from someone who runs screaming at the sight of a math problem – who really needs to buy all those watermelons? Shouldn’t the company just be happy the trains are moving at all, even in opposite directions?), but also the most misleading. That tiny equal sign hides a huge mess – tears, bruised egos (and sometimes real bruises too – ask me about the time I fell down the stairs), doubt, fear, and a whole slew of questions, the least of which being “What the heck am I doing?!”. Titles are almost a reprieve from the mess, the metaphorical broom that sweeps away self doubt and gives us something to hold onto, that metaphorical life preserver in a sea of “what now?” and “what next?”.
I’m all for great conversation openers. Tell someone you’re a circus ringmaster, they’ll raise a somewhat dubious eyebrow and want to know more. Tell someone you’re a doctor, lawyer, or professor, and they may listen to everything you have to say in hushed reverence and awe. There is great power, prestige, and privilege in titles.
And I want none of it.
Yes, it takes longer for me to explain what I do when I meet someone. Yes, I have to share this explanation over and over again, in different ways, using different words, to help people understand what I love and why I love it. Each time I share my story is a new opportunity to present my narrative, not to perfect it. I tell my story because it isn’t just mine – its the silent story of so many others trapped behind the wall of expectations and staring up at the pedestals of success. Titles build pedestals, stories build paths. Which one will be your answer?
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