Connections are the natural associations that link various ‘I am’ statements on my map.
Themes are a way to summarize a group of connections.
If you’ve done your homework, you will now have a journal (or a wall, sketchbook...) full of ‘I am’ statements. So far, so good. At this point you may want to take some time to celebrate it all. Like selecting some highlighted identity statements that have been dormant and re-engaging them by doing a cooking class, or buying some old furniture to restore... All this helps you massage those unused muscles back into health. Take a look through your developing map, pick a few things that stand out to you, and make some intentional choices to DO SOMETHING with them.
The idea is to start letting your identity call the shots. As you make intentional choices to act on who you are, you slowly reverse the pull of outside-in living. This, by the way, is the main reason I’m taking identity mapping to this extreme: to help you build a future with it. A future that may sprawl out and effect your children’s children! Along with the essential question of ‘who am I?’, I think the follow-on question is ‘and what do I do with my life?’ This, of course, is an issue of calling. Our calling, or the latin, 'vocatio' (the root of ‘vocation’), is a sacred thing, which I would define as being who we are in a loving way and meeting the needs of the world around us. We’re called to be ourselves, and to create value with that self in a way that blesses those around us. But how? Which of the 50 things that I am would be my best shot at contributing to the world in a meaningful way?
One of the first challenges I faced in developing these connections and themes was articulating the parts of my identity that are less obvious or that have been suppressed. At 27 I thought I knew myself reasonably well. But getting beyond the first half a dozen things I enjoyed or things that were true about me, proved challenging. There are probably many reasons for this, both conscious and subconscious. I mean, once upon a time ago I was musical, but what was the point in pursuing my musical side if I was never going to make money from it or make it onto the music team at church?
I’ve spent quite a few months seeking a language to describe the complexities of me. I talked to close friends, I read, I did a little research into personality profiling, I’ve reflected on my journey as a primary school teacher (what I hate and love about that role and what that says about me), and lots of weighing it all up. Some personality profiling tests say that I’m very intra-personal and inter-personal. If I agree with them (which in this case I do) it probably explains why I have both really enjoyed all this talking, reflecting, and musing about ME, and really struggled to move past this navel-gazing stage.
Now I’m at the stage of being better able to articulate what makes me me. I’m trying to figure out how I can connect up different themes to create something that feels right, but I need other people to help make sense of this crazy and complex thing. Because once I have the connections, making plans, putting legs on ideas, etc.— that’s the part I know I’m not good at. What I know about my identity has given me permission to value and enjoy my own particular expression of life, guilt-free. And for me that’s been where I’ve had to allow myself time. A lifetime of confusing messages and ill-fitting expectations from church, family, and society unfortunately does not fall away over night. In order to derive some sustainable solutions for my future, I’m taking time to rebuild. For me, this looks like taking some time to live in a different country to help this process. Which is exactly what I’m doing right now!
In order to work out the ‘what’s the best path?’ question...
...I’ve used my identity map as a foundation to plan a life that allows for the fullest possible expression of my soul. My only condition in this very freeing process is that my plans must be an expression of love for my neighbor, meaning, I must love them as my self. So I started by extending my identity map as far as I could. I wanted the broadest possible platform to create from because I didn’t want to short sell myself by only working within a narrow identity spectrum. In a sense, knowing our full identity is a process that continues to unfold year after year, but you have to pause at some point, take stock, and use all you can know today in order to do something valuable with it. I take stock every ten years or so, add to my map, and build the next season on top of what I’ve learned over the last decade. Here’s the last map I’ve done:
MAKING IDENTITY CONNECTIONS
I look at my map as a way to inform my sense of the future. It’s crucial to approach your identity from the point of view of its creative potential—or what you could make with it—and not for possible job descriptions, or what it wants to make of you. This is ultimately a self-image question; am I only worth what job I can fit into, or am I able to create something new in the world? Our sometimes nervous, outside-in orientation would use this identity map as something to cram into a job application or Google algorithm. But if you’ve slowly unfolded and celebrated the diverse truths of your soul, you should also be revealing the creative potential of that soul. Creative in the sense that you can look at that map and invent ways of living that are distinctly your own. Creative by combining and synthesizing diverse ‘I am’ statements into relational and vocational expressions that only you can be.
When you look at that map as a platform for brainstorming possibilities instead of job types, worlds start to emerge. The world that you want to create and live in starts to unfold, one connection at a time, until you can build them up into cohesive themes and stories... These stories can easily be turned into plans—plans you can actually break down into choices that can be made today— choices that when stacked together, end up creating the rest of your life..
Once I could appreciate the diversity of my map as a creative platform, I started to celebrate particular identity statements by taking my cooking more seriously, or spending more time with my neighbors and serving their creative development. This was cool as far as today was concerned, but I wanted to build something significant with the time I’d been given and affect that part of the future I was in control of (which happened to be a lot). But trying to build a future from this seemingly random list of ‘I am’ statements was like putting 100 monkeys in a room with a typewriter and expecting them to write a better self-help book.
So, to turn that random list into something helpful, I stand in front of my identity map and look for connections and themes. Connections are the natural (to me anyway) associations that start to link various ‘I am’ statements on my map. For instance, ways that I relate to people or things I want to learn and why... or how I communicate. As I see the associations, I draw circles around them and link them together, color coding them according to life's overarching domains - relational, educational, vocational, environmental, and creative. But this is my approach. You may look at your map and see other associations, the trick is to look for natural connections as YOU see them. I use the life domains as a way to start, but it can go in any direction you find helpful. Or, if you’re doing this with a friend, you may find they see connections you don’t, which is cool as it leads to even better brainstorming later.
Once I start seeing associations and connecting ‘I am’ statements that relate to each other, I step back again and look for themes. Themes are a way to summarize a group of connections. For instance, if I look at all the ways I communicate, I start to get a feel for my theme in communication, which is to ‘challenge and facilitate’. Or if I look at my love for design, food, and hospitality, a theme emerges around ‘food based love’ in the home and neighborhood, which also shows me that I wouldn’t thrive in a restaurant kitchen... Themes help us see the potential of all our connections without limiting us. Themes are not meant to diminish or narrow us back down to a few things, but rather to help point out symmetrical yet distinct expressions from a very large list of words. The symmetry comes in handy when it comes to thinking of new projects, like where I use my communication themes in conjunction with my hospitality themes to teach a cooking class, or one day, a cooking show.
Some of my themes:
• Champion (people & causes)
Once I have a decent list of themes...
...I can start brainstorming even more possibilities. This moves me past cloned job descriptions, and banal ways to pay the bills, into more dynamic expressions of identity. If I put one theme’s brainstorming possibilities (like running an illegal restaurant from my home) with another one (cafe philosopher / life coach), and another one (interactive designer), I start to move into forming a narrative, the sum of which is much cooler than the parts.
These ideas all start to come together and form a story. Not a job, or the kind of wife I want, but a life lived with as much of my identity in play as possible. We’ll explore the idea of forming stories more in the next section, but I’ve found these identity narratives a great way to help me move past a narrow view of my self and my possibilities.
Let’s try this on your map. Looking back on the composite you’ve just done:
Grab a few friends to look over your composite identity map. Remember, the map doesn’t need to be listed in order or categories as processed previously in this site. Sometimes, I have people write out a new list of ‘I am’ statements on a large board or sheet of paper, and have their friends start drawing connections. Just use what’s most natural for you. You can use the life domains as a reference (like connecting a few of your relational statements, or your creative ones), or just let people make their own associations.
Make the connections
Look at a few of the connected identity statements and call that group something. For instance, your love for travel, people, outdoors, and taking risks could be a theme called ‘I am adventurous’... Name the theme for each group of connections you make. Use super descriptive words or short sentences that encapsulate the essential thing you guys see in the map. For instance, a lot of people assume their love of kids and books equals a ‘teacher’ kinda theme. When really, they may be a ‘children’s writer’ or an ‘art coach to autistic children’. Go down your own rabbit hole and try not to use generic terms. This is kind of a nuanced process, so take your time and let your intuition draw out meaningful themes. The idea is to let those various ‘I am’ statements speak back to you and help you see your larger potential. A lot of this will be intuitive and you’ll probably know these things about yourself already. It’s just that now you’re naming them, validating them, and hopefully later, acting on them.
Call out the themes
In another section of your journal, create a mini story about what you could do with each of your themes (or a combination of themes) over the next two years. For instance, you could take your ‘adventurous’ theme and add it to your ‘hospitality’ theme to create a mini story about running a hostel in Kabul...
From stories like this you can start to plan, choose, invest time, and collaborate with others. Identity statements and the themes they reveal can start to show us the potential pieces of our future. So, brainstorm those themes into short-term stories, and if you get inspired, start experimenting with the ideas you come up with.
Short story the themes
As you start living out your identity (from the inside-out) you may come to a crossroad. Some people are ready to tell the story of their next ten years and to get moving on it. Other’s, however, need some time to strengthen their identity and plans before they can commit to a larger story. If you’ve been living from the outside-in for most of your life, you’ll probably need a good year or two to experiment with what you’re now seeing as future possibilities.
Experiments help us regain the spirit of being 13 again. When puberty hit, we needed to be able to break out of the safety of childhood and into the risky side of developing our adulthood (based on our sense of value and destiny). The timing for this youthful transition is perfect, because at 13 you don’t care who’s watching, or if you’re gonna make money, or be successful at all. You just need to try a zillion things to see what sticks, what’s truly you. If this didn’t happen when you were young, you probably need to go through a similar journey, even at 19 or 29 or 39... Which will seem really hard, because now you think EVERYONE is watching, and EVERYTHING needs to make MONEY, and you MUST BE SUCCESSFUL. Capturing that 13 year-old spirit requires a fearless attitude towards your long-term future. If you wanna make great choices that actually redeem the time, you need to give yourself the space to do so. Here’s what I suggest:
1. Create 3 mini stories...
...of what you’d love to do based on your ‘I am’ connections and themes. Think like a 13 year-old; be adventurous and let your imagination be expansive. Don’t let the calcification of the past ten years add fear to this process. Each story could be a simple paragraph about you combining various identity statements and coming up with a scenario, like starting up a local rugby club and your role in it...
2. Pick one of these stories and create a two year experiment plan...
...whereby you map out a way to test the story to see if it’s something you want to commit to. It could include stuff you’d like to learn in that area, or an internship you want to do, or a job you want to test, a place you want to live in... Be as detailed as possible as you fill each three month phase of the mini story experiment. In the story, try to imagine how you would live, not just work...
Research my ideas, look at learning possibilities
Take a couple of courses, online training.
Volunteer and practice with people who are doing what I want to do.
Re-design my living space to suit what I'm learning.
Or move closer to a place that mirrors my direction.
join groups or individuals that are work-shopping in my area
Re-evaluate what I've learned and start looking at next steps
Make a ten year plan based on what I've learned and done.
3. List the objectives or outcomes...
...you’d want to see from this experiment. Things you’d need to know in order to make longer term choices later. What would help you know if this is worth your time after the experimentation? At some point, even the 13 year-old intuitively knows (usually when they’re 15) whether they should pursue something or not. I saw this in my son Jordan, who started with photography at 12 or 13, but by the age of 15 knew that he wanted to tell stories as a film director. What do you need to see, feel, or experience to know if the story you’re trying out is really yours or not? If you know what you’re looking for, you’ll know when the experiment is over. If you can’t describe it now, at least journal your progress so you’ll see when the due date hits.
4. Set a time-frame for closure...
...on the experiment. At some point, you’ll have to commit to a larger story or set of choices to move forward with your life. As a general rule, I would give the experimental phase at least a year but no more than two. At the end of this season, you can debrief and see what you’ve learned about living from the inside-out via these mini stories. You can journal / discuss with friends what you’ve learned and may then be ready to look a little further down the road. This may ease you into our next section about telling the story of your next 15 years!
How are you doing so far?
What are some of the things you feel are going well and gaining momentum?
Or are there some concerns you feel growing inside as you proceed? Some of these things may need to be acted on, or need more time to address...
Pacing yourself through this whole exercise is really important. To get the most out of it, you need to work at a speed that continues to tackle the right things at the right time. The tendency would be to find ‘the secret’, or something more exciting, to help avoid having to deal with something you’d rather not. But the stakes of your life are so high that you really need to take the time to listen to your heart and your intuition. This may mean working to restore a relationship or to improve your health while unfolding your identity. We’re designed to function holistically, so you need to process all these things in parallel (family, identity, creativity...) in order for them to fold back together into a solid foundation.
If you have concerns about anything outside of yourself, list them in your journal, get them in the open. Like, expectations other people are holding over you. Some things are out of your control, and can be prayed for or committed to for another time. Other issues, like money concerns or broken relationships, need to get attention because they’ve been niggling at you for a while. Journaling and acting on the really important stuff removes the chronic stress of inactivity and replaces it with the clear sense that action is being taken, even if that action is prayer or committing to work on it at the appropriate time.
What are things outside of yourself (expectations, pressures, circumstances...) and what can you do about that?
If there are concerns about things inside yourself relating to your identity, or whatever, write those down as well. Things like feelings of inadequacy, or plain vanilla laziness, or a niggling fear that you’re too old to start such a daring plan... When you bring these back burner concerns to the front of your mind, you can start working them and looking for solutions. Ignoring these internal concerns leaves us plowing through choices and relationships only to hit a wall and have to listen later, the hard way... Take a moment and list what you’re concerned about in this entire process that relates to self-image, acceptance, confidence, etc.
Finally, check yourself for patterns that defeat you. Repeating fears or other internal demons that try to tell you that you won’t get to be yourself. Have they been raising their annoying little voices as you’ve progressed through this book? They come in all shapes and sizes and need to be exposed. Write down, draw, or verbalize the things you feel would try to stop you from projecting your true self into the landscape of your future. The next section is about storytelling your future, and if these gremlins are still hanging about, you won’t get past next month. I suggest giving names to these fears or lazy attitudes. Call out the expectations others have bound you with, and maybe illustrate the fight going on between you and these things in comic strip form. The first panel could show something like Laziness tying you to the TV while you sleep. The second panel could show you awaking and calling on your super identity powers, and the third, you forcing Laziness into the TV to star in its own sitcom...
That’s my idea anyway, I suggest you create your own strip based on your situation. Even if you can’t draw, get that internal stuff onto paper in some way. You need to know there’s a real struggle going on for your soul. It’s truly possible to be yourself, but you’ll have to fight the forces to break out. You are not inept, you are fighting laziness. You are not incapable, you are working against self-image issues. You are not a common worker, you are standing against expectations built up over generations. Instead of giving in to what you think you’re doomed to be, spend your energy fighting. So write that stuff down, visualize the struggle, and get people to fight for and with you.
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