Limits of self-definition

I’m not going to go all new age psycho-babble on you all, but I think power and limits of self-definition is something every creative professional needs to consider.

My recent gig with the ABC NASCAR project has reunited me with colleagues I’ve not worked with in years. They all know me as a longtime editor and post director with some motion graphics skills. They’re right. That’s what I do. But it’s not how I define myself. A few years in the dot-com world followed by a couple of years in b-school, and two startups later, I think of myself more as much an entrepreneur as editor. My web clients have no idea that I’ve got an Emmy or two under my belt (unless I find a way to sneak it into conversation as I just did here).

Self-definition is an interesting thing. Over the years I’ve probably not given it as much thought as others. Often people ask me what I do for a living and I pause. Editor? Designer? Web developer? Teacher? Writer? Often I just give the answer that will require the least explaining to the questioner. Of course I also pause when asked my age because I honestly forget sometimes.

By narrowly defining ourselves, we shut off many opportunities. Had I continued defining myself as an editor, I would not have gone to work at Scient in 1999. On the other hand, if I solely defined myself as an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t have taken a position with the world’s second largest media company this year.

I came across this article in Boxes and Arrows (an online journal from my other world) about learning from failure. I found the bit about the danger of inflexible self-definition very interesting. It applies to a lot of my colleagues in this business – really talented people who don’t step out of their narrow definitions of self. They are not necessarily heading for failure, but they are shutting the door on opportunities.

So while my mother continues to wring her hands over the fact that her near-middle age son still doesn’t know exactly what he plans on doing for the rest of his life, it turns out I’m pretty lucky.

One Thought on “Limits of self-definition

  1. Steve Roberts on July 11, 2007 at 1:17 pm said:

    Hi Frank – nice blog. It’s on my bookmarks bar now.

    I think the buddhists have it right, believing that self-definition is an illusion, just as all definitions are illusions. Sometimes those illusions are useful, as long as we don’t mistake the map for the territory.

    In my opinion, the most flexible and capable people are the ones for whom “self” is irrelevant. They just do what needs to be done without worrying about themselves and how they’ll be perceived. I’ve worried about that too much during my life, and I’m only now *starting* to let it go. It’s really hard.

    But I’m with you — the best answer to the “what do you do” question depends on the situation and the questioner.

    Continued success to you, Frank.
    Steve (Rockport)

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