“I’m young and I’m pissed off.”
What a wonderful quotation, spoken by a student I saw recently. I was captured immediately by how much it conveyed, both cognitively and emotionally, in such few words.
The student was discussing their passion for politics and ambitions of being an agent of social change. After struggling for a few minutes to find a way to describe their career and life story’s theme, they summarized in six words several meetings’ worth of exploration succinctly and with such an elegantly contradictory combination of brusque and eloquence, that I knew it was only a matter of time before it inspired a blog post.
“Young and pissed off” communicates a certain set of underlying values and motivations. It suggests that there is a strong dissatisfaction with the way things are and an unyielding sense of responsibility to do something about it. It gives meaning and purpose to their story. And make no mistake – we’re all living out our own career and life stories.
One of my favourite things about my job is that I get to help people tell their stories. The best part about that is, even though they’re telling their story to me, they’re usually discovering new ways of telling their story to themselves. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a student say, “you know, I hadn’t thought about that in forever!” when they are reflecting on some time in their past, usually with the help of a timeline.
That moment of nostalgia, and sometimes epiphany, is great enough on its own. However, nine times out of ten, something about that memory fits into a pattern that they’ve identified about their life that has never been associated with that memory before. The act of re-examining elements of a story, within the context of a process that is really all about identifying possible future directions, allows us to merge together different versions of ourselves – future visions of self, present iterations of self, and seemingly infinite past selves.
I know that sounds a bit weird, so let me dwell on that point for a moment. First we have to acknowledge that “self” is a fluid, evolving construct – it changes over time, it changes according to how we look at it, it changes according to our surrounding environment. In a word, it depends. Just think of the differences in how you’ve thought of yourself between when you were 8 and when you were 16, or the difference in how you think of yourself when you’re at home messing around with friends or at your work/classroom. We wear different social masks depending on the life role we’re playing (Jung and many others called these personas).
Another way selves change is in relation to others. Our interactions with others are constantly affecting our self-concept. Additionally, our perspectives are all fundamentally unique – it is impossible to see something purely through someone else’s mind. As such, how we define the world around us is utterly dependent. There is no absolute truth, because truth itself is dependent on the viewpoints of those involved. Physicists have even observed this on the sub-atomic level, in that the act of observing small enough particles changes the way they behave.
Fancy theoretical types may recognize the phrase “dialectical constructivism.” In essence, it roughly means what I stated in the above two paragraphs.
Now, we’ve acknowledged that selves are not concrete. This means that our stories – the ones we tell ourselves about ourselves – are open to re-authoring. All of these different selves are sort of floating around the ether, and we recognize different elements of them at different times, depending on the perspective we take during the moment of reflection. This is why we may look at a story from our childhood – one that we’ve thought about many times before – and recognize something about it that we never saw before when reflecting on it with the help of someone else asking questions about it.
For one person, being young and pissed off was a meaningful summarization of that process. They were able to see the threads of this pattern, as well as many others, as a result of reflecting on and re-authoring stories from their life. What’s even better is that they can take that information and move forward with the knowledge that they can take meaningful, inspired, and intentional actions that fit in with this narrative in order to move forward in their career and life.
And that’s just the icing on the cake, isn’t it?
*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.