Of Seals, Roles And Identity

Just about anyone who’s ever breathed has been asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As a (very) young kid, my excited answer was always “a seal!”

I had a fun, magical image in my child’s mind of living in the ocean playing all day. While I can’t recall thinking there was anything wrong with being human, it seemed a wildly wonderful alternative to the dryland existence of Cedar Grove, New Jersey.

At some point I moved on from seal to Diver Dan, clearly sticking with the oceanic theme…

By the way, I still think being a seal would be a pretty good gig, providing I could get a guaranteed no-apex sea-predators rider on my contract.

And no circus tricks.

But I digress.

In those early single-digit days, I took the question rather literally and, handing it off to my vivid imagination, off to the races I went!

There’s a lot to the way things are worded. And there’s a lot to those seemingly innocent questions grown up people love to ask more freshly hatched people.

And, of course, there’s so much to be said about falling into the trap of collapsing one’s identity – who one is – with one’s role – what one does.

And there, dear reader, is the rub. Here be Dragons – and all the occupational hazards that go along with hanging out with them – because the human mind seems to have an endless capacity to paint itself into corners by identifying itself with whatever it’s up to in the moment.

I’m a skier.

I’m a father.

I’m a baker.

I’m a writer.

I’m an executive coach.

I’m a husband.

I’m a guitar player.

I’m an artist.

I could go on for days…

While all of the above are true, not one (or even the whole collection) tells you much of anything about who, at my core, I actually am.

Here’s the thing: In my line of work I often run into men who have wrapped themselves so tightly in the flag of their work that they’ve left themselves no space to see or imagine an identity beyond their professional role.

Faced with reorgs, down-sizing, burn-out, business failure or any other circumstance that pulls out the floor from below, they find themselves in free-fall.

Financial implications aside, these are wildly tough waters to navigate when one’s very identity can evaporate in a blink.

Sadly, this is exactly what gets set up by the culture’s default perspective on career: I do XYZ, therefore I am.

There is a way out, providing one is curious and willing to ask challenging questions about identity – before an unforeseen work-quake creates a hot mess.

The tricky bit is peeling the roles back to reveal the true prize – that brilliant being at the center of however many titles and roles one might have.

Here’s a pair of questions to play with: Apart and away from the degrees, ranks, job or business titles and roles, who are you? What are you?

Don’t stop at the first answer.

Keep drilling and asking, challenging yourself to answer differently every time.

See how far you can go with answers having nothing to do with roles or accomplishments.

Here’s the thing: while there’s nothing wrong with referring to yourself as an astronaut, an artist or a carpenter, it’s simply not the whole story.

There’s more to you.

By the way, I began writing this piece the week before Simone Biles came face to face with “the twisties” and made a clear, healthy decision to step away from competing in Tokyo.

One of her early discoveries: “I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics.”


And yes, I still want to be a seal.