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My Identity Crisis

By David Leonhardt

When we are young it is all so simple. We know exactly what we want to 'be' when we grow up. You know what it's like: "I want to be a fireman." "I want to be a ballerina." "I want to be a movie star." "I want to be a nuclear physicist specializing in embryonic schisms in post-menopausal subatomic particles."

This aspect of growing up came back to haunt me recently when reading a magazine article by someone working in television who had always wanted to be a celebrity. To paraphrase her words, "It never occurred to me that I might have to actually do anything."

Well, here I am, a fully-grown adult. Or perhaps I am no longer fully grown, I'm not sure at what age we start shrinking! But I do have a confession to make; I never knew what I wanted to "be". I knew only what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was design cities, urban spaces, bus routes. No, that's not true. What I really wanted to do was design maps... but most map companies want map designers to simply mimic the city's existing design. Geesh, where's the creativity in that?

So I was led astray, falling in love with politics instead. For a while I worked as a political aide, plotting to become King of the World. Amazingly, it took only five years for reality to grind my idealiztic innocence to sawdust and send me on a frantic search for a do-it-yourself lobotomy kit. (I never did get to be King of the World, nor did I ever find that do-it-yourself lobotomy kit.)

I spent the next decade-and-a-half as a consumer advocate and lobbyist, doing media relations, government relations and industry relations -- none of which are technically verbs that one can actually "do". At social events, the accountants and lawyers had it easy. "I am an accountant," says it all.

I was not so fortunate. "I am a consumer advocate," I would say.

"So what do you do?"

"Well, I talk to the media and to the government and to industry," I would explain.

"Ahaaa... and I talk to the tooth fairy. So what do you do?"

Now, I have an even harder time when somebody asks what I do. Most people have no clue what search engine optimization is, which is my main "career". Few people really understand what freelance writing is, except if they read a freelance writer's article in a magazine. I don't even try to mention that I run three websites and do affiliate marketing. But people do understand what it means to be an author.

"Wow, you wrote a book on happiness? Congratulations. So when's your next book coming out?"

Which is when I have to explain how a book really doesn't feed a family, and if I took the time to write a second book, it would take time away from search engine optimization and affiliate marketing...

"Huh, what's that?"

"Never mind," I answer. "I'm a stay-at-home dad." Which also is true. People might look at me weird, but at least they understand me. Or, so they think.

All of which brings me back to that question I never answered when I was young: what do I want to be when I grow up? I guess I'll just have to wait a little longer to find out. Like when I grow up.

David Leonhardt is author of 'Climb Your Stairway to Heaven: the 9 Habits of Maximum Happiness'

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