Who Are You, Anyway?
A Tale of Identity & Discovery in the Cloud Forest
“So what do you do?” In the Western world, social introductions are usually scripted. Once initial pleasantries are exhausted, the question of your job often arises. Why might that be? Are we expected to justify our existence by disclosing what we get paid to do? Does What You Do somehow define Who You Are?
As part of my retirement preparation, I learned about the world of Financial Independence (FI), courtesy of my lovely and brilliant wife and her tribe of FI bloggers, authors, and advocates. In 2017, she took me along on an amazing trip to participate in a Financial Independence Chautauqua in the mountains of Ecuador. It was a damp and magically green place where nature makes the clouds, and people discussed and thought about ideas in ways reminiscent of the original chautauquas of the early 20th century.
At this week-long fully-immersive event, I heard less about the numbers, tax strategies, and math associated with retiring early, and more about the purpose of doing so. A popular topic was, “What will you do once you pull the trigger?” Implicit in that is the value question: What is important to you, once you are financially independent and don’t have to work every day to pay the bills? What will you do when you have “F-You money” and are free to choose that which is most important to you? This made me wonder, does leaving a job influence your perceived identity?
In my experience, I have known many people who “are the job”. For these people, their personal identity is tightly interwoven with their job, even more so for those who have a chosen career path versus an accidental vocation. I’m not making a value judgement about this trait, but it begs the question: What happens when the job goes away? What/who are you then?
Job loss, even through volunteer retirement, is highly correlated with clinical depression. People sometimes feel adrift, and miss the daily routine, contributions, and social connections from their former employment. Understanding strategies to avoid this is an important step in planning for financial independence.
Role models were few. My father and grandfather worked in our hometown meatpacking plant. It was hard work and hard on their bodies but it provided for their families. I never thought about asking my dad who he felt he was. In my younger mind, he was firmly ensconced in the role of father, provider, disciplinarian and irregular teacher of those skills he felt a man ought to have. (Unsurprisingly, I have never since needed to pluck a pheasant or skin a rabbit, but I have benefited from his other, more practical lessons.)
Perhaps the daily toil of blue-collar work and raising ten children precluded introspective activities like thinking about identity. Had I possessed the audacity to ask, the answer would probably have been, “I’m the guy who’s going to put my boot to your ass if you don’t get the grass mowed.” For many of his generational cohort, retirement was the brief period of sitting on the couch between working and death. There wasn’t time for introspection.
And that’s probably all you really need to know to understand my father. No need to overthink it.
In The Messiah's Handbook, Richard Bach wrote, “The simplest questions are the most profound. Where were you born? Where is your home? Where are you going? What are you doing? Think about these once in awhile, and watch your answers change.”
I was never quite clear on how my place of birth might change, but I’ll buy into it from a metaphorical perspective. Perhaps it’s about growth and rebirth through this transitional time. Certainly it’s about learning and discovery — maybe ‘growth’ in this context is learning and discovery focused inward.
Have my answers to Bach’s questions about place and purpose changed? Absolutely. I’m doing different things that I value more, I’m choosing my own direction and identity.
For a long time, I would have happily said, “I am a Software Developer” Or architect, manager, consultant, or whatever of a dozen-ish job titles I’ve had throughout the last forty-odd years. But I know better now. I am none of those things. Through this transition in my life, I realize who I really am, and choose to be. I am an inquisitive, learning, creative person. And while my circumstances and situations have changed from time to time, those have not defined who I am. While my identity is expressed in part through the many activities and mediums I value and enjoy, that’s really just what I’m doing, not who I am.
The Journey continues.
In writing this, I’m acutely aware of the many privileges I’ve had in my life. Although I’m using the word identity to describe the concept I have in mind, I also recognize that it can mean so much more than I ascribe to it here. Please know that I have nothing but respect and admiration for those who struggle daily with much weightier identity issues. I wish them all peace and happiness.