Who Are You?

by Rich on March 26, 2018

The text said, “You are not defined by what you do, but by who you are.”

It was from a friend and former coworker. I stared at it for a minute, processing. The text surprised me because I had been thinking along those very lines lately, and call it coincidence, kismet, chance, or divine happenstance, when ideas and themes in my life align like that, I take notice.

I’ve been thinking about those things for a few reasons. First, I have a teenage son, and those are the kinds of ethereal, esoteric thoughts you have when you’re a dad on the treadmill for five miles a day, and you’ve given up listening to podcasts and Missy Elliott to kill the time. Some people give up chocolate for Lent. I gave up being distracted from pain. Chocolate is easier. But I digress.

Another reason I have been pondering this idea of identity has to do with athletes. My job often provides me with the experience of having current or recent student athletes as interns. Most of these kids are smart and self-aware, earnest in preparing for their futures after sports. Occasionally, though, I will get one who is convinced that he or she is headed for a long and profitable career as a professional athlete. Those are the ones that I end up spending more of my emotional energy on.

I often wonder why there are those who are so assured of success in sports at the next level. Sure, some of it is the healthy self-confidence that is a hallmark of big time pros. However, I’m afraid much of it is delusional. And that’s why I spend so much energy on these particular kids. No, I don’t try to beat them down or convince them that have no chance at the next level. I don’t pull out stats and graphs and numbers that clearly show that only the smallest fraction of all student athletes end up in a professional league. I’m not a dream killer. Or maybe I am. It probably depends on who you ask.

Look, I don’t blame them. Most of these young people have been told from a very early age that they are special, and that they are special because of what they can do on the field or court. That is very affirming. That is such a very powerful re-enforcer that it is no wonder so many of them begin to tie not only their self worth, but their entire identity to what they do. Most of us do on some level, and most of us aren’t top level athletes being constantly told that they are better than everyone around them at what they do. It’s human nature. But it’s also societal.

Here is an assignment that I give all of my interns, and I would challenge you to try it yourself: for the next week, when you meet someone for the first time, try to learn 3 things about them (besides their name, of course) before you ask them what they do. Or try to go at least 5 minutes. I know it sounds silly, and probably super easy, but try it. Trust me, it’s hard. I try to do it all the time and fail. Because we have all been coached from childhood that vocation equals identity. And that’s false. And that false assumption often robs us and those around us of our basic humanity, the true core of who we are.

“You are not defined by what you do, but by who you are.” It was a good text.

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