Who Do I Think I Am?

Lately, I have been fascinated with the show, “Who Do You Think You Are?” on NBC. It traces the ancestry of celebrities. I find their journeys exciting and it spurred me to trace my own family tree on both sides and to see where I came from. When you look back at your family, you realize that people’s occupations and way of life stayed the same for many generations–a farmer passed down the farming tradition, a tradesman, shopkeep or businessman seemed to breed the same. A whole family’s identity was based on what the patriarch of the family did.

We live in a time now where people don’t even keep the same profession in their own lifetime for more than a few years. The question, “Who Do You Think You Are?” gets asked several times over in someone’s career. In my last career, I was a rarity, a “lifer” if you will, staying with the same company for 18 years. When you are forced to leave a job you have had and liked for so long, that scary question comes up, “Who Do You Think You Are….Now That Are Unemployed”. We spend most of our lives putting all of our time and energy into our jobs. We define who we are by what we do for a living. It’s the first question we ask when meeting new people, “What do you do?” which equals “Who are you?” People forgo children and downtime to get ahead in their career. And at the end of your life…what does it all amount to?

I happened to be at a wake last week and I saw the display of photos that gave the visual history of that person’s whole life. What do you see? Parties, birthdays, babies, grandparents, weddings, families. What don’t you see? Photos of the workplace. Photos of your office, your desk, your inbox. We spend a whole lifetime working, striving, sweating to be the best in our professional lives. And when our life is over, that is the thing that matters the least. The people we meet, the lives we touch are what matter. The ins and outs of how productive we were on the job and how many proposals we wrote and how much paperwork we completed are immaterial. Why is the balance so completely off then? Why are 10 and 12 hour work days ok with us? Why are we so afraid to once in a while take a long lunch and meet our spouse for a meal? Or to knock off early to see our kids’ sporting events? Collectively we tend to think of success in terms of paycheck and title and work, not in the payoff that comes from the title of father, mother, husband, friend.

In my own job, being in a nonprofit where great scientific ideas and medical breakthroughs happen, is of course gratifying. But it’s the people whose lives we change, the volunteers we interact with, the patients who tell their stories, those are the parts of the job that stay with me. The very lucky and brilliant people find careers where they make great things happen through discovery, innovation, and changing the world. But they are the rare few. The rest of us plod along day by day and get caught up in the undertow of the workplace wave.

So who do I think I am? I am someone who is defined by the people I meet along the way. At least that’s who I strive to be.


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