It’s common at a social gathering for people to ask, “Where do you work?”, or, “Where are you from?”, or, “What are you studying?” These questions are well and good, but your title, school, major, city of origin, and company are not you.
There was a time when people stayed in one place for most of their lives, studied one thing, worked for one company. These external titles and statuses were their identity. This is rarely true today. We have more opportunity than ever to move, try new things, have multiple careers, hobbies, and interests, and even work and live largely independent of big firms or institutions. Our identities belong to us and we take them with us wherever we go and whatever we do.
Even if we do work for a big company, go to a big school, or focus on a single area of study or work, we have what generations before us almost never did; a brand that supersedes all these things. We have media of communication that allow us to establish decentralized networks and reputations independent of traditional hierarchical structures. Even if you’re an employee or a student, you benefit by thinking of yourself as a contractor, entrepreneur, or self-guided learner.
Back to the cocktail party. Rather than rattling off a string of external identifiers, try telling an interesting story about what you really are. This of course means you’ve got to think about what you really are. It’s not as easy as it at first sounds.
Think about people you know who have a clear identity beyond a title or credential. Our Education Director TK Coleman is a great example. He’s worked several jobs in radically different fields. He’s studied everything from theater to accounting to philosophy. He’s lived in small Midwestern cities and big coastal metropolises. But anyone who’s met him knows what he is. He’s the philosophy guy. The big ideas guy. Philosophy is his ‘X’.
What’s your ‘X’? When people meet you, do they say afterwards, “Oh yeah, that was the ‘X’ girl/guy”? The X could be graphic design, economic freedom, entrepreneur, travel, investing, sci-fi, or any number of things.
You don’t need to struggle to artificially come up with an X. Let it emerge naturally. It will change and evolve and expand and contract as you go through life. But if you’re really in touch with it and always trying to move towards those things that make you most alive, it will shine through and people will see it. Once they do, opportunities and ideas and people associated with your X will find their way to you. It’s like a signal that’s broadcast and all those with antennae tuned to the same frequency will respond. This is why you don’t want to hide it. Don’t be that person who loves X, but none of your friends know it just because you don’t do it for a living and feel embarrassed to let it show.
How do you discover your X? It’s an ongoing process. The best method I’ve found is not to try to figure it out directly, but the opposite. Don’t do things you don’t enjoy doing. Don’t live or work or study places that don’t make you feel alive. Don’t follow paths that make you feel dull. If you keep adding to the list of things you don’t enjoy and avoiding them, everything else is fair game and before long you’ll be in your sweet spot – or rather your sweet range of activities.
So, if I met you today and we chatted for ten minutes, what would I think your X is? What’s the identity you have that goes with you after you leave your school or job or city?