May 15, 2019·4 min read
Photo by Adam Solomon on Unsplash
Learning how to answer the Who Are You? Question
When people ask me what I do for a living, I realize that there are a few different ways to answer that question. I could tell them about my title, or my profession. I could tell them about the field or industry Im in. I could tell them about what I used to do, what I do now, and what Im hoping to do next. Or, I could tell them about what I actually do all day long- the nature of my work.
Me? From a practical perspective, I drink coffee and have a lot of deep conversations with people. All day long I ask people questions. I ask questions to students about who they are, what they want from life, and whats in their way from getting there. I ask questions to parents and school leaders about their concerns for their students, where theyre feeling concerned and stuck. And I ask myself questions constantly, about the effectiveness of my work and how I can work better. I write questions down in the curriculum we design.
I believe that great questions are powerful. With a great question, you can challenge someone to act, or inspire them to change, or provoke deep self-reflection. You can influence the way someone thinks, or discover a new insight.
But theres one question that is more important and anxiety-provoking than all the rest:
WHO ARE YOU?
Its a question with potentially a lot behind it- sometimes ego, false assumptions, challenge, and curiosity. That question assumes you have an answer- a clear, true, accurate one at that. Its a question that challenges you to make the most sense to the person youre speaking to. And its the curiosity behind the question that adds an anxious touch of significance.
Its the question that gets asked again and again throughout our lives: the first day of school, first dates, college essays, job interviews, loan applications, from new roommates, co-workers, supervisors, neighbors, and Starbucks baristas. Depending on whos asking, your answer probably gets filtered down a particular lane like a role, a title, or a fact.
Im a sophomore.
Im from Orange County.
Im an Accounting major.
Im the intern.
Im a dad with three kids.
No matter which lane you swim down, most of our answers to that question are too shallow, a vague version of the truth, unhelpful, or inconclusive. Most people have no idea how to make sense or respond when you answer that way, and yet they really want to know!
If this is the question thats going to get asked time and again in your life, and if its the question that determines how people understand you, whether they want to date you, hire you, or be friends with you, dont you think you owe it to yourself (and to others) to do the hard work to have a really great answer?
The problem is, THE QUESTION is a set up for confusion and frustration. Our culture teaches us to hide who we really are, and instead only give partial answers. Or just limit the real answer to roles and labels. Or use a cleverly crafted elevator pitch full of buzzwords and jargon. But there actually is a way for you to develop a thoughtful, real, relevant answer to who you are.
Here are a few guideposts to help you develop your answer to THE QUESTION:
Act as a private investigator in your own life. Make observations about how you come across to others (are you shy or reserved, loud and dominant, intense and focused, laid back and easy going, etc.?)
Ask close, trusted Advisors how they describe you to others. Avoid being defensive, instead, listen to their words and ask them to help you see what they see.
Find real role models or fictional examples that help you understand yourself better and explain yourself more clearly. Such as Im the Michael Jordan of the internal auditing world- I work harder than anyone else and take riskier shots.
Experiment more. Intentionally put yourself in situations where people will ask you that question, and try a new way to explain yourself each time, taking careful note for how people respond, their facial reactions and the depth of conversation that follows each version.
Share first the problem that you care about and what you do to try to solve that problem. For instance, heres what I typically say when someone asks me what I do:
Remember how back in high school there was pressure to figure out who you are and what you wanted to do when you grew up- but nobody actually finds good answers to those questions, and then you have to make a series of uninformed decisions that take you down a fixed path? Well, I run a company called the YouSchool and we work with schools and students. We have a series of programs to help students find their identity and purpose, and when students go through them, they actually make better choices to live more fulfilled lives of purpose and meaning.
Theres no right way to answer the question about who you are. Its up to you to figure it out, and up to you to decide how to tell your story. The next time someone asks you that question, will you be ready?