In college, I took an Asian American studies class, focused on the civil rights movement of the sixties and seventies. Our final assignment asked us to interview someone from a previous generation to capture an oral history. I interviewed my mom, a third-generation Japanese American. It was the first time we’d ever discussed identity.
I learned so much about my mom during that interview — my grandparents’ stories, my mother’s early childhood, and her relationship with her heritage. There’s one detail that I still think about, years later. “I don’t usually identify myself by what I am,” my mom said, referring to the identities that she did not choose, like being Japanese. “I identify myself by what I do. As in, I play and teach cello.”
With that, my mom inspired me to take a closer look at the language we use to express our identities.
“What are you?”
Being biracial, I get this question a lot. I’ve found that people typically want a clear-cut answer, something they can use to classify and familiarize me.
Now that we all have an omnipresent audience via social networking, we’re spending even more time figuring out how to talk about our identities. We all have a personal brand to craft and maintain. Know your elevator pitch, career coaches say. Find your niche. This advice leads us to believe that the goal of personal branding is to be as brief and specific as possible. Clear-cut, easy to classify.
So, we use titles as a shorthand to describe ourselves. On Twitter, we declare “[profession] @[company]” in our bios. On LinkedIn, we open our summaries with “[industry] professional with x years of experience.”
I do it, too. My Instagram profile reads like a quirky cast of characters: writer, artist, musician, crazy coffee lady. These titles — what I call “I am” statements — are concise and direct, which may lead us to think that they’re effective in portraying who we are. I can say “I’m a product manager” to describe myself professionally, and for some people, that may be enough. They can fill in the blanks from there.
But that’s just it: they’re filling in the blanks. As much as they strive for specificity, these titles are open to a wide range of interpretation, assumption, and generalization.
“What do you do?”
It’s the dinner party question. In her audiobook, The Power of Vulnerability, Brené Brown notes how we tend to equate What We Do with Who We Are. It’s often the first question we ask someone, before we inquire about hometowns, families, passions.
Sometimes, we answer this question the same way we answer, “What are you?”
Q: “What do you do?”
A: “I’m an engineer.”
Other times, we use “I do” statements, as my mom proposed in our interview. You see designers who say, “I design things for people to use,” at the top of their portfolios, as minimalist with their words as they are with their pixels. Or software developers who simply say, “I build cool things.”
These short and snappy statements describe what we do (albeit vaguely), but they don’t say much about us. Chances are there’s a lot of people out there doing the same thing — and that’s more than okay. That said, ask yourself: why am I one of those people? What makes me proud to wear that title?
My tenth grade English teacher would scribble this in red all over my essays. Why, why, why?
Here’s what “I am” and “I do” statements often fail to accomplish: they don’t articulate why we do what we do. I’d argue à la Simon Sinek that the meat of who we are is in the why, and the why unveils the more powerful what’s. For example, what do we value? What do we stand for?
Granted, I doubt many people are trying to express their Big Why in their Twitter bios. But let’s think about the introductions we give at job interviews or the About Me on our personal website or the cold email that we send to a prospective mentor or client. Those are instances in which this language really matters, because that’s what can set us apart. The why gives dimension to an otherwise flat description of who we are. As Julie Zhuo writes, “The part that builds connection, that turns your story from a couple of black and white statistics into a colorful film, that adds the spice and herbs to your otherwise bland potatoes, is the passion and personal motivation behind your facts.”
This isn’t to say that the “I am” and “I do” statements are meaningless. Rather, they’re building blocks, variables in a larger equation that goes something like this:
What I am: I’m a product manager.
What I do: I synthesize technology, processes, and people to help companies reimagine “the way things have always been” for something better.
Why I do it: I believe that everyone, given the proper resources, environment, and advocacy, can maximize their potential and thrive.
Even if we don’t share our why from the start, it’s worthwhile for us to know it for ourselves, and to remember: we are more than our titles.