Defined by my work

The paragraph below from Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes really struck me.

From Maria’s diary after she slept with a man as a prostitute for the first time:

I remember everything, although not the moment when I made the decision. Oddly enough, I have no sense of guilt. I used to think of girls who went to bed with men for money as people who had no other choice, and now I see that it isn’t like that. I could have said “yes” or “no”; no one was forcing me to accept anything.

I walk about the streets and look at all the people, and I wonder if they chose their lives? Or were they, like me, chosen by fate? The housewife who dreamed of becoming a model, the banker who wanted to be a musician, the dentist who felt he should write a book and devote himself to literature, the girl who would have loved to be a TC star, but found herself instead working at the checkout in a supermarket.

I don’t feel in the least bit sorry for myself. I am still not a victim, because I could have left that restaurant with my dignity intact and my purse empty. I could have given that man sitting opposite me a lesson in morality or tried to make him see that before him sat a princess who should be wooed not bought. I could have responded in all kinds of ways, but – like most people – I let fate choose which route I should take.

Writing about Maria, a young woman who moves from Brazil to Switzerland in order to make money and later becomes a prostitute is a fascinating exploration of life and work. Based on a real person, Coelho’s ability to make the story come alive while dealing with issues that are real in the world is stunning.

The story of Maria takes us on a journey into a side of life that is not often spoken about for fear of breaking conservative norms and taboo’s. It draws parallels between the challenges that Maria comes up against as a prostitute and how similar they are to all of our lives.

In the paragraph above, she reflects on how people choose their careers, or not, and how many people live out lives where they believe they don’t have a choice.

Her conclusion that we all have a choice is exciting because it opens up possibility. As an executive coach I always like possibility and shy away from limiting assumptions. Of course we can all choose what we do. If we don’t then who chooses for us?

My experience though, is that this is easier to hypothesize about than to live.

It is particularly poignant for me because of the relationship that I have had with “work”. I struggled for many years to define myself from within the work that I had chosen. I consistently found myself boxed in and limited.

I didn’t like all the labels associated with my work. As I’ve heard many an accountant say “I’m not just an accountant” or more positively, “I’m much more than just an accountant” and I can really relate to this. My box was “technology”. Having learned to program computers at age 13, I was always the computer guy. There is nothing harder for me than feeling that I am boxed in and categorized, somehow losing my individualism.

Last April I decided to take a sabbatical and to “retire” from formal work. There are a number of factors that lead to this and I’ve been fortunate that I am able to do this.

There were a number of reasons for me to take the decision to retire and one of them was a desire not to be defined by my work. I wanted to use the opportunity to figure out who I really was, rather than be someone who does a job. It’s always easier to figure out a job than a person.

I went through a period where when people asked what I did, I told them I had retired. Interestingly enough, I found that the label “retired” could just as easily have been banker, accountant or technologist.

The moment I get associated with a label then along with the label come a whole lot of assumptions about who I am as a person. Some I agree with and some I don’t. Who associates me with a label though and why? Do I prompt them and give them clues about which label they should associate with me?

I’ve found that when I say I have my own business and work with fascinating clients doing executive coaching, lecturing strategy at the University of Cape Town, consult to some of the of countries largest companies and on top of that, get to spend quality time with my kids, most people respond positively saying that it sounds like I’m enjoying myself.

If I say that I have my finger in a number of pies and I’m still deciding what I’m going to do with my life, run around fetching kids from school many people get a worried look on their face and try to help me to decide.

Both realities are true and I can frame it either way.

Interesting isn’t it?

Semi-retired is what I enjoy being best though. It gives me the latitude to be…  well semi-retired. I do some work but really only the work that I want to do. I’m fortunate to be in this position and feel thankful most days.

I do believe that we mostly define ourselves and if I can let go of the labels that I feel confine me, then I will no longer be confined. By shifting my own perception other people will follow suite and I will be who I want to be rather than how others define me.

What about you? How do you define yourself and how do people respond?

Eleven Minutes is available from Kalahari and Amazon

Author: Dale Williams

Dale is based in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa from where he maintains connections with people all over the world through his portfolio life.