Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two sides of identity

Sense of EquilibriumJob hunting is a sure route to self-discovery.

I've been updating my resume and preparing for interviews, sending inquiries and following up on referrals. At each step, I have to think about fundamental questions of who I am, what my experience means, and what I want. The answers have to be written down in very clear and succinct prose, maybe two paragraphs that a busy person will take time to read before skimming onward. I work with a freelance writer, Judy Friedler, to organize my career into polished, formatted prose, but it still takes me weeks to arrive at satisfactory answers to her background questions, summarizing my life, my experiences, my goals.

I've spent lots of travel time reflecting on this, concluding that these questions actually touch on two distinct aspects of my personal identity: "Who I Am", and "What I've Done". One is a snapshot, the other a story; one constant, the other evolving. 'I' am not either/or: I've found that I need to think hard about both to describe the whole.

"Who I am" is a description, a "brand": the unique and distinguishing qualities that make me recognizable. I am a scientist, businessman, parent, writer: but what do those words mean, how do they define me, which are important? I have academic degrees, political views, professional networks, global perspectives: which are relevant and which are toxic parts of my introduction? (The dilemma reminds of the HSBC ads that line the walls at Heathrow.)

"What I've done" is a narrative: the arrangement of events that tell a meaningful story about myself. I've held positions of increasing responsibility, I've learned from my mistakes, my interests have evolved, I've grown from knowing insightful people. The story steps and flows: what happened at each phase of my life, and how did it inspire the next transition? Does it culminate in who I am, or does it lead towards (or away from) who I want to become?

It's been good for me to take the time to pause and do the critical assessment. It's helped to get feedback from others during conversations and interviews, asking questions and reacting to answers. I'm surprised at how the image of "scientist" quickly locks people away from seeing "businessman", for example, but if I juxtapose "entrepreneur" then the right image forms. The meaning (or value) of being "expatriate", though, is still difficult for me to convey. Despite all the talk about the importance of global markets and workplace diversity, people don't relate my experiences to those concepts easily.

And, at the end, both brand and narrative feel like they are being tailored to the simple end of job hunting. Experiences (and skills?) raising a family, pursuing life's passions, sharing formative journeys with friends, all get omitted. A pity: a lot of that is what makes me whole, and are among life's tales that I would share with a new friend over a good meal.

I think that the duality of brand and narrative has much more generality that just the application to identity that I've described here. For example, 'returning to the topic of a web presence, I think that these concepts apply in creating an outward expression of ourselves on the Internet.

Static content, brands, occupy my personal web page, my photo site, and my social networking descriptions. They are authored, published, indexed, and made discoverable. They are intended to have longevity, and I change them infrequently.

Dynamic content, narrative, fills my publications, my blog, my status messages. These are epiphanies, posted, tagged, and streamed. They are transient and meant to be ephemeral.

Web services still don't properly differentiate between the two. For example, Facebook narratives have a way of leaking out to become lasting images, discoverable for interviews. They should have less persistance, consistent with the style of their creation.

For building and maintaining my web presence, I'm realizing that it's more than just 'managing search results'. I really have to to think the content through, properly utilizing networking tools in ways that correctly catagorize and reinforce the two aspects of my personal identity.

I think that it also has big implications for how to configure medical telemonitoring, a topic that I'm thinking deeply about for an upcoming talk.

But that, as they say, will be a tale for another day (Specifically, Computers in Cardiology 2008; the Sunday Workshop).

Figurative Painting: "A Sense of Equilibrium" David Cobley


Textual Healer said...

A third element to consider is where I'm going. Good luck with the results and the process

Dave Hampton said...

It's interesting: I had that thought in my initial three questions in the first paragraph (What do I want), but it disappeared as I wrote the essay.

I think that I came to see it as a continuation of the narrative trajectory, but you might be right: that there is a qualitative difference between the arc of the past, already set to a single track, and the choices that are open in the future.

Thanks for the thoughts: I'm sure good things will come along.

Textual Healer said...

When I am applying for something I think it is important to include at least two lines about where I am settng my sights (my "mission statement". But what do i know? In the last ten years I can't think of one example when I have succesfully applied for a job or project tender. All the work I have now - and the last two salary jobs I had were the result of people approaching me - not the other way around. My colleagues and friends who are consultants can't believe that I dont spend time (up to 25%) on "acquisition." I do - but in indirect ways - more like a flower than a bee. I'm trying top learn to apply that knowledge to my personal relationships too.

Dave Hampton said...

It's a good point, and one that I'm keeping in mind as I write my cover letters. I have a succinct 'strap line' for what I'm looking for, but past job searches have ended successfully only when someone "gets it'.

I've learned that the more explaining I have to do, the less I'm connecting with what they want. So I'm keeping it straight and simple, being able to reinforce how a couple of my experiences or skills can solve their problems or open an opportunity that they want.