What You Do vs. Who You Are: How We Can Find Ourselves Again After Drowning In Professional Ambition

Remember when you were a kid on the playground in 3rd grade? You were familiar with all your classmates, growing up together. Then all of a sudden, a new kid who just moved to the area comes up to the swing set and says hello. Do you remember how you greeted him? “Hi there, nice […]

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Remember when you were a kid on the playground in 3rd grade? You were familiar with all your classmates, growing up together. Then all of a sudden, a new kid who just moved to the area comes up to the swing set and says hello. Do you remember how you greeted him?

“Hi there, nice to meet you,” you said (hopefully). “I’m Johnny, and these are my friends. Who are you?”

What you definitely did not ask is — “So, what do you do?”

In 3rd grade, you know what you and everyone else does: Go to school. Be a kid. In 3rd grade, your peers want to know who you are, not what you do. In adulthood, we are bombarded with questions about what we do in almost every social setting. At cocktail parties, at networking events, and especially at job interviews. 

Once a certain adult has reached the level of a high-ranking member of a company or self-made entrepreneur, often that person has wrapped their whole identity around what they do. He or she has already been through the wringers of unfulfilling 9-to-5 jobs and being under the thumb of someone else. And that person is most likely looking for freedom from all of that.

But according to tech entrepreneur and life coach Angie Carrillo, finding freedom in this context is a double-edged sword. “I thought freedom was becoming financially independent, being able to travel the world and work from anywhere,” she says in her blog. “But true freedom is being free to be ourselves, no matter what race, age, or gender. Most importantly, it’s being free from the conditioning we have had to actively choose who we become.”

Becoming Who You Are Is Ever Evolving

Angie has been through the wringer herself many times, trying to define who she is by what she does. She survived a rough childhood in Peru by getting a full scholarship to study abroad with high honors. She worked and quit a six-figure corporate job. She survived health scares, beat depression and has been successful and has failed in entrepreneurial efforts over the years as a coding teacher and co-founder of Nextbiotics, a company that engineers viruses to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 

At, she is now a top consultant to big-tech companies and independent entrepreneurs alike. She helps those who’ve gotten lost in career and achievements rediscover who they are by tapping into science, technology and spirituality to carve out a lasting and meaningful legacy. Angie offers the following insights for those who define themselves by what they do — and how to rediscover who they are. 

We Are All on Team Human

Genetically, humans are 99.9 percent similar to each other. To Angie, we are all on Team Human, no matter the language, race, gender or religion. 

“We have to intentionally look for the common ground,” she says. “Becoming friends with people who don’t look like us, don’t think like us — it’s not random luck. It’s intentional. Homophily is the sociology term for why humans choose friends similar in background, attitudes, and even age. We need to be aware of this and be more intentional to expand our circles. To listen to people who have a different view from us.”

In addition to paying attention to the people you intuitively gravitate toward, Angie also recommends that you dig deep into your own biases and your birth privilege and start to realize how you’ve been programmed since you were young. 

“Embrace the discomfort that comes with growing outside your comfort zone,” she says.

People Will Judge You Though Their Own Lense — But Always Be True to You

So you’re at that networking cocktail party, and you get asked the inevitable “what do you do” questions. Remember that it doesn’t matter how you answer — every individual will have a different takeaway. So the important part in your answer is to stay true to what you really have always wanted to do — even if you’re not doing it full time. 

Are you waiting tables more than you are actually writing your book right now? That’s fine — you’re still a writer. Are you working for DoorDash full time while you develop the next breakthrough delivery app? Then say you’re developing an app. It might not be your money-making job at the moment, but it is what you do. And that’s part of who you are. 

Cast a Wider Net to Become the Better You

If Angie would have settled on defining who she was by what she did back in 2016, she might not even be around anymore. She was an entrepreneur in residence at Draper University in San Mateo, California. At the same time she was also pursuing her own startup ideas at night and got completely burned out in what she was doing. And as a result, she got really sick. 

“I got lost in the hustle, lost in the metrics,” she said. “For three months I had to take my health into my own hands.”

After that, she realized how important it is to just be in the moment — to just be who she is — and started her own consulting business. 

You don’t have to let a health scare or what you consider to be a dead-end job end the sentence of your story. Not that you shouldn’t keep in touch with people you’ve met at jobs that have kept you going during the interim — that’s all part of the adventure. But casting a wider net to people established in fields you’d like to reach might be just the lifeline you need to remind you of who you really are — and what you’re meant to do now.

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