I spend a lot of time trying to distract myself from my own thoughts. They have a tendency to take on a life of their own and without management end up spiraling out of control.
Distractions take many forms. Work, music, competitive sports, drinking, competitive drinking. By distracting myself from my thoughts, I end up being able to focus, being able to make decisions and generally keeping myself on some kind of track. I tend to surround myself with stimuli, particularly during stretches of time when the only other option is to think.
During my time away, I decided to try the exact opposite and left myself with my own thoughts for hours on end. By roaming cities, without any music, and just by myself, I have observed and drifted and just waited to see what life my thoughts would take on.
Without those distractions, I tried to ground myself by reading a lot more. And in the week I’ve been away, I’ve managed to consume more literature than I have in years. Maybe by coincidence or by design, the themes of my reading are quite similar — self discovery, communication, trust and identity.
That last word stuck with me as I started to think about my own identity and with all the things that make up what and who I am. I started to go into it in some detail when I worked on my personal branding, but I haven’t been able to stop and check in since that time.
Identity is an interesting concept because it’s shaped as much by yourself as it is by your surroundings. If I consider the development of my own identity, I would describe myself as a product of my surroundings, not a product of my doing.
I always found it difficult to fit in and find my place. For that reason, I developed a personality that was a mix of cockiness and self deprecation. I learned that I could dial either one up or down and that I was malleable to be (mostly) likeable to most people I meet. I have an incredible circle of friends and I know many people around the world, but I genuinely think they all have a different view of my identity.
As I lay on a beach somewhere and watched the clouds roll past, it dawned on me that this may be in part due to letting other people define my identity, rather than me defining it for myself. I am many things to many people, but I’m not entirely sure what I am to me.
Perhaps the reason this has become so pertinent is as a result of all the work I have done in 2016 to define my work identity. As a business owner, as a global shaper, as a public speaker, as a so called ‘subject matter expert’. All of these come with labels and of expectations of what makes up that kind of person. That is a big part of my identity because it’s what I strive to do and my means to leave some kind of legacy.
However, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle. When I read about the people who have truly left their mark on the world, their identity is far beyond the work they do. It’s who they are as a person, how they treat people and many intrinsic values and actions that make them both good and successful humans.
None of the people I read about or speak to are born with their identity. They either shape it or it is shaped for them. How, when or why it happens is often not disclosed, and we are left to see the outcome, not hear the story.
In a week’s time, I am expected to fly to Geneva and represent Melbourne as the Curator of our Global Shapers Hub. There I am expected to present my views on governance and branding because I have been identified as an “ideal hub curator to deliver these remarks”.
A week after that, I am going to return to Australia and resume my identity as a CEO, as a Director and as a more dedicated volunteer. I know that in the next few months, I will be exposed to a number of people, all of whom I need to approach with absolute clarity about my identity (at least from a work perspective).
My malleability will mean that I will succeed frequently and learn when I don’t. It’s why I’ve managed to achieve anything thus far. But as I grow into these roles, I now realise that it is important for me to shape their identity as a part of me, not let them be the definition.
Maybe the journey will be interesting to others, and maybe it won’t. One thing I took from all of my reading is that so many people out there are trying to figure this stuff out and most (if not all) are not doing a good job.
That’s not to say I am (not by any stretch of the imagination), but nearly a year since I entered one of the deepest troughs of my life, the acknowledgement and documentation of stumbling through this period has been gratifying, fulfilling and somewhat revelatory.
While I am happy to resume the identities that have been crafted for me, I have decided to focus on working out what makes up my identity as I see it. And strangely, I have managed to find this point of focus by letting my thoughts run wild and seeing where they end up. It’s been a fun experiment and one that I want to repeat again soon. But I do miss my iPod.