Let’s talk about identities. When I asked entrepreneurs about what they had to let go of in order to move forward, one of my respondents made this beautiful statement:
[I had to let go of] ideas of who I was to make room for the next thing.
I could actually let this statement be the only one of this article. I won’t, but take some time and allow it to sink in.
Whether we like it or not, we constantly define ourselves by the roles we assume and willingly accept what we believe is the appropriate behavior for this role. As usual, the degree to which these roles influence our lives depends on our level of self-awareness. Some people completely identify with their roles throughout their whole lives.¹
The Godfather was never anything but. For many people, these roles provide them with a (false) sense of security, thinking they know who they are. Thinking that this gives them direction of what to do and how to do it.
To some degree this makes sense. Identities establish responsibilities and limits. There is nothing wrong with saying “I am a nurse, therefore I take the patient’s temperature” or “I am a mechanic. I check the ambulance’s engine, but I do not take the patient’s temperature.”
The challenge comes when we become stuck in our roles. When the roles become our identities and dictate our lives. We begin to live according to expectations – sometimes our own, sometimes not – without remembering who we are. And we are scared to do what feels right, because it is not what ‘a nurse does’ or how ‘a women speaks’ or how a ‘non-profit person’ acts. The challenge begins, when we don’t help the sick, because we are not a nurse. Even though we feel what would be the right thing to do.
In other words: Identification with a role severely limits our potential.
A client I recently coached on leadership had been stuck in the belief that he WAS a certain type of leader. Only when he realized that he could USE elements of various leadership styles according to whatever felt was the best thing to do in a given situation, did he see the opportunity for him to solve problems he had struggled with for a long time.
My respondent of above explained further that
“[he] had held the idea that I was a non-profit person. So I had to let go of that in order to participate in the venture world.”
(He might have had the m-word in mind.) Many of us have certain ideas of who we are and how we should act in order to maintain that identity. And we get stuck.
If we believe, like another respondent did in the beginning, that being an entrepreneur means we have to do everything alone and at once, the pressure becomes enormous and we can set ourselves up for failure. If we believe that we are perfectionists and cannot afford any mistakes, then we make our lives – and most likely that of others around us – miserable. In fact, the moment we believe we SHOULD do this or that, it may be time to hold our breaths and consider.
Why do we think we should do this or that? What for? According to who?
Do what we must
Let’s do what we MUST do². What we must do is not defined by roles, identities or expectations, and it doesn’t depend on any identity our ego may be clinging on for now. Must comes from deep within. It knows no doubt. And it does not fail.
In order to hear, see and feel what we must do, we must be willing to let go of artificial identities. We are not non profit persons. Nor are we nurses, entrepreneurs, tailors, minorities, directors, mothers, athletes, godfathers or good kids. If someone was to strip away everything that ‘makes’ us any of these, however painful and terrible that might be, we would still be.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to get rid of your children, nationality, religion, gender, profession or values. Just be aware that who you are is greater than any of these roles. And if you tap into the incredible vastness of who you are, you will find what you must. And you will not fail.
If this sounds too deep or woowoo to you for now, just take the first step: take a deep breath and a good look at what you think you should do and how you should do it. Is there any chance that there are other options available to you?
Another form of leadership. An entrepreneur, who chooses community over competition. A parent who lives happily with their faults. Explore. You may be amazed at what you find. Experiment. And don’t worry, you will still be. Maybe more than ever.
¹ Probably the best example for a role consuming human beings is motherhood. The moment we become aware that we are pregnant, or even before that, we are met with a myriad of expectations – many times contradictory – of how we are supposed to act, behave, dress, eat, speak and, yes, even how we feel. But that’s another article.
² Check out Elle Luna’s wonderful article on the crossroads of should and must.