I Am, Therefore I . . . ?

When you are at a party, and someone says to you, "So what kind of work do you do?" what do you say?

I had a professor at Rutgers (circa 1975) who taught communication theory. Once, he made the point that our language (the way we speak) revealed our underlying thinking.

He said, "You say you are a writer. I would say that I write articles for the newspaper. Or you say you are a teacher. I would say that I teach communication theory at Rutgers."

He added, "You think of yourself as being something while I think of myself as doing something."
While I tried to grasp the distinction he was making, I remember feeling angry with him at that time. He had a knack for this sort of thing. On one other occasion he said, "You go to the movies for ideas while I go to be entertained." Man, he had a way of getting under my skin.

Recently I encountered another sage, a career coach, who drove the same point home with me. He said that he advises his clients to focus on Why an Employer Should Pay Your Salary.

Employers are looking for people who can produce results. So when an employer interviews applicants, the employer is trying to determine which of them can deliver the goods.

So rather than say, I am a computer programmer, trainer, accountant, chemist or whatever, the career coach advised that you describe yourself in terms of What You Do and the Results You Deliver.

So, for example:

- I design reliable networks for healthcare systems.

- I advise pre-retirees on how to save money for retirement.

- I solve quality problems for pharmaceutical operations.

This is what my professor meant. He said that the difference between him and his students was that he defined himself by What He Did while we defined ourselves as Who We Are.

I guess some people are Who We Are types, and some are What We Do types. This still bugs me, 30 years later. But I think I am starting to get it.

Posted by Terrence Seamon, 06/10/06


Anuradha said…
Hi Terence -

Have always believed that the way you describe your work speaks volumes about your sense of connect with it.

Blogged about something related here - http://anuradhaganapathy.blogspot.com/2006/03/i-fix-matchesbetween-people-and.html

To take your line of thought forward, even in the "What We Do Types" - there would be those who describe transactions, and those who describe impact. And the difference between the two types of descriptions are more than just semantic in nature!
Terrence said…
Hello anuradha,

Welcome to my blog. Glad you stopped by.

I read your blog entry about recruiters and engagement. Good stuff!

I believe you are right about the words we use to describe ourselves. It says a lot about who we are inside, what we think about ourselves, and how we see ourselves in context.

Words are important.

Scott Sehlhorst said…
I've always derived a sense of identity from what I do. And I definitely answer the question with "I verb nouns" instead of "I am a verber of nouns."

Very interesting contrast you've put up. anuradha makes an interesting point too about transactions verus impact. It shows what perspective we put things in - and identifies if the "why" part of "what we do" is something so core to our approach that we think and share that way.
Terrence said…
Hey Scott,
Welcome to my blog!
You verb nouns, eh? I love it!
Anonymous said…
I love "verbing nouns"!

I'm probably one of those annoying coaches who split semantic hairs, but I do think words are important, especially how we describe ourselves and others.

E.g. I've had so many writing clients who get stuck on identity - "am I a writer?" (or "a real writer?" "a good writer?"), "or am I just a fake?".

But when they focus on how they actually WRITE, they often know exactly what to do, and get lost in the task - or I should say, the "verbing" :-)
Mark McGuinness said…
Sorry, that comment re writing was by me, don't seem to have got the hang of this system.

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