Girl facing a corn field, two paths.

Who You Are Versus What You Do

Our culture is obsessed with it and we’ve taken part in the obsession.

It seems like everyone around us is landing his or her dream school, job, home, spouse, or trip. Instagram and Facebook saturate us with images and messages of the great things people have and are doing. In turn, we register these experiences, both online and offline, as achievement and fulfillment. Though these platforms were not designed to convey the essence of who someone really is, we still feel the pressure to cultivate a life just as full, as rich, and as happy.

The “What” Trap

Consumed by this culture of achievement, materialism, and dream chasing, we have been conditioned to ask the wrong question. We ask ourselves the “What” questions. What school do I choose? What house do I buy? What job do I accept? What trip should I take? We lose sight of the reality that who we are is more important than what we do, and amidst the preoccupation with “What” we do, have, and accomplish, “Who” we are is mostly left unexamined.

These “What” questions can overwhelm us in that we, a) may not pick the best option, b) may pick the wrong option, or c) will never experience lasting fullness even when the particular “What” has been achieved. When we predominantly ask the “What” questions, we become consumed with a future version of ourselves. Whether it’s finally sitting in that office space, attending our dream school, dating our manifested concept of “perfection”, or having people recognize our accomplishments. Everyone wants love, to make their mark, and to know they succeeded. But our “What” questions only provide a glimpse into our underlying core desires.

The problem is not that we seek to resolve the “What” in our lives, but rather that we fail to equally consider the “Who”. When attending a social event, we are asked, “what’s your name?” followed by, “and what do you do?”. These “What” answers become core parts of our identity and focus, as we neglect to consider who we are and who we are becoming.

The Trade-Off

The woman I worked for last year was world-renowned in her field — the walls of her office boasting awards, accolades, and years of education. And while widely acknowledged for her outstanding contributions and achievements, the closer I got the more I saw her character. There was anger, bitterness, dissatisfaction, and occasionally dishonesty. She acknowledged that her work was a dream fulfilled, but I wondered if she had ever considered who she was becoming while pursuing what she had always wanted.

When we look forward five, thirty, or fifty years from now, do we picture what we have accomplished and what we own? When we finally arrive at those places, do we imagine ourselves satisfied? We could be extraordinary at what we do, but in losing sight of who we are, our capacity for both fullness and satisfaction is, reduced. Are we people of kindness, patience, and grace? Are we people of integrity, of care, and of hard work? Are we people who foster connection and authenticity?

In college I met my husband and was convinced that he was entirely out of my league. I became consumed with wanting to be with him; he was, for me, a marker of “having made it”, of being worthy. Years later when he brought up the idea of getting engaged, the “What” I had been yearning for was so close. Engagement! Marriage! However, leaving that conversation with him, the panic set in. I realized that while I had spent so much time trying to win him, and then keep him, I had spent not nearly enough time considering the kind of person that I was. Was I patient? Was I kind? Was I growing, changing, learning? Who was I?

The Gift of You

Everyone has seasons of frustration and disappointment, times when we are not proud of “Who” we are. But the most important thing is that we are at least asking the “Who” questions. Are we self-reflective? Are we setting up practices that encourage growth in areas of life unrelated to achieving? Are we engaging in the long and beautiful process of change?

In waiting for the dream program, job, relationship, retirement, or friendship, it is essential to ask the “Who” question. And if we don’t know what our dreams, passions, and goals are — even better — ask the “Who” question. Our world needs people who have considered these things.

While it is an incredible experience when we accomplish the “What”, even greater is the experience of becoming someone of great character we can be deeply proud of. Our society has many needs that we are able to meet, but what the world requires most is a transformed person.

So before you take on the world, take a breath and ask: “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” Then give the world the gift of a transformed, authentic you.