The “So, what are you going to do?” Question with its Sidekicks, Identity and Self Worth

It makes me feel like I am back in college again, trying to figure out a major. I changed that a few times, just as I have changed jobs and industries several times. In our society, we have an incredible need to label and categorize ourselves, and most of the people around us are not comfortable unless we can do just that. A familiar conversation to me:

Me: I left my full-time traditional job so I can redesign my life, live differently, and be a healthier happier version of myself!

Well-Meaning Friend/New Acquaintance/Potentially Worrisome Family Member (FAF) : Wow! I am so proud of you and excited for you. Way to go!

Me: Thank you. I am excited too!

FAF: So, what are you going to do?

Me: Um, well, I am still exploring, you know, I am taking some time to just unwind and recharge…

FAF: Oh sure, yeah, I am sure you have to do that….

Me: Yeah, I really want to reclaim my health and just take this opportunity to reflect first, but I am also talking to people and networking, you know, we’ll see what happens. Eventually, we all know I have to make some money. I have a few ideas….and a healthy dose of nerves. (nervous laughter)

FAF: (Slightly puzzled and down-turned face) Well, I’m sure it will work out. You’ll be great. Let me know if I can help. You know sometime soon, you need to go ahead and pick a direction. What do you want to do?

Me: Well, I’m thinking through a few options. You know, I thought I would do “X” in order to keep making money for a bit, but I might also focus on “Y” to do something different, but I am still exploring..

And so on and so forth until someone becomes uncomfortable enough to change the subject.

So, which one of us is struggling in this conversation? BOTH OF US! Most of us do not know how to claim a spot in conversation or society unless we can slap a label on our foreheads. It is my opinion that neither person is wrong and usually, neither person is trying to hurt or befuddle the other.

The movie “You’ve Got Mail” from 1998 has a great line in it where Tom Hanks’s character is describing the Starbucks phenomenon that allows everyone to create a “distinguishing sense of self” based on the coffee they order…. “TALL! DECAF! CAPPUCCINO!”. Whether Starbucks knew it or not, they brilliantly capitalized on people’s need to declare themselves with a name, label, or affiliation, even if it is just the coffee we drink.

An interesting tidbit about me. When I was in third grade, I received a really cute outfit with a big picture of a dog on the sweater. I really liked the outfit, though I never wore it because I was known amongst my friends as loving cats. I was literally known as being such a cat person that I did not feel comfortable wearing a dog sweater. I felt like that would betray my identity. (not that I knew to say it like that in third grade)

In my experience coaching college students, I saw them struggle with this issue as well. They mostly dealt with the questions, “What is your major?”, “Wait, I thought you were going to major in political science!?! Now art history!!!??? But last week, you said you were passionate about political science!”. “So, where is your internship this summer?”, “It’s April, what will you do after graduation?”. It was enough pressure and confusion to bring some students to tears.

Why do we have this need to label ourselves? Why do we immediately look for a box to fit in if we lose or leave our jobs or once we graduate from college? I know everyone is also worried about, “How will you make money?”, but I think the worry and judgment is much bigger than that. I think we all worry about our worth without a label. Is worth inherent or earned? Hmmm…..

If we took away the question, “So, what do you do?” from standard greeting conversations, what would we ask in order to begin getting to know someone? (And like it or not, this is where we start forming our opinions about whether or not we think someone is a bubble-head – and no one wants to be seen as a bubble-head.)

I don’t want to label myself right now. It’s too easy. I know how to do it very well, almost too well. I know how to get my message and presence to arrive before I do, and I know how to “put myself out there”. I feel that I could have written that book.  I know the tap dance, and I know how to declare my worth or fool the world into thinking I’m an expert before figuring out how to deliver.

I want to see what I learn about myself by swimming around in the vast uncomfortable nameless ocean where there is really just me.

And I have the right to change my stories, as stories tend to change, as I see fit!

We’ll see what happens;)

Are your needs for a label keeping you from exploring and being vulnerable in order to try new experiences, ponder new ponderings, and potentially discover new talents and desires within yourself?

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