Defying Categories in a World That Wants to Label You

Recently I’ve been struggling to categorize myself. I don’t mean in the single-white-late-40s-Jewish way. I mean in the will-I-ever-figure-out-what-I-want-to-do-with-my-life-even-though-I’m-nearly-50 way. Defining myself always seemed so important. But does it have to be?

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

I love the podcast “Invisibilia,” which deals with investigations into the things that can’t been seen. Some of the episodes have stayed with me long after I first listened to them. One is about categories. I learned from this episode that one reason why some people struggle with accepting things they can’t understand is that humans have an inherent need to categorize things and ideas. It helps to make this enormous, overwhelming world feel simpler and more under our control (even if it isn’t at all).

Pressure from society and self

I don’t know if my own need to categorize myself is a result of biology. It could insecurity resulting from our culture’s implication that one is aimless or misguided without a singular goal. I’ve had a strange career path, each bit of which has nothing to do with what I studied in college and originally planned to set out to do: write screenplays. For awhile, it felt acceptable to have a job in marketing and say that it was just that—a day job—while I wrote at night. But the older I got, the sillier that sounded to my own ears.

Using the disclaimer that it was my day job for so long allowed me to not feel bad about my unconventional jobs. But when I gave up screenwriting, I had to face it. What I did in the daytime was my job. My career. And maybe it was okay that I wasn’t passionate about it.

I know many people in advertising who ended up in the field even though they had planned to direct movies, be in a rock band, or animate cartoons. Maybe it’s not a bad thing if the majority of our waking hours are spent focused on something other than what we love. Maybe it’s just part of being human.

Being okay with being “lost”

This is another case like the one I mentioned recently, where I’m writing to work something out in my own mind. And I still haven’t worked it out. I have a feeling a lot of this is the midlife crisis thing. The “finding yourself” stuff. Of course, that term alone implies being lost.

What if, instead of settling on one occupation and/or hobby and doing that thing until retirement or death, we’re meant to wander and learn and try new things for the majority of our lives? That sounds like a much more interesting life to me, and yet I’m aware that society (my former self included) tends to look at those who live that way as being bohemian eccentrics.

The only real danger of not defining myself is my self-inflicted anxiety. I’ve been choosing—even if unconsciously—to apply this unnecessary pressure on myself. I can proudly own the fact that I defy categorization, even if it isn’t an intentional state. This will definitely take some practice.

Robyn Kern is the Tangentier. A long-time writer based in Los Angeles with a degree in screenwriting and an interest in mindfulness, many tangents led her here: a place where people can come to find and share inspiration, dwell in each others' passions, and learn how to surround themselves with what they love on the daily.

One Comment

  • Lloyd Kern

    You hit the nail on the head! Coming out of college, I never even dreamed of being in accounting. That was never my goal at the time. But after finding that following in my father’s footsteps was not for me, I had to reinvent myself at age 27. Fortunately, I was able to get into NYU and obtain my MBA in Finance, which was my new goal at the time, which is why I joined a large public accounting firm to get into their financial consulting area. Since that firm hired too many people, I was one of about 100 people who were terminated in one day in 1970. Since my experience consisted of only accounting, I was able to get a position with a great company in Connecticut where I spent almost 15 years & left that organization as a Group Controller that did over $250 million in sales in the mid-80’s.

    Now that I’m retired, I found out that one has to reinvent oneself frequently in order to provide for one’s family and even get satisfaction from work. It’s important that when one door closes, you need to find another door that opens as quickly as possible, even if that opportunity is not an ideal fit. It can become a way station while you look for a better situation. You should never feel bad for the firm you work for as you leave them for something better. That’s because, a company will never feel badly when they need to make you part of their laying you off!

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