Balancing Who am I? with Who are We?

Hugh Mackay has written another thought-provoking book called The Good Life: What makes a life worth living? (Pan Macmillian, Australia 2013)

By ‘The Good Life’ he says he’s ‘referring to a life that is characterised by goodness, a morally praiseworthy life, a life valuable in its impact on others, a life devoted to the common good. This type of life is marked by a courteous respect for others’ rights, a responsiveness to others’ needs (including, most particularly, their need tob e taken seriously) and a concern for others’ wellbeing. A person living this life will be motivated by kindness and compassion.’ (p.1)

After exploring the problems he sees with our current focus on what he calls the ‘Utopia complex’, Mackay suggest: ‘A preoccupation with personal identity can isolate us from full engagement with our social identity, the identity that springs from our roles as members of families, friendship circles, neighbourhoods, organisations, communities. We are, by our very nature, social creatures. We are in this thing together. It is our recognition that we belong to each other, our common sense of connectedness rather than our unique sense of separateness, that preserves society from descending into the chaos of anarchical self-interest.’ P 98

One of the strengths of career development is that professionals in this field are good at helping people to gain clarity about their personal identify. Plenty of tools help us come to grips with the question Who am I? What are my strengths, interests, values? How do these help with identifying what I want to do in life? While there may be some exploration of networks and what impact our choices may have on others, we don’t pay much attention to directly exploring our social identity. Mackay is not suggestion we become doormats, denying our individuality. What he is proposing is that ‘our identity is defined by our context even more than by our essence. It’s more the case of Who needs me? than Who am I? (p127)

So if we are to explore the Who are We? question what might we do?

  • For starters, we might adopt an ecological model of career development that seeks to integrate personal with social, economic, community goals.
  • We could explore the power of tribes as outlined in Finding your Element. (Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica, Finding Your Element, How to discover your talents and passions and transform your life, Allen Lane, 2013) Robinson defines a tribe as a group of people who share the same interests and passions.
  • It would be worth mapping our social connections to see who influences us, who is important to us, what contribution we make beyond ourselves.
  • And when we are about to make decisions, we could stop and ask Who else does this affect?
  • We could identify what groups we belong to and which ones most influence us.
  • Has our group membership changed over time? If so, why and how?
  • What social rituals and traditions are important to us?
  • How do I categorise myself, what labels do I attach to myself?

These questions open up fertile ground for exploring who we are in relation to others. Realising our connections and their significance could well set us on an entirely different path in life than if we only focused on a self-interested viewpoint.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.