July 7, 2024

Unwrapping the Self: Beyond Titles and Professions

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Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. All the time. That story makes you who you are. But who provides the content from which our story is built?

The narrative often begins with the question, “What do you do for a living?” It’s a great icebreaker because it’s not too personal and usually leads to follow-up questions that make small talk less torturous. Then we write a fairytale about that person after discovering their profession. Are they blue-collar, influential, wealthy, intelligent? We put people in boxes and label them based solely on this limiting information.

The stories we tell ourselves play a crucial role in shaping our identities. And the stories others assign to us validate and expound upon our identities. These internal narratives are the running commentary in our minds that interpret our experiences, justify our actions, and construct our self-image. They are deeply influenced by our environment, feedback from others, and the roles we assume in life.

I was recently at a dinner party hosted by my neighbor, a very successful businessman in a Fortune 100 company. In his role, he oversaw much of Europe, and the stories he tells about his experiences and the major players in his industry (of whom we are all familiar) are impressive. This led to a conversation about what other important people live in our community. He rattled off a list accompanied by their highly prestigious careers, and I found myself feeling smitten by this information.

Reflecting on my own experience as a police chief, I secretly wondered how I measured up. I caught myself with the conscious thought about how much of my identity was intertwined with my role. The responsibilities, the respect, and the sense of duty became a significant part of how I saw myself, largely molded by how others responded to me. My professional identity was a title, but it doesn’t come close to telling the story of who I am.

At that moment, I realized something significant. Our professions are seen as markers of success, capability, and worth. This societal emphasis can lead us to believe that our value is tied to our professional achievements. But nowhere in the description of these “important” people was their kindness, service, or compassion for others. Titles are impressive, but are they good human beings?

This is where identity can become dangerous. It causes people to cling to a version of themselves that is one-dimensional. Who we are as people is much more than our professional titles. It encompasses our values, passions, relationships, and how we contribute to the world beyond our jobs. This realization aligns with a quote from David Brooks’ “The Second Mountain”: “We are not defined by what we achieve, but by how we serve.”

There comes a point where you must choose between being important and being happy. Striving to stay on top is exhausting and demanding, and it can become addictive. This addiction often drives people to continue their relentless pursuit or cling to an identity long past what is reasonable. This can be applied to our current geriatric political landscape (but that’s another post that I’ve already addressed).

Arthur Brooks, in his book “From Strength to Strength,” puts it well: “True success comes from a sense of purpose and meaning in life.” Understanding and embracing our identity beyond professional titles is a lifelong journey. It requires us to challenge the internal narratives we have built and to explore new dimensions of ourselves. As we do so, we discover that the story of who we are is far richer and more meaningful than any job designation could ever convey.

These days, I’m less impressed by your title (current or past) and more impressed by how you contribute in service to the world and the way you connect with others. The people I consider remarkable are those who see beyond themselves and show kindness to others through thoughtful words and actions. The people whom you can call when you’re in crisis or need a helping hand are whom I consider the most successful people.

Keep disrupting, my fellow disrupters.

Onward and upward,

Kristen

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