Essays on Technology and Culture

On Identity

“We procrastinate when we’ve forgotten who we are.”
Merlin Mann

This is true, but what if we don’t know who we are?

There’s a box of business cards on my desk, the kind you can get for almost free though an online service. They have my name and the words “Administrative Professional” written in Copperplate Gothic. Patrick Bateman would be unimpressed. I bought them during my extended unemployment, intending to use them while networking to find a job. Of the 250 cards I ordered, at least 225 are still in the box, collecting dust. The rest simply vanished into the wind. One the one hand, I didn’t exactly go out of my way to “network.” On the other hand, I don’t see myself as an “Administrative Professional,” either. If that’s not who I am, then no wonder I kept procrastinating on putting cards in people’s hands.

I’ve said that I’m a writer, but for a writer, I certainly don’t do a hell of a lot of it. What I do a lot of is… well… In terms of real hours, I spend the majority of my time running between a computer and a printer, doing a task that—aside from moving paper from point A to point B—could be easily replaced by some clever UI scripting. The next largest chunk of my time, is spent on the phone trying to convince people to either donate money or buy a theatre subscription. Neither of these are writing. Neither of these are creative. Neither of these are who I am, or who I want to be. I’m in the process of trying to fix that by changing my physical location, but that’s really only a start. In the meantime, I’m at my job where I move papers from point A to point B, feeling my brain atrophy.

Challenge vs. Skill
Challenge vs. Skill

On the chart there, devised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, [1]: I’m spending the majority of my time stuck bouncing between the “Apathy” and “Boredom” wedges. Why? It’s not a hard job, and it’s not a particularly difficult one. I can’t make myself develop enough of an emotional attachment to the work to make the lack of challenge worth it. Or, I should say that the emotional attachment I had when I started the job has withered away. Part of the reason why is that I never intended this job to be a permanent, long-term thing. This isn’t a career, it’s a means to an end—putting a roof over my head, food in my stomach, and money in the hands of my creditors.

There is nothing wrong with this. Per se. It’s the sort of work life that millions of people have now, and have had for decades. It worked for my parents, and probably yours, too. There are plenty of people who are content to have a job that is fulfilling on a purely economic level. There many not be as many as there used to be, but you can still get a Richard Scarry job.

Where things fall down for me is the conflation of what I do with who I am, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. So much of the American identity is based around work. So often, the first thing you ask when meeting a new person is: “What do you do?” I hate having to answer this. It’s embarrassing, at least depending on which of the correct answers I give. I could say, “I’m a writer,” and leave it at that, but that doesn’t explain why I’m waiting at the counter of the coffee shop at eight in the morning for my first caffeine infusion of the day, haggard and sleep-deprived, but well-dressed and carrying a bag on my shoulder . Clearly, I’m going somewhere. So I have to tell the nice barista, “Oh, uh, I’m a clerk for the government…,” then look sheepish, put the lid on my coffee, and run to catch the train. I am going somewhere, but I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere at all.

As I start job hunting in earnest again, I’m confronting a pair of questions: “What do I want to do that’s worth doing?” and “What can I do that will pay the bills?” [2] Then there’s entrepreneurship, which is something I approach in the same way one approaches a gorilla: warily. I have no ideas for products or businesses, unless you count being a fiction writer, which is only lucrative for people like Stephen King, and even he held down his share of shitty day jobs while getting his start. After the last couple jobs I’ve held down to support myself, and seeing the effects, I just have to wonder why I even have to compromise on what my shitty day job is. The current situation might not be so bad if I wasn’t coming home after thirteen hours exhausted and exasperated. When you expend all your energy on the stuff that forms the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the rest of that climb is made exponentially harder. Naturally, what’s at the top is all that good stuff of self-actualization, and—to mix my metaphors—it dangles just out of reach.

I’m not good at knowing what I want. I’m better at knowing what I like. I like technology, writing, music, art, and variety. I like having clearly defined goals I can check off a list when they’re done. I like knowing that what’s done really is done, and I don’t have to fix it unless I made a mistake. Where do any of these things intersect, and do they intersect in a place that also provides enough money to live on while I focus on what truly matters to me? Paying dues is one thing. Actively putting aside my dreams for financial security is another.

If what I do is who I am, and I don’t do what I want to be, what have I become?

If what I do is who I don’t want to be, then how can I change who I am?

If I don’t know who I want to be, how can I find out?

  1. Pronounced Chick-Sent-Me-High.  ↩

  2. The third question is “Who will actually consider hiring me?” but that a bit more out of my control.  ↩