If your life were a movie, what would you put in the trailer?

What are the three things you’re asked when you first meet someone new?  What are the things that, with or without you consciously recognizing it, define you? What’s your 30-second life story? 

These are the three questions I was asked most often when I lived in New York in the mid-2000’s:

1. What’s your name? 

2. What do you do? 

3. Where did you go to school? 

From these questions, I could extrapolate on some values held by a certain slice of mainstream American culture:

 

1. The importance of Identity

Duh. As cognitive psychologists can explain better than I can, having a word, a name for something is linked to the the existence of that concept  itself. In most cultures, not just American, your identity starts with the words “I” and your name. (Although, in some cultures, like my native Chinese culture your last name – and therefore your relationship to a family or clan – is emphasized more than your first name).

2. The (extreme) importance of Work

I give credit to my European husband for pointing this one out. At this time in America (and in China as well as many other countries), our Work has come to define us. When people ask, “What do you do” they don’t mean, “What’s your passion?” or “What would you do if you never had to work for money?” They mean, specifically, “What’s your job?” 

3. The importance of Education

…but not just education for the pursuit of knowledge. This question immediately follows the Work question and was often proceeded by (at least in that slice of America I inhabited in New York) name dropping of common acquaintances. I think this question is more about education and the presumed social networks they bring to you.

 There’s a lot to be said about these implicit values. So much that I think they deserve a separate post. 

 

I don’t want to ruminate on why we’re confronted with these three basic questions when we meet new people, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing here.  The fact is, these are the questions I’m faced with when I go out to meet people in mainstream society. So how do I answer these questions? What’s my 30 second life story?

1. What’s your name? 

This one’s easy. Or, at least it should be. (It’s a bit trickier if you live in an English-speaking country and your name starts with a Q but isn’t followed by a U, and that Q sounds more like a “ch”… FYI for the non-Chinese speakers, Qi is pronounced kind of like “chee”)

2. What do you do? 

This one was easy. At my first job, I was a “management consultant.” Then, I became an “equity salesperson,” or to make things less complicated if I met non-finance industry people, “I work at a bank.” It started to get a little complicated when I quit my bank job and embarked on my “time off” adventures. I was at times an “editor,” a “yoga teacher”, or a “freelance writer.” 

3. Where did you go to school?  

Phew, this one was and still is easy to answer. 

Of these, #2 gave me the most trouble. Especially after I rejoined the corporate world while maintaining my yoga, writing, and other “alternative” pursuits on the side. I felt like I had two separate identities. I didn’t want to tell people “I work for an asset management company” because I increasingly felt that it painted a stereotypical image of an old stodgy guy in a suit (which clearly wasn’t me). I also didn’t want to define myself by my paid  work, because my other (lesser paid) work was equally important to me. And it was too much of a mouthful to tell people I’d just met, “I work in finance during the week and teach yoga slash pursue other endeavors during the weekends.”

If my life were a trailer, I wanted to fill it with all the snapshots that help capture who I am as a whole person.

I found an answer to question #2 that I like recently. Dr. Otto Scharmer, an incredibly widely read lecturer at MIT’s Sloan business school, writes in his book “Theory U” about “the rise of a creative class” (a phrase coined by Richard Florida of Carnegie Mellon University): 

Some 38 million Americans, or 30 percent of all employed people, belong to this new class, whose core includes people in science, engineering, architecture, design, education, arts, music, and entertainment together with professionals in business, finance, law, health care, and other related fields. What do all these people have in common? Florida says it’s shared creative ethos that values creativity, individuality, difference, and merit. The key difference between people in the creative class and other classes lies primarily in what they are paid to do. Those in the working class and the service class are paid primarily to execute according to plan, while those in the creative class are paid to create and have considerably more autonomy and flexibility than other people.

Though I’m not sure yet that I’m primarily “paid to create,” I definitely approach all of my (different) Work with the idea that I don’t just want to “execute according to plan.” If my life were a movie, I would choose to put in the trailer images that represent business, literature, music, philosophy, spirituality, and physical wellness. The movie I’m trying to make would then flesh out the commonalities between these seemingly different fields. 

 

In the future, when someone asks me  “What do you do?” I think I’ll say, “I’m a creative.”

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So you “made it”…then what?

My 10-year college reunion is happening this week in California. Seriously, I graduated 10 years ago? I remember being 10 years old , maybe, and thinking that by the time I reached my 30’s I’d be “so grown up” and have it “all figured out.”

Guess what? I’m not, and I don’t.

Some time around 30, I started reflecting on just what the heck I was doing with my life. A kind of unidentifiable malaise had set in. I brushed it away with easy excuses, the stuff I could see on the surface: “Oh, it’s my relationship. As soon as we fix a couple of things that are wrong with us, I’ll be fine.” “Well, my father passed away, I’m just grieving.” Or, “It’s all these grumpy cab drivers fouling up my mood every morning.”

It took a couple of years – and a lot of exploring through yoga, traditional healing, Western psychology, Eastern philosophy – for me to realize that the easy stuff were symptoms of what was wrong with me , deep down. The root cause of my malaise was that I had, on the face of it, “made it” but had never taken the time to find out if the things I had “accomplished” were meaningful to me.

My Stanford graduate degree certainly made my parents proud. And my job at Credit Suisse made my bank account feel good. But I wasn’t happy. I had been racing through life, trying to get to where other people told me I “should” be, but when I got there, it gave me a lot of stress and bad acne.

For a long while, I dealt with the realization that I wasn’t happy with my “success” by “talking down” to myself. “Why can’t you be like so-and-so, just get on with it and do your job?” “Look at her, she works a much more demanding job than you do and she’s not complaining.”

But eventually, I came around to seeing that it doesn’t matter what other people were doing, and what made them happy (who knows if they’re even happy anyway). I needed to stop and ask myself what fulfills me, my life mission, and start doing those things!

So, I did. I gave myself a long break during which time the only goal I set was “try something new everyday.” I discovered yoga, and writing, and other random endeavors. Eventually, I returned to a more “normal” day job, but I continued to do the things that were gratifying to me on the side.

Recently, I came upon Alan Watts’s lectures on Eastern philosophy. I wish I had read this stuff years ago. Watts puts into words those vague uneasy feelings I experienced in 2009 and provides a framework for thinking about big questions, like “Why am I here?”

If you’re asking these questions at all, don’t repress them! Make the time and space to reflect on them. You never know where they’ll lead you…and I can say from first-hand experience that it’ll be a better place than you’re in now!

Here’s an excellent (excellent!) excerpt from Alan Watts’ “The Human Game” lecture (for a transcript of the whole lecture click here).

So then, in music though, one doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that was so the best conductors would be those who played fastest. And there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord, because that’s the end. Say when dancing, you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room – that’s the where you should arrive; the whole point of the dancing is the dance. But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling which gives us a completely different impression.

It’s all graded and what we do is we put the child into the corridor of this grade system with a kind of – come on kiddie, kiddie, kiddie. And now you go to kindergarten and that a great thing because once you finish that you get into first grade. And then come on first grade leads to second grade, and so on. And then youet out of grade school and you go to high school, and its revving up – the thing is coming. Then you’ve got to college, and then maybe grad school. And when you’re through with graduate school you go out and join the world.

Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance. And then you have that quota to make, and you’re going to make that. And all the time the thing is coming, its coming; that thing, the great success you’re working for. Then when you wake up one day when your about forty years old, you say ‘my god, I’ve arrived.’ I’m there! And you don’t feel very different than what you’ve always feel. And there’s a slight let down because you feel there is a hoax. And there was a hoax – a dreadful hoax. They have made you miss everything; by expectation. Look at the people who live to retire and put those savings away. And then when they’re 65 they don’t have any energy left. They are more or less impotent and they go and rot in an old people’s senior citizens community; and because we’ve simply cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. Because we thought of life by analogy with a journey – with a pilgrimage. Which had a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end; success or whatever it is or maybe heaven after your dead.

But we missed the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing and you were supposed to sing and to dance while the music was being played. But you had to do that thing, you didn’t let it happen.