Thursday, April 30, 2009

Who You Are vs What You Do

Quite a while ago one of my sisters introduced me to "Daily Om," a website dedicated to "nurturing mind, body and spirit." I get e-mails from them every day with thought provoking articles. Sometimes I read them right away, sometimes I put them in a folder to read/re-read later and sometimes I'm not interested so it gets deleted. that's the beauty of e-mail - I decide what I want to read and when...that's a discussion in itself for another time...

The article I read today was about realizing "You are who you are, not what you do." As usual, I didn't feel as if 100% of it applied to me, but that didn't matter since even the first couple sentences struck a cord: "Our perception of the traits and characteristics that make us who we are is often tightly intertwined with how we live our life. We define ourselves in terms of the roles we adopt, our actions and inactions, our triumphs, and what we think are failures. "

For the last couple years I have had a hard time adjusting to the fact I am no longer an officer in the United States Air Force. Ever since I was 16 years old, all I wanted was to be in the Air Force. Everything I did my last two years in High School was to get an ROTC scholarship or, preferably, to get into the Air Force Academy. Then I struggled, and I mean struggled, to graduate from USAFA, including two years of medical leave due to knee surgeries (and if I'm honest with myself, not as much training/physical therapy as should have been done). Graduating with the class of 1996 instead of 1994 was probably a good thing, for many reasons, but most of all because I felt as if I was starting over with a clean slate. No one in '96 knew how hard my freshman year had been...thus, I was given every opportunity to prove I could handle tough jobs. Whereas had I remained with '94, either I myself or others might have held me back from accomplishing as much as I was capable of - simply due to my less than stellar four degree year. (Another story for another time...)

As an aircraft maintenance officer, I felt as if I had to work harder than everyone else to prove that women could do the job just as well as men - despite the fact that I knew/know nothing about maintenance/mechanics other than what I continuously studied so as not to show my ignorance. I also kept myself apart from others so no one could accuse me of being "soft" or being too friendly with the guys. In other words, I wasn't able to be myself. For ten years, I put the AF and my career above my own needs and desires. I was so successful at putting everything else first, that I no longer knew or even recognized anything different. The way I saw it, what was good for the AF was, in fact, good for me.

Now, I don't have that anymore. I don't have the uniform to hide behind, I don't have the mission to focus on, I don't have the purpose in serving my country...So now, (and something I've been working on for the last two years) I have to figure out "who I am" separate from "what I do."

Sounds pretty easy but as I have found, it's not. At least not for me. I've gone from being a Major in the world's greatest AF to being a dependant spouse (have I mentioned how much I hate that word "dependant"...?) whose main contribution to the world is a blog and blankets (well, other crafts as well, but who besides me really cares about my scrapbooking, and family/friends can only stand so many crafts as gifts...). Doesn't do much for the whole sense of purpose and value thing...

What's my point? I'm not sure if I have one. It's just that the article made me realize, again, how much I have always defined myself by what I do/did. I was AF 24/7/365. And now, how do I define myself when I'm not really doing anything? Do I define myself as a woman who tries to do the right thing...? As someone who loves her friends and family and tries to be there for them, sometimes before they even realize they are in need...? As someone who loves creating "art" even if it's never seen outside my own home...? Yet, aren't all of those still defining myself by what I am doing..?

How do I define myself? As a work in progress...


  1. Ah, yes. And haven't we all had this issue come up in our own lives? The number one question any of us uses when we first meet someone is invariably: "And what do YOU do?" It provides a frame of reference, sure. It predisposes us to think about a person in a certain way (oh, you're one of THEM). If we're not careful, it causes us to fall back on prejudices or biased notions, and we could easily miss making friends with someone on a different career path than our own.

    Think about it: if we meet a middle-aged man for the first time and ask him what he does, if he replies he is a stay-at-home father, don't we immediately start looking for an exit? If a person is a lawyer, don't we get the lawyer jokes ready? Or start prepping to ask legal questions from our private lives, hoping to get free advice? Don't people gravitate around elected officials, hoping to rub the magic lamp and get some help on our three wishes through that public official's power and influence?

    And far too often, we as individuals ALLOW ourselves to be defined as what JOB we do. Pilots love to talk about flying, even though they probably have other interests, as well. University Professors (generally speaking) tend to talk the most about their field of expertise, rarely contributing if the conversation flows into other topics. It's pretty fascinating to watch first-hand at cocktail parties.

    I've always strived to be able to talk about any number of different topics, most of which have nothing to do with work. At one party, I knew my co-worker's wife loved her horses from previous discussions just with the co-worker. She and I had a great conversation on the book "Seabiscuit." I still don't know what she does for a living.

    I also often think about the movie "Grosse Point Blank," since this subject forms the basis and underlying theme for the movie. It asks: are we defined strictly by the jobs we do? Bobby Beemer... radio DJ Debbie... Martin the assassin Blank. It's why I think the movie works on so many levels, as the hit man becomes more and more conflicted with his chosen profession, as his personal life collides with his career. Excellent, excellent film!

    So, I completely understand where you're coming from. As much as we try to define ourselves outside our careers with hobbies and personal projects, we are often pigeonholed into the predefined notions mentioned earlier. (Oh, you're an Investment Banker...) And what happens if our chosen profession suddenly seems besmirched through events outside our control, using the investment banker example above? Does the CPA who formerly worked for Arthur Anderson suddenly become less capable simply because AA ceased to exist in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal? How about the brokers who formerly worked on Wall Street? Hedge fund managers? Autoworkers at GM? The list goes on and on.

    Just keep on being yourself, and I'm very tempted to say keep on soldiering on. Except we weren't soldiers, were we? Airmen, yes. What's really funny is that my entire career (and I suspect this is true for any USAFA grad), I've had to combat the preconceived notions people have of AFA grads. It's why so many of us refuse to wear our rings on a daily basis... not because we are somehow ashamed of our undergraduate degree granting institution, but because we prefer to be judged on our own abilities and skills rather than on someone else's idea of how we should act or what kind of job we should do.

  2. Thanks for your comments, you gave me even more to think about. :)

  3. Sam,

    A few thoughts: Sad but true, we are identified by what we do. And I do agree that often a person is looking for something relatable when asking us what we do. There may be some who do it out of genuine interest or curiosity, others maybe out of a sense of hierarchy in society--where are you relative to them--and probably even those who do it because of conditioning. In learning how to win friends and influence people, don't we learn to ask these sorts of questions of the other person?

    As a society, I don't believe we have the right way of thinking to be able to answer a question of who we are--or of being satisfied with the answer.

    If I were to say that I am the son of John and Elaine, it means nothing to anyone who doesn't know them. If I refer to myself as Steph's husband or as the father of (fill in the blank), the same. Outside of those references, who I am is either going to be relative to what I do or what I look like. Unfortunately, I am more likely discounted in life based on how I look than on what I do. In that case, I'd prefer to be known by what I do. It at least gives me a fighting chance.

  4. Trebord -
    I think you hit on one of the things that's been bothering me lately...For the last year, I have realized more and more that I'm no longer defined as my own person or recognized for what i have accomplished on my own. Now I am invited to functions, or eve required to be there, based on who I am married to. As a commander's spouse, there are certain things expected of me. I go to these functions and people seem to wonder why a "civilian" is there. The first question is "who are you here with (or something along those lines)?" and as soon as they know he's one of the commanders, I see the light click on that, yes, I do belong there. There will be a bit of small talk and then they move on; as if I have nothing else of worth to discuss other than my husband's unit and what I'm doing with the spouses...I feel as if they (the AF and people I meet at AF functions) don't see anything except a post-it on my head that says "CC Spouse"...and I KNOW I am more than that...hmm, maybe this could have been another post?

  5. Another post? Or another Post-It (r)?

    Sorry, couldn't resist.

    One thing I do and have done for many years is to go to functions and talk to the wait staff. Or at an office, to the security staff or admin assistants. Even cleaning staff. They are much more personable, more fun to talk to, and usually couldn't care less about what I do. It's refreshing to get that honest person-to-person interaction.

    On another note, we men have an issue. We're asked what we do and we give a position or a job title. The person has to ask again what we do. These days, I try to answer the question at face value but there was a time I would give my title. As NCOIC, Cadet Disenrollments, I thought I had a pretty good gig. But if you asked me what I did, I would tell you something along the lines of trying to find ways to help cadets who maybe had no other options or few places to turn.

    One such cadet, Donald Supon, would surely not have graduated without that help. Great guy, made a bad decision, and faced an Academy Board as a result. He went on to fly F-16s and has had a rewarding military career. I look at this LtCol today (online--have not been in touch) and take satisfaction not from what my title was, but from what I did to make a difference. Ultimately, that's who I want to be--a person who makes a difference.

    One of my mantras is that "when what you do no longer makes a difference, it's time to do something different". After 16 plus years in the Air Force, I had seen the dirty side of USAFA and had enough. I was disillusioned.

    BTW, some of the cases in the news a few years back were Academy Boards I sat in on. On more than one occasion, I provided inside info to disenrolled cadets and legal representatives in an effort to try to help right the injustice. And it was around that time that I felt I could not straddle the fence any longer. It was time to go do something different.

  6. I can say from personal experience that you made a difference.
    Had it not been for you, I might have spent a year with the "criminals" in CS-41, not being allowed to leave Academy grounds but not being part of the Cadet Wing either...not only that, but I'm pretty sure you had a huge part of me even getting back in - at least as far as the right paperwork and knowing what I needed to do to get back in (among other things)...I can't imagine what my life would be like if you hadn't been in that job at that time.
    Thank you!

  7. Looking back at your other comments, I shared with Steph how it seemed God put all the pieces in place---even going back to my Prep School days with my former instructor-turned-Prep School Commander (Col Ted Wang)---for us to meet and for me to be where you needed the help (Cadet Personnel and AOG) when you needed it. Even the fact that the AOG called me for the job. It was a former first sergeant of mine who heard I was getting out--he needed help in the office and asked if I'd like to work there. The ironies are too great to ignore. I'm happy I could make a difference and in that, I find lifelong satisfaction. Thanks!