Living biographies

5 March 2015
5 Mar 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

Maybe it’s the song that you heard a few minutes ago. Maybe It’s an idea that passed by that you’re trying desperately to remember. Or maybe it’s someone you met and can’t forget. Unfortunately, our brains leave a lot to be desired in perfection and memory, so I think I can safely say that most people are familiar with that nagging feeling inside your head, from something that you need to do but can’t. Of course, most of these are pretty harmless and go away rather quickly if left alone, but when it doesn’t, one of the ways that I’ve found to remedy it is to talk about it. So that’s what this post is – a half-therapy session and a half-writing time to understand and hopefully come to terms with what’s been bothering me for quite some time, and hopefully leave you with something of value as well. And it has to do with working. But first, let’s start with a short anecdote.

Until about 2 years ago, I had a clear vision for what I wanted to pursue as my main career of choice. I loved physics – the idea of explaining everything we see in the universe based on basic, first principles and the rules of logic was incredibly appealing, and no sooner had I read numerous books on the topic than I found myself in the midst of a fascinating field that was still sprouting out new and mind-blowing discoveries. So that was it. I was going to study physics through my educational career and probably land on a job working within the field. And for several years, anytime I worked on anything, I worked with that vision of my future in mind, from planning for challenging science courses to reading anything and everything I could find on areas of interest. But like any good story, reality ran against the expectations and years later I lost interest, surprisingly even more quickly than I had found it. At the time, I didn’t realize it fully, but I lost interest so quickly because it wasn’t the idea of physics itself that drew me in, rather it was the idea of understanding why the world worked the way it did. And though I’m in no position to pretend to understand modern physics to any sophisticated level, I found a place and a level of understanding that I was satisfied with, and once I’d reached that point. my drive for continuing to study physics fell shortly*.

After that, instead of working within a specific field of interest constantly, I found myself dabbling in a little bit of everything, from music and visual arts to programming to economics and even writing, something I’d detested for almost my entire life. But strangely enough, I also became even more involved than before with whatever I was working on at any given moment, sometimes going for a week working on a single programming project and nothing else (besides the essentials of being a functional human being, naturally). Rather than my work and personal projects being an element of my lifestyle, my interests assimilated to become the defining feature, than soon, then container of my lifestyle. My life became my work.

That in itself wasn’t a negative change – my priorities shifted a little, but that was that. But what I noticed most was not how my actions and lifestyle changed around my work, but how my identity shifted to accommodate what I do. Saying I became attached to my work would be too much of an understatement. I think in my mind, my identity is defined – whether I like it or not – by the things that I do. I think that’s such an easy mistake to make, both in thinking about ourselves individually and in conceptualizing other people. One of the most common mistakes that we make in how we see anyone is defining them not by who they are, but instead by what they do. Popular cultural icons and celebrities are probably the greatest victims of this – their entire personalities as the public defines them are almost exclusively based on what they do. If they’re an actor, it’s defined by the roles that they take in performances. Artists are defined by their musical style, and even academic personalities like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking are defined, in the public eye, entirely by what they’ve achieved, rather than what kind of a human being they are. A part of this is in how our culture perpetuates thinking about people in terms of their achievements and work, rather than their personality and human-ness**.

Our culture, or at least the predominant mindset in the U.S., says that a career of choice isn’t something you “do”, but something you “become”. You aren’t just someone who’s exceptional in the arts; you are a musician. You aren’t just someone attending school, you are a student, with a “student lifestyle”. You can’t just be a person who created a company, you are defined by the company. And as I think often to a fault, I’m not just a person who does a bunch of random projects with tech, in my mind, I’m defined by what I’ve achieved. But not only does defining anyone by their work and achievements constrain your view of that person and what they could be to you, it also prevents you from understanding that person as a human being, more complex than a figure in a dramatized biography. Steve Jobs may have been the face of Apple, but he was also a father and at one time a lively high school senior. Martin Luther King Jr. was a revolutionary, but he was also a neighbor to someone somewhere, and a boyfriend to his wife before marriage. I think defining anyone’s identity by their achievements takes away our ability to imagine them as something more than what they appear to be from what is essentially their resume. In essence, I think we’ve grown too accustomed to viewing and defining people by their achievements that we forget to look beyond it, and this perpetuates all of us to live in a state of “living biographies” to other people. Unfortunately, biographies are not really about the people, but about what they’ve done. And as informative as they are about someone’s achievements, they’re less effective at connecting you to the person profiled within. So we shouldn’t forget that in both thinking about ourselves and looking at other people, achievements are nothing but an asterisk to a more complex and beautiful whole.

* That’s not to say I lost interest completely – I still enjoy it, and I’m trying to get back into continuing to work on my unfinished ideas.

** One of the strangest things in the English language? The “Dr.” title prefixing names for people with doctorates. Talk about culture perpetuating a mindset.

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