What Defines You?

A few months ago I was at a conference and the speaker, a very dynamic and successful woman, asked the audience to take a moment to write down a few words to describe themselves.  I excitedly wrote that I was funny, smart, loyal, insightful and trustworthy to name a few. The speaker then put up a slide with her words.  She had described herself as a mother, sister, daughter, wife, businessperson and marketing executive.  I had used adjectives to describe myself and she had used nouns.  I described myself by my qualities and she described herself by her roles.  What struck me was that we were both right, but why the difference and what was the significance?

I realized that I could be all the things I described myself as in all the roles the speaker used.  I could be funny, smart… as a mother, daughter or friend.  My words transcended what I did.  But her words didn’t tell me anything about who she was, just what she was or how she was “defined.”  I began to think about people who define themselves based on external factors and measures versus their internal barometers.  For example, I know I am funny even if no one laughs at my jokes.  If someone doesn’t get my humor I don’t question whether my assessment of myself was correct, it was simply that that person didn’t appreciate my sense of humor. It has no effect on who I am or how I define myself.  But what if you define yourself by your roles and the role is taken away or questioned?

This issue becomes very evident when you are talking about athletes who are “measured” by external factors such as batting average, shooting percentage or speed.  How can you be “good” if you perform below your own averages?  If you go 0 for 4 in a game are you no longer a good hitter or are you a disappointment to your team?  After a recent loss I asked a few baseball players why they were so down.  They looked at me strangely and stating the obvious said, “We lost” as if that was explanation enough.  I then asked them if they had done their best and if so what else could they have done; that isn’t it possible that someone else’s best is just better than yours on a given day?  Now these are blasphemous words from the parent of athletes and I should know better, but it sparked an interesting conversation.  Are you your performance?  And if you believe you are, then what happens at the next game?  The need for accomplishment becomes even more important because you need to “redefine who you are” and now the game isn’t so fun anymore.

So how does this translate into your daily life?  Do you avoid taking risks because of the fear of public failure?  And what is failure?  Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”  Edison’s internal assessment was clearly different from the external one.  Imagine the consequences if he had measured himself based on others’ evaluations.

When you live from a place of knowingness about who you are, the potholes and pitfalls of life are interesting and momentary events, learning experiences.  But if you define yourself by your roles and your performances and you come up short or encounter enough situations where someone else’s best is better than yours, you are setting yourself for failure and have left yourself too vulnerable to external assessment.  And ultimately your fears about how others will define you becomes what drives you.