What will define your life?

There are many things we choose to refer to in order to define ourselves. For some, it’s their jobs, for others, it’s their families, yet still others define themselves in terms of their values. While all of these play a role in defining who we are, there is only one thing that ultimately defines us.

Have you ever noticed that, when you ask someone to tell you about themselves, they tell you what they do for a living? They will respond with something like, “I’m the HR Director of ABC Widgets.”

In a nutshell, they have defined themselves in terms of their jobs. Of course, they may say that they told you that because they thought that was what you wanted to know. Whether that’s true or not, most people define themselves in terms of their jobs. They find their sense of identity in their job title. That’s what gives them meaning and purpose. That also explains why people like that battle with depression and other ailments when they retire because they feel they have lost their identity when they stop working. They don’t have any sense of purpose once their jobs have ended because that was all they lived for.

A smaller group of people, more likely women who are not working, may define themselves in terms of their roles in their families, and that’s what gives them their identity and purpose. People like that battle with the same issues that retired people battle with when their children leave the family home. They have found their sense of identity and purpose in the role they played in the home and then, when the “home” is redefined as the children leave home to start their own lives, such people become quite depressed as they grapple to find a new identity. Thankfully, when the grandchildren start arriving, they discover a new identity in the role of grandparent – if the grandchildren are close by. If they’re on another continent, it presents challenges of its own.   

Yet some people define themselves in terms of what others think of them. They spend their lives living up to a role they created for themselves in the eyes of other people and then strive to play that role. Should people see through their façade, if indeed it is a façade, they are devastated because they feel they have had their identity stripped from them as others change their view of them.

There is, however, only one thing, one event, that defines us. It’s our death.

When we die, our lives are defined by everything we have been, done and had up until that point. There is no more opportunity to change, grow, develop or be something else beyond that point, and that is why our deaths finally define us. What people will say and think about us will now never take on any new views. We will never have a chance to change their opinions of us.

How have you chosen to define yourself? The more important question to ask is: how would you like to be defined? I say “more important” because, if you’re reading this, you’re still alive and still have the time between now and your death (whenever that may be) to be, do and have things that will one day finally define you when you die.

So what are you going to be, do and have between now and then that will define you in a way that will make your family proud? After all, you won’t be around to feel proud or embarrassed.

For most of our lives, we expend our effort and energy in the interests of success, and that’s an important thing to do. Success, if we define it in financial terms, helps us to take care of our own needs and those of our immediate families. But success does not fulfil us because, essentially, success is about what we do for ourselves. That’s why you have to be, do and have things that will help you find significance. That’s what will help fulfil you, because significance is about what you do for others.

If you want to be defined as someone who left a legacy that benefitted others, start finding your significance in what you do for others. Then, when you are finally defined by your death, people will speak good things of your time on this planet!

Alan Hosking is the publisher of HR Future magazine, www.hrfuture.net, @HRFuturemag, and assists executives to prevent, reverse and delay ageing, and achieve self-mastery.

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