“ Don’t I know you from somewhere?” the woman asked me. She was in my booth at an art show. I had recognized her when she came in, but I knew that in this different context, she would not recognize me. “I was your trainer two weeks ago, ‘Problem Solving for Leadership,’ I said.
She looked horrified. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m an artist, too,” I explained. I left out creativity coach, life coach and writer. One thing at a time.
“You can’t do that,” she said in a stern tone, “You can’t be both. What are you really?”
Who Are You Today?
It’s an interesting question. We are many people—spouses, parents, significant others, neighbors, organ donors, —but we see ourselves as one person at a time. During the day we are what we do—corporate employee—and when we leave work we become the “real” us. And if we’ve integrated what we do with who we are, we favor identifying ourselves by our work. “I’m an accountant,” or “I’m an engineer,” is something we hear more often than, “I’m intrigued by the idea that there is a great deal of similarity among the origination story of different religions.”
Learning How to Be You
Two generations ago, most schools prepared us for life—we took languages, world history, art, music, science, math and philosophy. We learned how to reason abstractly and think creatively. Now schools prepare us for a job—engineer, lawyer, journalist. We learn only those facts that can be proven to be necessary—either on the next test, or for the job.
But most of the things that have served me best in life—compassion, understanding, listening, exploring possibilities—aren’t taught in school anymore. They can’t be quantified enough to be put into a multiple-choice test. But life, it turns out, is not a multiple-choice test, it’s a series of essay exams.
Think Big: Be More
But experience can’t be summarized in a sound bite. Life doesn’t fit a three-word definition of who you are and how you fit into society.
As we speed up life, we have just enough time, it seems, to get one job done right. And our culture tells us that getting it right is very important, so we’d better not have time to learn about more possibilities. Instead, we’d better prove that we are worthy of regular title promotions and salary increases.
Think Creative, Live Creative
You can, of course, be someone else as a hobby. But hobbies need to be controlled and preferably quantifiable, like collecting something. Once you start to make money at a hobby, you better have a name for your company and be ready to fill out a form C for the IRS—and make a decision about what you really want to do.
Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, and Animal Dreams, found strong disapproval when she gave in to her need to play music and joined the Rock Bottom Remainders with Amy Tan, Dave Berry and Stephen King. Of that experience, she writes “As I get comfortable with the middle stretch of my life, though, it’s occurred to me that this is the only one I’m going to get. I’d better open the closet door and invite my other selves to the table, even if it looks undignified or flaky. . .I’m not looking for a new me, just owning up to all the old ones. . . . The Rock Bottom Remainders went on record as half-bad musicians having wholehearted lives.”
One Life, Many Lives
I’m well past the halfway part of my life, and there are still several lives, ideas, paths, to try out. I don’t want to say ‘no’ to any of them. There is a lot to do in the time I have left and a mind clear enough to do it. I want to look forward. Looking back is comforting because we are no longer there, and because we know everything we are looking at. Looking ahead is full of mystery and the unknown. But I would rather spend my time looking square-on at today’s mystery than looking back on things that can’t be changed.
–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach, writer and trainer in how to communicate in the corporate world. See her work at QuinnCreative.com