A family friend told me a story years ago that I’ve never forgotten:
One year she went to both her company’s Christmas parties, one was in Toronto and one was in Vancouver. In both places she was asked “What do you do?” and both times she responded the same way “I’m in marketing”.
In Toronto this started conversations about projects, teams, roles, etc., but in Vancouver when she started talking more about her job they would interrupt her with, “No, what do you ‘do’ do…like snowboard/ski/etc.?”.
Same party, different cultural perspective. This story stuck with me, but it wasn’t until I went to Costa Rica for the first time that I experienced it for myself.
I was 28 when my life turned upside down. I needed an escape from the turmoil, and Tory being the good sister that she is, said there was no way we could spend Christmas at home. We looked for cheap, last-minute flights to anywhere hot and Costa Rica was the winner.
We left the freezing, dark, wet, concrete metropolitan that was Toronto and arrived in Jaco: a touristy beach town that’s also a sunshine on crack, lush, tropical, living, breathing surf and reggae heaven.
If that wasn’t enough to jolt us out of our former pale, city-dwelling selves, there was so much more to come (but I’ll save that for another time and post…).
One of the things I noticed right away was that when I talked to someone new no one would ask me: “What do you do?”, which is what I was so used to back home. Instead, the questions were along the lines of:
- Where are you from?
- How long are you here for?
- Where else are you going/have you been?
- Do you surf?
- One week
- Not yet
This shook me up. I was so used to relying on my job as the main way to identify myself (even if I didn’t really believe it) that when it was taken away as an option I felt like my current situation did not and could not describe who I was. I wanted to say, “But really…I’m interesting! I’m exciting! I’m so much more than this! And…I LOVE TO SURF!”.
But I couldn’t. I wasn’t. And I didn’t know how to surf, even though I’d desperately wanted to learn my whole life.
Why was I so triggered by this? It’s easy to see why in hindsight. I was confronted with the fact that I was not living my life the way that I wanted and that most of my choices up to that point had been based on what was expected of me and the society in which I grew up. I was 28 and on paper I found myself boring.
I realised that the things that were important where I grew up were not universally important.
My inner life was and had always been rich (in anxiety hah, amongst other things), but my outer life was not a reflection of the true me. This realisation shocked me to my core and set about a series of big changes (hello Saturn Return).
I realised that the things that were important where I grew up were not universally important. That if I went somewhere different, a different set of values and rules applied. And that in all of these instances, none of them had to apply to me. In the end, what mattered was what I held true for myself.
I was deep, deep down in a well of conditioning and I had just seen my first hint of light. What’s followed since has been a series of lightbulb moments where I’ve realised that there are a lot more of these assumptions living in my mind.
Here is a base list of assumptions I’d been conditioned with:
Doing well in your school/job is the key to success. Success = fulfillment
I was taught that being the best at everything was the only way forward (tiger parents, before the term existed). Growing up, I was never allowed to step back and examine if the thing I was about to work tirelessly towards was what I actually wanted, needed and if it was even worth it. This caused many periods of depression in my life, where I blindly followed paths of “success” (new school programs, job offers, etc.) with the faith that once I achieved these things happiness would follow. It didn’t (surprise!) and once accomplished I would feel so much loss, disillusion and despair, often asking “What’s the point?”. I never thought about the journey, only about the final outcome and that outcome never lived up to the hype.
Being with someone is the key to happiness
I dealt with frequent bouts of depression and existential crises from a very young age. Anytime I was in one of these periods my dad would always counter it with “You just need to meet someone and then you’ll be happy”. Then I did meet someone and was in a relationship for my entire 20s. And I WAS happy…for a time. It was a balm to my achy soul, but eventually the same ‘demons’, came back. Love is happiness – so much happiness, but unless you’re solid in yourself it can also be used as a distraction of sorts. We seem to often use our relationships, not to mention our responsibilities (mortgage, kids, etc.) as an excuse to not take those scary steps forward that let us grow. Relationships (even friendships) are one of the big excuses we use to stay stagnant.
That’s just life / There are some things you just have to do
This kind of acceptance has its place, but it’s often used to brush over things that make you unhappy and that should be addressed. Once upon a time I was told that pretty much everyone has to work 9 to 5 (I grew up in Toronto) and that you have to be born rich or win the lottery to experience a different fate. Already, in the last five years especially, we’ve seen how not true that is (as I sit from a cafe in Canggu, Bali, with money in the bank writing this post). This statement is almost the basis of this whole site hah, so I can’t really cover it all in one bullet point!
You can’t have everything
Said to many who dared to dream big! But really, what is “everything”? It can mean very different things depending on who you ask. And if it’s different for each person, then maybe you, YES YOU, can have your version of “everything”. My mother’s version of everything is dependent on winning the lottery, which has always made her “everything” very difficult to achieve. My version of everything (the truncated version) involves living by the beach and having a good work/life balance…something I’ve already cultivated and work at everyday to improve.
These conditions are pretty prevalent where I come from. I’m still trawling through them, one by one and actually get so excited now when I uncover a new one. Each time this happens the world gets a little lighter and I feel a piece of my freedom, a piece of myself, come back to me.
Do any of these resonate with you? What are your conditionings?
***Update: I just went to see a talk with Sarah Wilson the other day and had a chat with her after. We were mid convo when she asked “What do you do?”. For a moment I blanked…I couldn’t actually remember! I’ve been doing so much creatively the past year that I feel represents me, but none of it is in my main paid work. When the words came to me I realised that there was a huge disconnect between what I’ve been doing with the majority of my time and who I am now. What I do for the most part at the moment does not represent who I am. I had a lightening bolt realisation that I need to bring the two closer together. So onwards and upwards! Very excited to start figuring this out.