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How often do you remind yourself that what you do is not who you are?

Today is November 20 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you remind yourself that what you do is not who you are?” The many dimensions of Jon Bon Jovi include singer-songwriter, record producer, philanthropist, and actor. He is best known as the founder and front man of the Grammy Award-winning rock band Bon Jovi, formed in 1983, that released 14 studio albums and sold over 130 million albums. Bon Jovi has also released two solo albums. In the 1990s, Bon Jovi started an acting career, starring in the films Moonlight and Valentino and U-571 and appearing on television in Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, and The West Wing.

As a songwriter, Bon Jovi was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2009. In 2012, Bon Jovi ranked number 50 on the list of Billboard Magazine's "Power 100", a ranking of "The Most Powerful and Influential People in The Music Business". In 1996, People Magazine named him one of the "50 Most Beautiful People in The World". In 2000, People awarded him the title "Sexiest Rock Star". Bon Jovi was a founder and former majority owner of the Arena Football League team, the Philadelphia Soul, and in 2006 established the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation.

In an October 5, 2020, interview on the Armchair Expert podcast with Dax Shepard, Jon Bon Jovi said “It's what I do. It’s not who I am. Right. There has always been so much more for me, although there are days when I think about: am I lying to myself or not? I always said when I am on the 'where are they now? tour' I am out."

Bon Jovi’s reference to the ‘where are they now tour’ refers to musicians who used to be at the top of their profession but slowly fell into obscurity. This falling into irrelevance happens when someone at the top of their profession fails to understand when to quit. One such reason why that happens is because they have difficulty separating who they are from what they do. Today’s reflection requires one to have an understanding that what they do is not who they are.

In his biography of D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, author Deoff Dyer recalls an observation by his subject who made the following astute comment about work and life. According to Lawrence: “I don’t think that to work is to live. Work is alright in proportion: but one wants to have a certain richness and satisfaction in oneself, which is more than anything produced. One wants to be.” One such person who ‘wanted to be’ was Tim Hetherington.

In her May 9, 2013, article "What You Do Is Not (Necessarily) Who You Are,” Elizabeth Spiers observed “There’s a danger in conflating work with self, even if work has consumed everything we do.” Spiers goes on to reference Sebastian Junger’s documentary Which Way to the Front Line? that told the story of the late photographer and documentary filmmaker Tim Hetherington. “Junger chronicles Hetherington’s work in West Africa, Afghanistan, and Misrata, Libya, where he was eventually killed. Hetherington did extremely important work, and in his documentary, Diary, he explores the tension between his life at home and his life in the field. Just before he left for Libya, he expressed reservations about continuing to work in conflict zones. It had cannibalized other parts of his life. He wanted to pursue a long-term relationship with his girlfriend. He wanted a family. He wanted to explore doing different kinds of work. But he decided to go back into the field one last time and didn’t come back.”

As with so many people who navigate the chaos, Spiers recognized that “it would be disingenuous to argue that Hetherington’s work wasn’t part of who he was, but as Junger’s documentary so beautifully illustrates, it wasn’t all there was of Tim Hetherington.” In an article following Hetherington’s tragic death, his life partner Idil Ibrahim remembered him as so much more than a photographer and documentary filmmaker.

According to Ibrahim: “Tim was much more than a brilliant conflict photographer. He was an artist. He experimented with multimedia, wrote, and created provocative and gut-wrenching films such as Restrepo [an award-winning documentary about a US platoon in Afghanistan]. Incredibly well read, he was always thinking very creatively about different ways to approach his work. He was tender and nurturing to those around him too. I remember a time when he was exhausted from weeks of travel for Restrepo and barely had time to eat or sleep. One day he had back-to-back interviews; however, he also promised to have a Skype call with a young photography student from Birmingham and agreed to participate in an interview for an online magazine. Tim worked his entire schedule so that he could fulfil both obligations.”

As you reflect upon today’s question “is what you do who you are,” recall the concluding thought by Spiers “There’s nothing wrong with asking someone what they do, and certainly no harm in answering the question. But don’t assume the answer means everything.”

  • Are you solely defined by what you do?

  • How often do you realize you are far more than your work?

  • How often do you realize others are far more than their work?

  • Are you afraid of being more than the sum of your work? If so, why?


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