Work, Identity and the Elasticity of Dreams

To what extent should "what we do" define "who we are"? Like most philosophical questions, there is no simple answer.
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David Gelb's inspiring documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi tells the tale of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, arguably the world's preeminent sushi chef. Ono runs a tiny sushi bar tucked in a Tokyo subway station whose modest appearance belies its three star rating from Michelin. He has dedicated his life to the pursuit of sushi perfection and painstakingly trained a small team of protégés in his mold, including his two sons. To say that Ono lives his passion would be a wild understatement. He is singularly obsessed by the mastery of his craft; his existence is defined by his work. Everything else is background noise. Sound like a downer? Perhaps. But Ono's sense of self-fulfillment is palpable. This is a man who wakes up in the morning energized by his art, and goes to bed dreaming of how to take it to the next level.

Ono's story begs an important question about what role work plays in our lives: To what extent should "what we do" define "who we are"? Like most philosophical questions, there is no simple answer. However, if Ono's example teaches us anything, it's that one's job can and should be much more than a means to an end. We dedicate too much of our lives to our professions to accept their inherent meaninglessness. Most career coaches will tell you to figure out where your passions lie early and then dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to pursuing them. The most common roadblock that gets in the way of putting this idea into practice is... money. Any struggling artist will tell you that being passionate and working tirelessly don't necessarily spell success. Sure, "success" is subjective. But even if we set the bar low at "not having to worry about food and shelter," it's clear that while heart and tenacity may be correlated with accomplishment, they certainly don't guarantee anything.

For most of us, pursuing a fulfilling career means balancing our strengths and interests with what the market will pay us to apply them. Maybe becoming a professional soccer player isn't in the cards, but that doesn't mean you have to abandon your love for the sport. There are a host of related career paths -- physical therapy, sports marketing, athletic apparel, etc. -- that may keep you close to the game, even if you're not on the field. I've seen too many people stumble when they try to make "following your dreams" an either/or proposition (e.g., either you're following them or not). Dreams are elastic. Broadening how you define them makes them easier to chase. Does giving up a narrowly defined stretch goal for a related, but less lofty sub-goal count as settling? Maybe. So frame it up as being practical, self-aware, nimble, flexible, or a host of other positive characteristics and take some of the pressure off yourself.

I'll tell you a secret. Well, it's not really much of a secret, but here it is anyway: I never dreamed of being a management consultant. Shocker, right!? The truth is, I didn't have boyhood fantasies of effective coaching moments, bulletproof project plans or elegant models (at least not the financial kind). But I always liked helping others. From the beginning, solving problems has inspired me. I've always been passionate about being a leader and teaching others how to lead. The fact that I'm able to apply what comes naturally and earn enough money to be comfortable makes work feel less like a drag and more like a really good workout -- moments of excitement, blips of pain and a general feeling of accomplishment when it's all over. Have I reached Ono-like levels of career mastery and engagement? I haven't. But I've set myself up to go there if I choose by acknowledging what gets me going and finding a way to get paid for it.

What do you take away from Ono's example and how does "what you do" reflect "who you are"?

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