Greensburg Daily News, Greensburg, IN

September 13, 2012

Harter: Who you are, what you do, and the world's opinion of you

Nathan Harter
Greensburg Daily News

Greensburg — When you're very young, who you are in the world and what you do is relatively simple.

Little of it is a problem. You go day-by-day with a fairly unified image in your head, so that it all makes sense. You might be puzzled briefly now and then, but your core identity is tightly embedded in a familiar world.

Adolescence starts to crack the unified image. This happens to different people at different times and in different ways, but there starts to open up a breach among three things: Who you are, what you do, and what the world thinks about you. Each of these three influences the other two, of course, but now the relationship among them becomes troubling or downright confusing.

You start to worry what other people think about you. Or you wonder what to do with yourself: What is your favorite class? Which sport should you play? What kind of girl or boy do you like? In other words, you become self-conscious. Soon, the world will expect you to figure it out and make long-term choices: Do you enlist in the military, look for a job, apply to college? What will your major be?

And you start to experiment with tactics to get people to like you. Are you just one of the guys? Do you struggle to get killer abs? Are you really into money? You see a variety of lives out there, in your extended family, at school, on TV. Which one suits you?

Well, guess what: In our culture we tend to entrust this process largely to our schools, which is sad, because schools are not really instituted to provide rites of passage. (Not that the media is any better.)  Why is it that an academic place bears so much weight in the lives of our kids? I met girls in school. I played ball for the school team. I took my cue mostly from who I was while at school. And believe me, grades were largely tangential to all of this -- although in my particular case I decided that good grades would become part of my identity, which just made sense.

As it happens, most of you know where this is going. The problem doesn't go away just because you graduate. You will frequently have to revisit the relationship among those three things: Who you are, what you do, and how the world perceives you. It takes a strong adult (or a very sad one) to live a life in which these three things do not align.

In my case, I think of myself as a scholar, I teach at the university, and the world thus far has kept me employed and rewarded me with promotion. It all seems to fit. That's great. But to a great extent, I've adapted to the world's expectations of a university professor, even buying a bow tie, if you can believe that. (Now that's inauthentic.)

Periodically, it repays to go back and inventory what you believe about yourself and your trajectory. How are you spending your time? Is that helping create the person you think you ought to be? And is it possible the world sees something in you that merits investigating? Ever have a friend comment that you're really good at something? Take a hint!

Ultimately, a man or woman who gets to do work that they'd do anyway, for fun, and that serves some genuine purpose in the world is most blessed. Self-image returns to a unified whole. Ambition becomes wed to need. Everything makes sense again. The world prospers because of you, and you thrive. It might sound like a fantasy, a childish desire, but that's because you return to childhood's mode of being who you are and doing what you do. Such a life is devoutly to be wished.