by Steve Indrigo
There was a time in my life when I hated being asked, “So, what do you do?” As a shorthand for “Who are you?” I thought it was unimaginative and myopic. I felt that it discounted all the other facets of my identity. I often wanted to answer with, “This is what I do, but that’s not who I am.” Instead, I’d give a ridiculous answer like “assassin” or “freelance proctologist” in an effort to dismiss the question. However, there’s also a strong correlation between my hostile feelings about the question and the answer. At those times, I didn’t like what I was doing and I didn’t want to be framed by that and only that.
I was never comfortable with work occupying the spaces in my life that I’d reserved for me, my family, and my friends. Although I’m sort of fascinated by those people who seem perfectly matched to their work, who live and breathe it, I know that I’m not that person. I’m not someone whose identity is a tributary to the ocean that is my career, and I need those boundaries between identities to remain happy and productive in all of them. My career is but one expression of my identity.
Maybe it’s because I came of age, in the career sense, in the 1990s. The 90s were a turbulent time. Canada began the decade with a recession, grunge music was blasting through the neon and saccharine of 80s pop like a claymore, and the certainty of a single lifetime career vaporized seemingly overnight. While I was happy to see Hammer pants disappear, the future of work was uncertain and troubling. Not only was meaningful work hard to find in the first place (see: recession), but now the promise of hanging onto a job once found had been broken. Even if that wasn’t a good promise to begin with, here was a new landscape to navigate. One in which it felt like whatever career you had could be derailed with the stroke of a pen, regardless of your dedication and ambition.
Or maybe I absorbed the brutal pragmatism my father learned growing up poor in post-war Italy. You did what you needed to do to survive. He didn’t want to be a carpenter, but that’s what he became and did for more than 50 years. He was and still is fascinated with mechanics and machinery. Now he spends his retirement years tinkering with and fixing lawn mowers, radios, and all manner of devices for the people in his neighbourhood. But at 12-years-old, with his Grade 6 education, he was given the opportunity to apprentice as a carpenter and make some money for the family. There was no choice. He didn’t have the luxury of saying that’s not who he was. That was unthinkable, given the circumstances.
So, even though they’re impossible to separate, I’m cautious about anchoring too much of my identity with the work that I do. Of course, we spend so much of our lives working, we can’t avoid our identities being shaped by the people we work with and the experiences we have. And for that, I’m largely thankful. I’ve been the benefactor of so much wisdom given to me by awesome people in my working life. And if I could share one of those nuggets of wisdom it would be this: carve out those spaces for yourself to exist apart from work, because no one else will do that for you.
Singer; paperboy; dishwasher; brake-press operator; shipper/receiver; photographer; dispatcher; construction labourer; actor; guitar player; husband; dad; media librarian; publicist; gardener; radio-show producer; grant writer; technical writer; UX copywriter; UX researcher. Which one of these am I? The answer is all of them, and none exclusively. Who I am is greater than the sum of all of these roles. To view myself through the lens of only one, to anchor my identity to something that is so subject to change, by choice and necessity, is to discount how complex we are as humans. We’re more than what we do to make ends meet. And if what you do also satisfies your soul, that’s truly wonderful.
Steve Indrigo is a writer and researcher who enjoys singing, playing guitar, making things with his hands, reading about ancient Greece, and being silly with his partner and two kids. He twitters @StIndrigo.