En Transición

How high school Spanish helped reframe my career transition.

Here’s a stock photo to remind you of high school Spanish class

For the last several months, I’ve felt like I’ve been in transition. Maybe it’s been years. It’s hard to know where to start counting.

The transition has been centered around my career. At some points I would’ve said I felt stuck. At others, I wasn’t even really thinking about it. When I look back at the path, it’s starting to take shape, but more times that not, I still feel pretty lost. Lost in what to call myself, what I really want, what the world needs, what makes me come alive, and what can make me money.

If you’ve ever felt similarly, I think I can help.

The story goes like this. I left one industry and haven’t yet arrived at a new one. More specifically, I left a job in advertising and decided to not go back. It had a clear hierarchy and ladder to climb, lots of linear careers rising through the ranks making good money. But I felt like I outgrew it and had other ambitions that didn’t mesh with who I would be if I stayed.

Our identity is tied to our work.

Because so much of who we are is wrapped up in what we do, it’s been a frustrating and harrowing journey. Simply because I don’t have a full-time job, or because I don’t feel confident in how to introduce myself, I feel like I am “identityless.” That quickly can escalate into a crisis. I question who I am. I talk through what I’m passionate about. I read about purpose and living an undivided life. I journal what my values are. I have long, existential conversations with friends without resolutions or a clear path. All of this self-reflection can be helpful. And exhausting.

Then, in the middle of a conversation with a friend, I was reminded of an early high school lesson in Spanish that has changed how I frame this problem. 
Let me explain.

I took Spanish for 7 years. I’ve had amazing teachers that have left such an imprint that I still am able to speak fluently when traveling to Spanish speaking countries, even 15 years since my last Spanish class. The lessons and teaching were so memorable, they’ve rewired how I think. When I was 11, Señorita Scanlon taught my introductory course. It was a lot of memorizing conversations. “Yo soy Jacobo. Yo soy de Chicago. Yo estoy feliz.” I am Jacob. I am from Chicago. I am happy.

We don’t question very much at that early age, we just memorize… until high school. I’m 15 and I’m taking classes with Señora Abreu, the same phrase doesn’t make as much sense.

Soy and estoy both mean “I am” …but how?

We spent weeks learning the difference between the verbs “ser” and “estar” which both mean “to be.” We’d make lists and learn new vocabulary trying to sort out the difference. Mnemonic devices littered our notes and walls. And 18 years later, I still remember.

The Cliff’s Notes version is that “SER” is used to denote things that are permanent, and “ESTAR” is temporary. So looking back on that original sentence makes sense. Yo soy Jacobo (permanent). Yo soy de Chicago (permanent). Yo estoy feliz (temporary).

This was a reminder and a relief as I navigate my career transition. There are parts of my identity that are permanent. This is who I am. Always. I am a father. A son. A brother. An artist. A caretaker. An explorer. Yo soy.

My job title and “what I do” can be much more temporary. This is who I am. For right now, but not always. I am an art director. A designer. A creative director. A consultant. A traveler. A coder. An Angelino. A New Yorker. Yo estoy. This is who I am, but they can and will change. They don’t have to be permanent.

Seth Godin does a great job of condensing this idea in his post, “I Have Fear” from August 17, 2017:

There’s a common mistranslation that causes us trouble.
We say, “I am afraid,” as if the fear is us, forever. We don’t say, “I am a fever” or “I am a sore foot.” No, in those cases, we acknowledge that it’s a temporary condition, something we have, at least for now, but won’t have forever.
“Right now, I have fear about launching this project,” is quite different from, “I’m afraid.”

Who We Are is Always Changing

Reframing my career as a temporary, fluid part of my identity has been energizing. I don’t put as much pressure on myself to feel like a commitment to a job title or a LinkedIn headline is my forever-identity.

Reminding myself that these things change and that in a way, we are all navigating constant change in our lives. That has helped me. And I hope it’s helped you, too.


Note: For those that speak Spanish fluently, I am aware that typically “ser” is used to talk about a profession. But for my personal definitions, my profession is only a part who I am now and doesn’t have to be permanent.


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