By Tom Andre
You're in your 30s and would like to buy a home. You like your job but the salary is low and you can't save, and don't know if you'll ever be able to afford to buy. It's a stretch to take someone on dates or vacations, and while that's not everything, it just makes it that much harder to find a partner. You were working for a promotion, or a new job, but things just look bleaker than ever now. You feel stuck and cannot shake this feeling of being a total failure and that nothing will ever change that.
If this sounds familiar, you are certainly not alone in this feeling.
I'm a music lover. And a father. And a son. And a voter. A husband. Brother. Grandson. Uncle. Cousin. Person. Citizen. Friend. Acquaintance. Reader. Hiker. Camper. Tennis player. Baseball player. Employee. Boss. Writer. Sports fan. Student. Teacher. Coach. Producer. Consumer. Therapist. Angeleno. New Orleanian. Dreamer.
These are just some of my identities - some of the many hats I wear and have worn. I will certainly wear more in the future. No doubt you wear just as many hats as I do. If you can, please take a moment and write all of yours down.
I suspect you will notice that not all hats are treated equally. Think of meeting someone new. In the first minute you inevitably hear, "So, what do you do?"
"What do you do?" is a question often asked as small talk - but it is insidious. Specifically, it is an invitation for us to identify with how we make our living, and thus offer ourselves up for evaluation based on one aspect of a person's life. Try answering "What do you do?" with something like, "I bleed Dodger blue" or "I take good care of my friends" or "I am a wonderful uncle to my nieces" and enjoy the look of confusion on the questioner's face.
Our culture equates "success" with "worthiness," and too often defines success in terms of profession and wealth. Is the acquisition of material things a greater achievement than lovingly caring for a child every day? I don't think it is, and I don't think I'm alone in this position.
Why did I mention all the hats I wear, and ask you to note down all the hats you wear? Because all of us - including you - are so much more than traditional "success." We are all Walt Whitman: We are large. We contain multitudes.
Look at your list. These are your multitudes. Which of your multitudes are most important to you, and why? This is what matters. I humbly request that we all stop asking "What do you do?" It's the wrong question. Instead let's ask, "What's important to you?" I suspect, Failing at Life, that if you had the chance to speak more about what is important to you, you'd find you measure up just fine.
By Tom Andre
I am a licensed marriage and family therapist working in El Segundo and Century City (Los Angeles), California. I have experience working with a broad range of problems, and I have a special interest in the lifelong questions about identity, meaning and purpose. Additional areas of interest and experience include grief and loss, parenthood and fertility, and trauma.