For many of us, our job is our definition of self. “Hello…What do you do?” This is how most introductory conversations begin. Our role provides a sort of social cover to protect us from more impertinent enquiries. It’s a safe way to establish contact and instantly allows each party to assess the relative status of the other. To feel superior, inferior, curious or even offended. A friend of mine went to a wedding in Germany recently and told me that during the three day celebration in the small village, not a single person asked him what his job was. They consider it rude because it is creates instant judgement. The better question is what do you love to do? It’s always been a challenge for new mothers, “I’m just a Mum…” they explain, as if raising a child is anything less than a miracle that deserves our prostration at their feet. Our culture is obsessed with doing. Productivity and visible contribution justify our presence in a way that far exceeds the need to earn money to survive. I had a small business for 12 years, which I sold. The step down from full engagement in a company to the comparative wasteland of doing nothing was challenging. When you are used to being busy and feeling useful, doing nothing brings up all your demons. I now think that busy-ness was my very clever way of anaesthetising myself and staying asleep. I once joked in an interview that the secret to success in small business was having an obsessive compulsive disorder. That sounds extreme, but it isn’t far from the truth. A pit-bull level of determination and the stamina required to wear 17 different hats and work very long hours for little reward…helps. The fact that you can end up in foetal position under the desk wondering what the hell happened…is a side issue. Starbucks made their fortune trading on our need for definition of self. I’d like a Grande Soy Chai Tea Latte with Extra Cinnamon…five decisions to arrive at an exact location on the matrix of self. You buy yourself a liquid identity. Think of all the choices we make in terms of brands and what they say about ourselves. I wouldn’t be seen dead in that car/ that café/those shoes. We are terrified of being misinterpreted. People have their children’s school stickers on their cars – private schools only, of course. Ostensibly this is a sign of school spirit – a rally cry. But surely it only means anything to the people who inhabit that market and know what the school stands for…and costs. They may as well stick their net worth on the rear window… but it places them snugly within a market niche of definition. When we are in between jobs, we fall through the self marketing cracks. We rely on our past to justify our presence. “Well I used to run a business…but now I’m just standing at the crossroads enjoying the view.” It’s an answer at least and shuts the other person up while you regroup and prepare for the next incursion into your privacy. I’ve been using that one for a while and its wearing a bit thin now… The truth is I’ve been on a journey within…but of course, that doesn’t really go down well at parties. “I’m exploring my definition of self…gathering the fragments I left behind…” It usually just creates a stunned silence. Several life changing situations caused me to reassess everything. The death of both parents and a cluster of betrayals in business and my personal life, tipped me into the unfamiliar territory of questioning the ground beneath my feet. I enlisted various therapeutic sherpas to guide me as well as doing workshops and talking with like minded travellers. I read hundreds of books about who we are and why we do what we do – psychologically, spiritually, socially. I journalled and wrote poetry. Writing has always been a way for me to release whatever was going on inside and return to centre. It all helps. But most of this work is not really for public consumption, and the vox-pop world we live in seems to demand that we have a calling card definition to hand to people. It’s all about making them feel safe. It makes people very nervous if they can’t categorize you. If you are not working in the traditional sense of the word, if you step outside the arena and simply witness, you seem to threaten their choices…their definition. There is a prose poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer, called The Invitation. It begins… “It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing…” She wrote it after a party, enraged by the lack of authenticity she had encountered. It’s easy to swim in the shallows – so little is required of us when we keep it all light and breezy. But what happens when your world unravels? Who do you become without the usual markers of self to hide behind? For a while, I stopped going to social gatherings altogether – partly because I was sea-anemone sensitive with grief, but also because I suddenly valued myself and my time too highly to waste a single moment. Grief brings with it great clarity. The excavation of self that I initiated demanded my full attention. It still feels like the only job that counts – the only work that really matters to me. Someone wise once said that the essence of every conflict is the question, “Who am I?” I’m beginning to suspect that it is, in fact, the only question we ever really ask. Each time we choose a role or brand…every fork in the road of our lives, involves a fundamental alignment with who we think we are. When I was renovating my home I had to choose tiles to cover the entire ground floor. It sent me into a tailspin. Which one represents me…the brown tile or the cream? What if I made a very expensive mistake and hated it 6 months later? I suggested to the builder that they should have On-Site Therapists to nurse you through these existential crises. (There’s a new job title…) Sometimes we branch out and make big changes to our lifestyle and it gives us a whole new lease on life. It’s amazing how big a difference a new (insert random possession here) can actually make….for a while…until we settle back into ourselves and realise that it was a surface shift and what we are really longing for waits in darker waters. Far beneath our job description and our role in the family and community, lies a simple question crouching in the shadows of the soul – who am I? We spend so much time and energy trying to answer that via our choices of clothing, car, home, partner, job, holiday destination, restaurant, jewellery, phone, handbags and shoes. But they can only ever be external reflections. They are not who we are. They are just something we do. We follow the rules of whatever club or tribe we feel we belong to and gossip about those who step outside the lines – those who refuse to play the game as determined by us, without realising that there are an infinite number of games to play. The ‘Supercapitalists’ who are the subject of such vilification at the moment were simply following the rules of the game they subscribed to. Unfortunately for them, the goalposts have moved and only those with the capacity to innovate will survive. There is a new way rising out of the ashes of the old. It is possible to reshape priorities and stop the aspirational anguish that infects our culture. This doesn’t mean tamping down motivation to improve yourself through education and achievement. Rather it is about remembering that material acquisition is not an end in itself. The “pursuit” of happiness is a fool’s errand, because (as every spiritual teaching has told us) happiness lies within. Nothing outside yourself will ever truly satisfy that longing. Placing authority outside ourselves in this way, means we never claim our full power. We sell our souls to the market for a handful of beads and shiny things. We need to re-engage our inner authority which knows that these games do not ultimately serve the good of the whole or ourselves. When people imagine that they operate in a vacuum and that their actions have no impact on others, the system collapses…as we have recently witnessed. Perhaps there’s never been a better moment to ask yourself what you really long for. The beauty queens say world peace, politicians say security… I say that real happiness is offering who you are to the world and knowing it’s enough – without the trappings and trinkets of definition that we cling to. We need to remember the power we hold to contribute to the well being of our world – every single one of us. Greed is a symptom of fear that there’s not enough to go round and that we’ll miss out. Let’s stop for a minute and remember what really matters and what really doesn’t. Life is calling us to become the Phoenix – to innovate our definition of Self. Balance Sustains You Lifetimes of making and doing and making do Climbing ladders against someone else’s wall Surveying the view and muttering quietly This is not what I thought it would look like Stuffing it into your pocket regardless Like so many stolen sweets But the smaller moments bring a voice Creeping softly through the cracks Of your busy badge of honour Whispering fragments of a dream Left draped on a rock By the side of a stream long ago Beneath the grime of the mild fire You’ve tended so dutifully The ripple of longing for something other Illuminates your soul skin Years of soot burns away With sudden fierce clarity As your song unwinds from its shell. – from Yoga Poetry by Emily Simpson Emily started a maternity underwear company, Full Bloom, in 1994, which grew into the online mail order business, Bodywise Underwear. She was inducted into the Business Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and was a finalist in the Telstra 2000 NSW Business Woman of the Year Awards. She has just published her first book, Yoga Poetry.