Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Who Am I?

I knocked quietly on the door, and a voice from within roared, “Is that the Canadian High Commissioner?” I opened the door to find him seated cross-legged on the floor —an erect, commanding presence clad in a white robe, with a generous topping of white hair and a long white bear, “Well, Swami,” I began, “that is just what I do, not what I am.” “Then come and sit with me,” he laughed uproariously.  (from James George, "Who Am I?" Parabola, Fall 2014.)  

Before becoming a publisher and photographer and a few other things, I was a data analyst. I worked at a small New England liberal arts college analyzing enrollment and retention data, financial data, and course opinion data. I studied course-taking patterns and changes in students’ attitudes over time. I developed and administered surveys and analyzed the mountain of data that came out of those activities. I shared data with other colleges and studied how we differed from or were the same as our peers and competitors. I enjoyed finding patterns and trends and blips, finding meaning in a vast collection of numbers.

I was the director of institutional research, but my colleagues had given me a few other titles. I was the czarina of data, the queen of the database, the one who worked magic with numbers. When people needed answers, they came to me. The college’s data were referred to as my data.

I liked my job...most of the time. I liked what I did. I liked my position. I liked the prestige of sitting on the college’s hugely important pile of zeroes and ones. Information is power, and buried within my data was all the information worth knowing. No one knew the data better than me.

But if there’s one thing worth learning in life, it’s that nothing stays the same. Following a series of leadership changes in the college, my throne crumbled. As that fact sunk in, my entire world slowly started to crumble. Then there was a mid-life crisis and attempts to let go...but it wasn’t always clear what I needed to let go of. Change? Criticism? Fear?

Eventually, though, it became clear to me that I needed to let go of my sense of myself as the czarina of data, the resident number cruncher, the all knowing one. And that was when I realized that whatever journey I was on had only just begun. I needed to plunge much deeper within myself to find out who I was. I needed to untangle the nasty mess that had come from equating my identity and my self-worth with my job. I needed to let go of a self-identity that was based on what I did. I needed to figure out who I am.

Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

Eventually, I left the college and left that type of work entirely. It was painful; there is no denying that fact. But I had the opportunity to do some other things, start my own business, work for myself, do what I wanted to do and not what I was told to do. It was a big change. A positive change in most every way.

Four years later – just this past week – I found myself driving back from Portland with a friend. She was going through the next few years of her life—3 more years of teaching and being department chair, then a 1-year sabbatical, then teaching for a couple of years and retiring. And she said to me, “When are you retiring?”

Retiring? I kind of already did that...been there...done that. I retired from my job at the college and started a business that now takes up a good sixty hours of my time every week, but I’m quite happy. Why would I even think about retiring...again?

Then I said, “Gosh, I’m not sure I could be happy without projects to do, deadlines to meet, emails to answer, etc.”

What did I say? I paused to listen to what I had just said. Have I repeated the cycle? Am I now wrapped up with myself as a publisher, photographer, editor...and several other things?

Who am I? Who am I? Who am I?

And so I consider these questions.

I am not what I do. I have many roles—publisher, editor, photographer...and also wife, friend, neighbor, cook—but my roles cannot define me. We all walk around within a role...within many roles. These roles make our lives easy because we fit within their comfortable grooves. Life becomes very predictable. But there is a danger within that groove. Roles can be limiting, both to ourselves and others with whom we interact. Connecting our identity so tightly with what we do limits our thinking. It shrinks our viewpoint. It can be like wearing blinders. We stop stretching and taking risks into unknown territory.

A role is not a bad thing. We all have them...many of them. The problem arises when we get stuck and attached to our roles.

We are not what we do, be it a data analyst, lawyer, teacher, housekeeper, artist. We must think about the roles we adopt...be mindful of the reasons they work for us as well as the reasons they limit us. And that includes the role of artist.

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