Who you are is so much more than what you do.

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“Tell me about yourself!”

If you’re going to a Memorial Day event this weekend, chances are someone you haven’t met might ask you this question. In my experience, the most common answer to this begins with what one does for a living. It becomes an identifier – and if we don’t take time to really investigate further, we begin to associate ourselves solely with what we do: “I’m an architect.” “I’m a software developer.” “I’m a violist.” “I’m an opera singer.” When we are asked to talk about ourselves, the conversation stops there, or continues with a further description of our career paths.

But what if what we do was taken away? What if you had something happen that didn’t allow you to continue to pursue that occupation or if you discovered it didn’t really bring you joy anymore? When we equate ourselves with what we do, we really sell ourselves short. While our career might be important and may take up a vast amount of our time, it is only a small part of who we are. Identifying ourselves solely by job title basically means that without the job, there’s not much to us.

And yet, telling someone about ourselves is easier said than done. Stating our occupation is certainly the easiest – but what about the true essence of who we are as people? What could we tell someone that would give them an idea of who we truly are? Here are some things to consider:

Think about things that you really enjoy.
For me, this list includes animals, awesome meals, painting, music, poetry, and reading. If I started with a list like this, it would inevitably lead to questions of curiosity: What’s my favorite animal? Do I have any pets? Do I like to cook or just go to places with awesome food? What kinds of things do I paint? What kind of music do I like? Who is my favorite poet? What kind of books do I read? Here the dialogue would begin to reveal interesting things about me as a person as well as similarities and differences between me and my conversation partner. It’s a chance to get to know me without placing a hierarchal importance on what I do, basing my potential interest as a person on my profession, or worse – asking me to do something that pertains to it (singers know this one all too well).

Asking people what they enjoy will always give you better information than asking them what they do. It also alleviates any potential awkwardness: some people are not proud of what they do for a living, some people don’t enjoy what they do, and most people probably came to said social event to get away from it.

Think about the people and events that shaped you as a person.
Were there events from your upbringing that instilled valuable lessons in you? Observations that made you think about what you wanted to be when you grew up? Events that really inspired you to pursue a certain hobby or helped you form a talent? When I was five, I was in a school assembly play that was comprised of many different skits. I was in the Inchworm skit with two or three other kids, and we were to perform the Inchworm Song. I got pulled from the Inchworm skit, however, because apparently I had already made it obvious at that age that I was the type of person who could stand in front of a giant crowd of people and connect with them. I was taken from the Inchworm skit and made the “Mistress of Ceremonies” – the emcee of the event that would introduce each skit to the audience. I loved that experience, and I’m sure it contributed to the performance and speaking work I would do from that point on.

…The time I was having writer’s block and nightmares about spiders, and my friend Carmen said to me (in her delightful Puerto Rican accent), “What do you think the spiders are trying to tell you?” That question taught me to embrace my fears, and consequently I finished that paper and I’m no longer afraid of spiders…

…The time I built an RV and lived in it with my partner for two months…

We’ve all experienced events and interactions with others that served as catalysts for future events. Our stories, particularly those that we remember vividly, are an historical account of what makes us who we are. And that’s much more interesting than what we do.

Think about what is important to you.
While I tend to avoid polarizing topics (religion and politics…), I’m happy to talk about my beliefs as they pertain to my global existence. I believe we can all relate to one another because emotions are universal. I believe in attempting to understand our differences rather than to be assumptive or dismissive of another’s beliefs or behaviors. I believe creativity is important for every person to experience, not just artistic types. I think these types of belief statements tell someone much more than our political or religious affiliation does – just like with jobs, those things often come with judgmental assumptions as well. And I’d much rather base a kinship on what someone is really like than whether we have similar organizational beliefs.

And if your job does come up…
Think about what you like (and perhaps don’t like) about your job; what makes you passionate about your current career path or what has got you thinking you’re up for a change; what you studied and how that affected your current path (or didn’t affect it at all!); what’s interesting or challenging and what might be surprising to someone about what you do. It’s so easy to assume we know what a job is like based on what it is. I’m sure we could all tell people something they didn’t already know about what we do – no matter what it is.

So do yourself a favor and start things off right. If someone begins a conversation with you by asking you what you do for a living, tell them you think what people enjoy seems to tell a lot more about them. Share with them what you like and ask them the same. See how far you can get before that work identifier question comes back up again. And if you’re a performer and someone asks you to perform for them and you’d rather not, just tell them no thanks, you’re taking the weekend/evening off too. 🙂

P.S. If you don’t know already, I paint pet portraits and abstracts, I love Portuguese music, and my favorite animal is the rabbit…and I saw a giant rabbit run through the forest beside my house this morning, which makes today totally awesome.

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