"What you do is who you are" is one of my favorite mottos. It drives my actions day after day and my passion to define my work and mission. I always advocate the delight of alignment. When your job is not a job anymore but a way to express your personality and values, the natural collateral effect is engagement and happiness. Your meaning is now so obvious.
Simple ideal picture, isn't it?
Last week, I had a conversation with a friend that made me question my thinking. We were talking about this satisfaction to produce, to create, to do something you are proud of as a prolongation of your mind and soul. But what if you start to define yourself only by what you can actually deliver? What happens when you do not do anything -- does it mean you are nothing?
We hear more and more about the "makers" movement, the "DIY" (do it yourself) mindset. In a recent application for a conference, to have a chance to attend, you had to answer a question: "What did you create this year you are the most proud of?"
Let me think... Did I create something stunning, or did I waste my year? As a human being, my evolution was great, I changed, I learned, and I faced my doubts, I embraced pure moments of joy, and I killed bad habits and created new ones, but that does not count.
Are you a doer? Are you a maker? Do you produce tangible things or projects? I can do, but I cannot still breathe, the pressure is on, the race is running. What you do is now the barometer of your value. What a mistake.
Be it in Europe or the U.S., when I meet new people, the question of what I do in this life always surfaces pretty quickly. Maybe not the first one, as knowing my name could be useful. You feel the pressure to provide a glamorous title for your occupation. By glamorous, I mean a job that will make your interlocutor not necessarily impressed but still interested. You feel proud when you can guess the tacit approbation in their eyes. I am wondering if this attitude is related to our obsession with success I discussed previously, and our productive-oriented Western societies. Tell me what you do and I will tell you who you are.
It could have a double effect. It can be empowering, or we can lose ourselves in it. At SXSW this year, Elon Musk shared a word of wisdom that is still stuck in my mind. To conclude his keynote, he answered the question, "What was your biggest mistake?" He took a long pause and said: "The biggest in general I've made and am trying to correct is that I put too much weight on talent and not personality. It actually matters whether someone has a good heart."
That is the danger of valuing someone only by his or her creations. It can blind you. You start to forget who you have in front of you and think that having the best maker in the room gives you a tremendous competitive advantage. Same for the creator. The illusion is a vicious circle. More we do, more we feel acceptable. More we want to keep the momentum. This tyranny can sometimes feel like a trap. It can make us miss the essential.
What if instead of asking someone upon meeting them, "What do you do?" you would consider exploring "Who are you?" The question will actually seem violent and harsh in the beginning, as we are more used to hiding behind our creations. Knowing what a designer built is amazing, but I have tremendous respect for people who seem so present. Not needing to blow me away with where they work or their latest product. Just confident enough to know that being is harder than doing. Many of us often avoid this fundamental knowledge, myself included. I should be able to know who I am without linking this definition to others's approval or concrete performance. Just being should be possible. Not as an ultimate target, but as a strong basis. A basis for not feeling totally miserable when we are facing rejection of our work or idea. A basis to stay still in front of the storm of life, with its disappointments and failures. I will not be destroyed by it. I am not what I do, I am more than that. I do not only live, I exist. That is a legitimate contribution. That is the opposite of being "unproductive" or "inactive."
As meaning provokes happiness and not the other way around, I wonder if we should not learn to just be first. Having the wisdom of feeling that already being is already an achievement. You do not have to do to deserve to be here.
I shared a quote few days ago from Ricky Gervais: "You should bring something into the world that wasn't in the world before. It doesn't matter what that is. It doesn't matter if it's a table or a film or gardening -- everyone should create. You should do something, then sit back and say, 'I did that.'"
Do not forget when the pressure is too strong, when you start to loose yourself in the delivery machine that the first thing you bring into the world that wasn't there before is you.
To be or not to be, that is and will always be the question.