Profession, Identity, and Authenticity

"SQUIRREL!"  Photo: Disney/Pixar

“SQUIRREL!” Photo: Disney/Pixar

Three words that define the new millenials‘ dilemma.

(Disclosure: I’m technically in the GenX/Y overlap, but I guess I’m introspectively immature, so I identify with millenial issues from time to time.)

I decided to call my blog “Squirrel!” because the most difficult task of my professionally ambiguous period of my life has been to answer the question “well, what do you WANT to do?”  I’ve been asked that by nearly every former, current, and prospective employer, as well as well-meaning friends and family.

I never had an answer to this question growing up.  In 4th grade I wrote that I was going to be a professional pianist…knowing full well that that was NOT what I wanted to do but it was what everyone expected me to write.  Also, the boy I liked wrote “professional baseball player” so I figured you were just supposed to write what it was that you did outside school and add the word “professional” to it.

I seem to be perpetually stuck in an environment where people are defined by their profession.  You meet people at a networking event and they inevitably ask you “oh, what do you do?” and you are forced to construct a persona that will either portray you as “of power” (oh I’m starting a company…I’m CEO/President/Minister of Magic at this new venure…) or “looking” (oh I just graduated with my MBA/grad degree…intern…getting into edtech…) or worse yet “ambiguous” (consultant…advisor…mentor…).

My identity is all of these things and at the same time, none of these things.  My profession does not define me that well.  I was never “just a teacher” (whatever that means) – I was everything that I could bring to my classroom.  I also don’t need my profession to encompass all the things that ARE me.  Maybe one day I will stumble into an opportunity where I can be my most authentic self while doing my job, but as of now, there is no job I can imagine where I would get to (or need to) do everything that I like all at once.

Just yesterday, I told a friend that I had considered calling my blog “Okay to Squirrel!” because I can’t focus on just one thing, and that was a pretty good way to describe what I might be writing about in the blogosphere.  Then he asked, “but are you really ‘okay to squirrel’?”  A fair question, considering that I have been fighting to focus for so long now, and really struggle with this lack of focus – implying that no, I’m not really ok to “Squirrel!”.

If authenticity is what I strive for, then I guess I need to be ok to squirrel.  This does not mean that my profession is “Squirrel!” (because there are DEFINITELY family members who would NOT find that to be ok) but it means that I am consciously going to strive to build my identity on elements that are way more than what my profession is.

Or, according to my 4th grade self, I’m a “professional” unfocused mashup of creative, strategy, and execution.

Picking one thing to be good at

A blog is supposed to be an extension of a personal brand, an outlet where people can see the “real you” and connect.  At least, that’s what all the career services and career advice people are trying to tell me.  At the same time, all this advice tells me to “edit myself” to a 30-second snippet that has the most important essence about me that will draw people in.  This is one thing I am NOT good at – I can’t even commit to a focus for this blog. 🙂

When I was in high school, I taught myself to play the flute, trombone and french horn.  I also played in city & school orchestras (violin), city & school choirs, concert band, piano lessons, and participating in the school newspaper and the yearbook.  My mom rolled her eyes every time I asked to do something new, saying, “why don’t you just pick one thing and be good at it?”  She was right about one thing – I wasn’t ever really notably great at any of those activities, but I was in it for the knowledge, not the distinction.

This “problem” has grown with time and disposable income.  I get into things for knowledge, I get out of them without much distinction.  I gain a lot of marketable skill in ways that dots can’t sensibly connect.

This has made personal branding excessively difficult – how do i start to tell a recruiter why I spent 6.5 years studying engineering to go into 10 years in education, culminating in a technology position that I am not interested in furthering because I went to business school?  Oh, and I also knit funny hats for fun.  (See picture above: Roscoe is a funny-hat model.)

The only one-phrase tie I can commandeer to describe myself is that I can “make it work”.  Like my hero, style maven Tim Gunn.  I can do enough of everything to fix anything.  I am not lacking in talent or ambition, usually sufficient motivation all I need to get me going.  (Motivation, ah, the fodder for another future musing.)

Is THIS my personal brand?  Making it work?  Other than the fact that it’s someone else’s signature phrase, of course.  I’m going to change my blog title and let that percolate for a bit.