Why Hank and John Green Argue We Should “Diversify Our Identities” (and Why I Agree)

I love the Dear Hank and John podcast, to the point where it gets bumped to the top of my podcast queue every time it releases. I haven’t listened to today’s episode yet, but I will this evening — and in the meantime I wanted to share a quote from last Monday’s episode, The Queen’s Dream Job, featuring John Green in conversation with Danielle Bainbridge of PBS’s Origin of Everything.

The quote comes about 15 minutes into the podcast, when John and Danielle answer a listener’s question about getting hired for a dream job. “How can I think of this as just another opportunity,” the listener asks, “and not the opportunity that I’d better not waste? If it doesn’t work out, how do I not see it as it’s all downhill from here?

In response, John Green describes the various emotions he went through after learning that his first novel, Looking for Alaska, would be published by Dutton Books — specifically his worry that he would never be able to write (or publish) another novel, and his subsequent realization that “If I hadn’t gotten to write another novel, I would have been able to do other things.”

John continues:

“I think one of the problems we have is that we often think, like, when we talk about what are you going to be when you grow up or what are you going to do with your life we imagine that you’re only going to be one thing or you’re only going to do one thing, and of course life isn’t like that. You end up doing a lot of things, and some of them you do professionally and some of them you don’t do professionally, but, you have to kind of… my brother always says that you have to diversify your identity. You have to see yourself not only as one thing. If you see yourself just as a YouTuber and your YouTube influence declines, it’s, like, catastrophic to your sense of self-worth.

“But if you’re able to diversify your identity, and understand that you’re also a brother and a father and a son and lots of other things, an AFC Wimbledon fan and whatever else, it becomes less of a devastation. I really do believe that.”

I agree with John — and, by association, Hank — but I’d also suggest that you have some identities that aren’t dependent on your relationship to someone else.

Right now, for example, I am a blogger and an author and a teacher and a freelance writer and a daughter and a sister and an aunt and a friend and a member of a choir, and all of these aspects of my identity are balanced in such a way that if one of them disappears (say, the one where I ran a LLC that should end up getting legally closed this week) I am not unmoored.

But this set of identities requires readers and clients and family members and friends and so on. They are dependent on how I am viewed by other people.

My identity as a pianist does not.

Yes, in the past I have worked as an accompanist and a lounge pianist and a church organist, but the thing about playing the piano is you can do it without being observed or evaluated and it still counts.

You can do it just for yourself.*

Same with biking or journaling or reading or knitting or dozens of other activities that serve as play when the rest of your life is going well and as anchors when the rest of your life isn’t. (You already know how much time I put in at the piano as The Billfold LLC was shutting down.)

Remember: play is a gift you give yourself; performance is a gift you give an audience.

So make sure at least one of your identities doesn’t require an audience to exist — and then you’ll exist too, even when when no one is watching. ❤️

*You can even play certain masterworks in ways you know the composer probably never intended, with intense shifts in dynamic and tempo, just because that’s how you want to do it and there’s no piano teacher hanging over your shoulder to tell you you’re doing it wrong.

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