An Exercise in Self-Identification

Twice each year, at the beginning of July and the end of December, I review a document I call the Roadmap. This one-pager sits in one of my OneNote notebooks, serving as a reminder of my priorities and as a course correction for when I stray. The Roadmap consists of seven sections. The first answers, to my satisfaction, the question of what the whole point of life, in general, is all about. The second section — “vision” — distills into a single sentence the one major goal I have for my own tiny existence. The third section answers the “who am I?” question with a succinct list of attributes. Then I have the bucket list, a list of seven core strategies for attaining my vision, a seasonal outline of objectives for the coming year and a “why bother?” section that presently consists of six quotes that resonate with me.
Today marks Revision No. 10 of this document; the first version appeared in December 2009. As I pored over it and its prior versions (!), it occurred to me that I’ve been perhaps overly cautious, even to myself, about how I elect to define myself. The mental pause on this revision lies in section No. 3. I keep tinkering with the list, trying to keep it succinct enough to fit as a description on my Twitter handle. But I think I’m guilty of the fallacy of accent.
My own thinking about my own Roadmap is of no real significance to the smart, sexy readers of my blog. However, I do think there’s a point to be made about the exercise in general. For as salutary as it may be to wrestle with The Big Questions, I think there’s a risk when people cannot answer one very basic question: “Who are you?”
Picture yourself in an elevator with a prospective employer, or at a fancy restaurant on a first date, or at a writer’s workshop where people do introductions. In fact, you need not imagine it; just pay attention the next time you’re on a conference call where people do introductions and ask for something annoying like a fun fact about yourself. How many people struggle to define themselves? How many pause uncomfortably, or babble, or apologize that they have nothing interesting to say?
The people who can’t come up with anything to say are usually nice folks who get by. Perhaps they’re just modest. More often, you’ll get answers shaped in the context of the moment. At a meeting, for example, a person might reply with a job title or a supervisor’s team. On a date, he might reply with hobbies or a brief biography. And all that’s fine, to a point.
The people who respond with tribal affiliations are a whole different ball game. They’ll usually pick one or two aspects of their identity and use those routinely, regardless of circumstance, if the question is sufficiently open. You see this a lot with LGBT crowds who self-identify by their sexual orientation, or with Evangelicals who loudly assert that they’re Christians. Elite athletes, professional or amateur, fall into the same paradigm. The risk attendant to tribal litanies is that they tend to cascade into non-overlapping hierarchies that serve as dog whistles to the like-minded.
Consider a situation where a total stranger, in a neutral environment, earnestly asks who you are — as a description, not as a name. And consider further that you’re inclined to respond. What do you say? Do you stutter? Do you begin your tribal litany? Do you declaim your resume?
Perhaps the contents of your response are less relevant than the fact that you are prepared with a well-considered answer.