Who the hell are you? And what the hell are you doing here?

That golden age question – ‘Who are you?’. When was the last time someone asked you this? And even if they didn’t voice these exact words when was the last time someone expected you to tell them? Perhaps you were asked to ‘introduce yourself’ or ‘say a few things about yourself’ in one of those awkward go-around-the-room scenarios. Maybe it was at a job interview ‘tell me about yourself’, or on a first-date ‘So tell me about you’.

What did you say? Maybe if it was in a work environment you would have said something about your role – ‘My name is Souad and I’m an Account Director at Sunday Lunch’. Or if it were amongst friends, you might have said ‘I am Souad, I’m a friend of so and so’s’. If it was a job interview, you probably said some rubbish like ‘I am an ambitious go-getter who delivers outstanding results for clients yah-di-yah’. And if it was a date, you probably bragged about how laid-back you are, even though you cracked it at your last boyfriend because he didn’t respond to your text messages.  Now, I am mindful that I have an ‘About Me’ section that probably has some carefully crafted jargon intended to make me sound a certain way. But we’ll park that for now….

The reality is that very few of us actually know who we really are, we simply customize our response to the question based on who we are talking to and what we think they want to hear.  As François de La Rochefoucauld said ‘We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others, that in the end, we become disguised to ourselves.’  At school this is obvious. Were you the ‘popular kid’? Or the ‘smart kid’, ‘sporty kid’, ‘all-rounder’, ‘jock’, ‘socialite’, ‘muso’?  The list goes on… I tried to be most of these things at some stage or another.  And it doesn’t end at high school. At university it gets worse and arguably in adult life it’s at its peak. ‘The mother’, ‘the entrepreneur’, ‘the adrenaline junkie’, ‘the party animal’, ‘the bachelor’, ‘the gym junkie’ – who are you? What defines you?

The definition of identity is ‘the fact of being who or what a person or thing is’ but to François’ point, when you spend so long trying to be what you think you ought to be, then that fact becomes a bit of a mystery to you.  And if you are constantly defined by one aspect of your character or life, then you need to ask yourself why. Did you label yourself?  Or did someone else put you in that box?

Mark Twain said the two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. Given that being born is relatively straightforward, the real challenge is getting to that other day.  The definition of purpose is ‘the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists’, so the question is does your identity, your ‘fact of being what you are’, ultimately define why you are here?  Or is it the other way round? Identity and purpose – what comes first – it’s like the chicken and the egg.

Now to give you the heads up, I don’t know the right answer. I don’t know whether your identity shapes your purpose or the other way around, but what I do know is that it is important to have a handle on both.  I have no problem admitting that I have spent a long time, most of my life in fact, trying to be something to everyone.  As a result I haven’t truly had a handle on my identity, nor my purpose.  Similarly in business, especially small business, it is easy to be a ‘yes man’ taking any brief or client that comes your way and losing sight of who you are and what you stand for in the process.  Simon Sinek says ‘Start with Why‘. To quote Simon, ‘By “why,” I mean: What’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organisation exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?’.  

In business, companies are getting better at not just telling you what they do, but what they believe in (Simon has some great examples in his TEDx talk).  And these beliefs should be crafting what they do and how they do it rather than sitting passively as words on a wall. Sunday Lunch believes in empowering socially conscious business leaders of the future. We believe that we can change the way business and marketing is done in Australia. We believe that in business you can and should make money by sharing your why. How do we do this? We drive profit through purpose by creating cause, community and promotional campaigns for our clients.  And who the hell are we?  We are a boutique creative marketing agency. Makes so much more sense than just telling you we are a below the line marketing agency specialising in cause and community right?

And if like me you’re still on that journey of discovering your fundamental identity and purpose, start with what you know to be true. I make every decision based on my values, my beliefs.  I make decisions based on the principles of freedom, passion, presence, respect, trust, optimism and positivity.  I believe that people are happier when they lead positive lifestyles and respect their bodies and minds, that’s why I exercise and meditate daily, eat well, practice gratitude and continue to learn.  I believe that people shouldn’t live in the past, nor solely for the future, that’s why I work for a company that I love to show up for every day.  I value freedom – physical freedom, financial freedom, freedom to play, experiment, and fail – that’s why I work for a company that values ownership, a company that gives me the permission to grow, to a point that one day I might have my own business. These beliefs drive my actions, and these actions shape who I am.

So next time someone asks you ‘who are you?’, or ‘tell me about yourself’ imagine how much more powerful and interesting it would be if you could give them a more accurate account of your identity and a real sense of your purpose.  Tell them who really are by telling them what you believe to be true, and why you are here. If instead of saying ‘I’m Souad. I’m an Account Director at Sunday Lunch’ you could say ‘I’m Souad, I believe that everyone can profit by doing good, that’s why I work for a marketing agency that specialises in purpose, cause and community’. Or in a job interview ‘Passion, respect and optimism are some of my core values, that’s why I commit wholeheartedly to the task at hand, why I follow all processes and never cut corners, and why I remain positive in the face of challenges, aspiring to do more with less.’ Whichever one you discover first, your identity and purpose is rooted in what you believe and in order to have a true sense of self, to succeed at business and in life we need to stop disguising ourselves to others.  As Oprah explains in her wonderful book, What I Know for Sure, “What you believe has more power than what you dream or wish or hope for. You become what you believe.” 

Originally published in July 2015.

Photo by David Iskander via Unsplash.