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Who exactly do you think you are?

03 February 2011
Written by Tracey Swanepoel

The unanswerable question.

My least favourite question in the world is “What do you do?” Are there some unspoken guidelines about how to answer this question? Are you supposed to define yourself in terms of the company you keep, as in “I work for X Bank”.

Should you cite your impressive list of qualifications (please note class captain in Grade 5 does sound a tad desperate)? What about defining yourself in terms of “benefits” (I help clients with strategy and communication issues)? Spare a thought for stay-at-home moms (and dads) who always make me cringe with their “just-ness” (as in I am just a mom!).JOHANNESBURG - My least favourite question in the world is “What do you do?” Are there some unspoken guidelines about how to answer this question? Are you supposed to define yourself in terms of the company you keep, as in “I work for X Bank”. Should you cite your impressive list of qualifications (please note class captain in Grade 5 does sound a tad desperate)? What about defining yourself in terms of “benefits” (I help clients with strategy and communication issues)? Spare a thought for stay-at-home moms (and dads) who always make me cringe with their “just-ness” (as in I am just a mom!).

How easy it must be (in this regard of course) to be an ear, nose and throat specialist? An OB-GYN? An ophthalmic surgeon? Perhaps there is something to be said for getting letters behind our names, it just simplifies life. Funnily enough those very people (the Drs, Professors, MBAs, CEOs) are often frustrated as being known for, defined and limited by those very letters. Maybe they feel like I feel.

No matter my response to this question, punchy and articulate as it may be, I never feel like it really fits. It may be just me (and if so there’s potentially a shrink in my future with an annuity income), but the question seems unanswerable. Perhaps the problem lies with the question. “What do you do?” has become colloquial, socially acceptable and convenient short hand for “who exactly do you think you are?” Or not as the case may be. I would wager that most of us err on the NOT side of defining our identity, as in I am NOT a numbers person, NOT a good cook, NOT good with detail etc. Besides being quite negative and rather sad, where are the positive counterpoints as in I AM …. (lost for words right now – see the problem?). There was a memorable advertising campaign a while ago that ended with the punch line: “don’t you know who I am?” and that I believe is precisely the issue. We hide out in the land of doing, like hamsters on a spinning wheel, never venturing into the “keep out” zone. But there are some pretty substantial benefits involved in going there. For one thing:

Less stress

SA month or so ago we were in the midst of what I call “festive seasonitis”: the strained attempts to have a good time with people we don’t really know and who don’t know us (really), whilst attempting to put together a feast worthy of Jamie Oliver or Nigella Lawson. The year-end forces a rude stop to the rat race we take refuge in. Stripped of our normal to-do lists, roles and responsibilities, the holidays bring into sharp relief who other people think we are/should be and whom exactly we think we are. The whole murky issue of identity floats to the surface. Not having a handle on this issue ourselves means we let others do it for us, causing stress of note! I have often wondered why so called grownups get so uptight about stuff like the best way to carve the turkey. My conclusion is that it’s got much more to do with the above than we might think!

Getting out of the box

Secondly, our “I’m NOTs” clearly shape the box from which we view and interact with the world out there.

Take the issue of creativity as an example here. According to many people I interact with, their most creative contribution is the carbon dioxide they exhale into the universe! “I am NOT creative” reverberates through their conversations. The irony of this statement coming from business owners, leaders of people, strategic visionaries – is lost on them. Try as I might to get them out of their uncreative boxes, my attempts fall on deaf ears. Because that’s simply not who they think they are. Actually, let me rephrase - that’s who they think they are NOT.

Staying in this box means they risk never fully experiencing the benefits of creativity (like making people more open to change and innovation, less defensive, better team players, braver, enjoy a greater sense of purpose, well being and personal growth).

Going from strength to strengths

Thirdly, knowing our strengths and what we enjoy doing is fundamental to defining who we are. Without ignoring our weaknesses it focuses us on what we CAN (as opposed to can’t) do, and it’s critical in terms of living a purposeful and satisfied life. This quote often attributed to Madiba (originally by Marianne Williamson) sums it up for me:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God”.

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