More Thoughts On Identity. Three Stories.

Girl in water

The Child You Once Were

When I was a young girl we lived in a house with a sprawling woods out back. The woods had a creek running through it, where my siblings and I spent long hours wading and fishing.

On a hot summer day, a shallow stream meandering around sandbars and bends looks very inviting to children. But what lies beneath those sunlit waters can be somewhat different from what we expect.

Sometimes we’d step in and suddenly be ankle-deep in thick, sucking mud. When skimming for minnows, a fat black snake might slip off the bank and send us screaming to the shore. At times we’d emerge to find our legs spotted with leaches.

What does this have to do with identity? What stands out for me is this: the girl I was back then, is very much like the woman I am today. Key attributes of my identity had already formed.

The snakes and leaches didn’t keep me out of the water. Risk and excitement and the possibility of being surprised appealed to me then, and they still do.

I am comfortable taking chances, even when the outcome is uncertain. I live by the saying “You only live once. But if you do it right, once is enough.”

Over the years I’ve experimented with the “shoulds” and “should nots” prescribed by my parents, my culture, the workplace, the media. But I have found that when I’m following someone else’s plan, I am less happy – sometimes very unhappy. And happiness matters.

Think back to your own childhood. What key characteristics have remained constant? What attributes have you learned to hide or deny? Why? What is the impact on your life?

How would your life be different if you dared to take your whole self into the world every day?

What You See Is What You Get

George was a hard-working man with an aptitude for all things mechanical. He liked to work with his hands. He was a problem solver.

In the years I knew him, I’d seen him fix broken-down cars, remodel his family’s kitchen, change spark plugs, fix a lawn mower, and much more. He liked solving problems, and he wasn’t afraid of work.

He had grown up in a large family and went to work at an early age. He didn’t have much education, but over the years he had proven himself to be a creative thinker, willing to tackle difficult problems. He liked a challenge. And I think he was always a little amazed at his own abilities.

George had just finished the design of a platform to be used as a rocket launcher for a national defense contractor, when his boss approached him with an opportunity for advancement. There was an engineering position open in the department and the boss thought it was a good fit for George. Though he protested, his boss finally convinced George to fill out the application.

The next day his boss came by to ask why he hadn’t completed the section on education. But the truth was that he had. The boss couldn’t believe that George didn’t have a degree in engineering. In fact, he hadn’t even completed High School.

Of course, he didn’t get the job. But when he told me the story, it was clear that George was proud of his hard work and ingenuity, and the accomplishments he’d made in his career.

The fact that the engineers recognized his knowledge and abilities was a source of pride. He hadn’t had the opportunity for higher education, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t smart. His experience complemented what the engineers had learned in school. They often came to him for input.

George was my father: capable, curious, and self-taught. If you had told him to “fake it ‘til you make it”, he would have given you multiple reasons why not to do so.

Are you holding yourself back because you lack a degree or credential? How much more could you contribute if you stayed curious, trusted your instincts, and went into the world with a “can do” attitude?

Are you faking it? Or are you humbly and authentically doing the very best you can?

Titles and Degrees and Certifications! Oh, My!

Unless you are new to earth, you’re probably familiar with the story of The Wizard of Oz.

On her way to the Emerald City, Dorothy picks up three companions: a scarecrow who wants a brain, a lion who wants courage, and a tin man who wants a heart.

Along the way, through a series of adventures and challenges, we see that each one of them already possesses the very thing he seeks. Once they get to see the wizard, all he can really do is provide “proof”, a symbol – something to show the world.

The scarecrow gets a diploma, the lion a medal, and the tin man a heart. But these artifacts didn’t change who they already were.

6834470-wizard-of-oz-wallpaper

The children’s story The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz by L. Frank Baum was first published in 1900. The film adaptation came out in 1939. But the lessons still ring true. If you haven’t watched the movie since you were a child, take another look. I guarantee you’ll find lessons you didn’t pick up as a child.

So what does this have to do with identity? (A story within a story.)

My friend Manny has made a hobby out of collecting certifications that add letters to the end of his name: MIE, MBA, PMP, CUA, CQE, CSQP, CQA IPC 600 and 610 certified. There are more, but you get the picture.

Most people wouldn’t know what these letters mean without looking them up. And, what do they really tell you about Manny’s talents, interests and goals? Not much.

Manny obviously likes learning. He’s curious. And he can successfully complete coursework and pass exams. The fact that he puts these on his resume tells us he has a sense of humor. Or maybe I just know that because I know him.

To be clear! I am an advocate for education and life-long learning. I have degrees and certifications of my own. In today’s world, it’s not possible to keep up unless we are willing to keep learning. I read. I take classes. I attend conferences.

There are instances where the right credentials are an absolute must. I want my heart surgeon to have all the right degrees, specializations, and a lot of experience! On the other hand, if I am launching a new product, I need someone who can deliver high quality, on time, and on budget. Depending on the industry, a combination of studies and experience may be a plus. In other cases, experience may be enough.

What matters are the results, not the letters behind your name.

the man behind the curtain
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!

In the movie, we find out that the Wizard is an impostor. Ironic, isn’t it?

He has to admit that he doesn’t know how to get Dorothy home. She calls him a very bad man, to which he replies, “No, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”

In real life, if you say you can do things that you can’t, you run a high risk of being found out. “Fake it ‘til you make it” may not be a good tactic.

The good news is, nobody knows everything. Nobody is good at everything. That’s why we work in teams.

Better to be honest about your skills and strengths, put your best foot forward, and dedicate yourself to learning and growing, and always moving toward your goals.

Don’t call yourself a wizard unless you plan on showing us some real magic!

Call to action: Take some time to really think about your talents. Were some of them already visible in your childhood? Are there opportunities to use and further develop your innate talents? Are you contributing less than you can because you lack the “right” letters behind your name? Where are there gaps between who you say you are and who you really are?

mary-oliver - Listen

If you missed my previous thoughts on identity, you can read it here. It’s a theme that has captured my imagination, so there’s more to come.

If you like these posts, share them with friends and on social media. If you agree, give me a “like”. If you disagree or have something to add, let me know. These are some of my thoughts. Please share yours.

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