“So, what do you do?”
A question that stimulates a rich mix of emotions in me, none of them positive. In my head I can describe what I get up to on a day to day basis in an impressively eloquent way. But when the words come out of my mouth they nearly always feel dissatisfying. Both to me and to the person asking.
I’ve taken to explaining what I’m interested in and what I am currently doing (rather than what I do) as an attempt to express something that is more of a live-work-in-progress. But that simply seems to confuse even more. And I must admit to being a bit of a hypocrite here. I’m just as guilty of sometimes feeling dissatisfied when others can’t easily label themselves for my own convenience!
I imagine children and teenagers have comparable experiences when asked “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” My 10 year old daughter can easily describe what she loves and what she is passionate about but experiences similar feelings when well intentioned adults imply that the lack of an aspirational job title is something that needs fixing in the near future. I still remember a particularly demotivating and somewhat shaming experience when, in my early teens, a career advisor told my parents that I lacked focus and direction because I couldn’t explain to him what I wanted to do. It seems that being able to describe ourselves, in a way that other people can easily understand, equates to evidence that we are a functioning, go-getting, “sorted” human being.
J. Krishnamurthi offers a contrary perspective in “Freedom from the known.” He suggest that “The moment we want to be something, we are no longer free.” The moment I strive to attain a specific version of myself, I become constrained by the parameters of my ambition. The moment I become attached to my ‘brand’ is the moment I become less pliable and less open to exploring difference. The shadow side of having a strong sense of self, or a clear and focussed ambition, is that I am in danger of becoming a walking confirmation bias, seeking and experiencing only that which corroborates.
Yet we generally accept that it is sound advice to better define ourselves, our brand, our work, our purpose. I’m stating to wonder if maybe we are better off letting go of the idea that this is a universally positive thing. Or to a least hold the labels we do crave a little more lightly. For it to be OK to simply show up and interact with each other as we are. To embrace the difficulty in describing ourselves as evidence that we are always the unfinished article, fully alive and ever changing. For the lack of a convenient label to be an invitation to become deeply curious about the unfathomable uniqueness of the other. To me this feels like a far more creative way of being.
How would it be to fully embrace the liberating space between who we perceive we have been and who we are yet to become? To better love and appreciate the imperfect no one in between two someones?
My friend Charlotte Sills recently told me that a favourite phrase of her late supervisor, existential psychoanalyst and author Hans Cohn, was “labelling is the last thing we do when we make jam.” Seems like good advice for life.