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.”