Don’t Let False Narratives Define You

I just purchased a not-inexpensive DSLR camera.

Compared to my iPhone—most frequently used to take pictures of my dogs—this is quite the step up. There’s going to be a steep learning curve as I descend into the world of f-stops, shutter speeds, and ISO.

I don’t have big dreams of becoming a professional photographer, but I would like to learn how to take better pictures on a more powerful camera (especially with a two-week honeymoon in Italy scheduled this summer). But I can’t help thinking back to the last time I bought an expensive camera (or, rather, had an expensive camera bought for me) in 2005.

It was a Sony Handycam, a camcorder I’d begged for. Back then, I did have big dreams of becoming a filmmaker. That birthday present was my first step in the right direction. My neighborhood friend and I spent many Saturdays in the park, with costumes we’d dug out of the halloween box, making a series of now-embarrassing home movies. But after a few months, we got bored. We put the camera away and went back to playing Xbox.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, that was my first introduction to Austin Kleon’s concept of nouns and verbs.

“Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.”

I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn’t want to do the hard work of actually making films. At various other times in my life, I wanted to be a writer without writing, a freelancer without ever finding clients, and an architect without any knowledge of what an architect does during the day. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

via Austin Kleon

For two and a half years, I’ve understood Kelon’s advice as working one way—people like to say they’re one thing (an artist, a writer, a blogger, a photographer, etc) without ever actually doing the hard work (making art, writing, blogging, taking photos, etc) to earn that title. As it turns out, that’s just one way of understanding the advice.

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend (and fellow newsletter reader) Jay. He works in accounting— a job he likes well enough, but it wasn’t ever part of his plan. He went to school to study humanities, taught for a period, went back to school to study library science, and became a librarian. But with student loans and familial obligations, Jay took a new job in the financial sector.

As his current career has little to do with what he thought he’d be doing now, Jay (understandably) feels some tension between the nouns that have defined much of his life and the verbs that earn him his paycheck. He says:

“I think of myself in terms of a lot of literary nouns, right out of the humanities. I feel comfortable with a business card that calls me a writer or an editor or a proofreader, a librarian or a teacher. Books. Words. The nouns of my identity are the nouns of the humanities. But (and it’s a huge and shocking “but” for me), I don’t verb the humanities very well. I read a lot, and I write a little—though mostly as a means of processing or communicating. I assess, and I analyze. The verbs I do though, come with nouns that I have a hard time accepting as applicable to me. Spreadsheets? Numbers? Financial analytics? Is it possible to enjoy something and not consciously know you like it? Can we end up in flow even when we’re doing something we’ve trained ourselves to think we’re not good at and we don’t like?”

That’s where Jay and I found ourselves at the end of the conversation—is it possible to enjoy something, even excel at something, without realizing it?

The answer, I believe, is yes.

Our lives are defined by the stories we tell ourselves (or that are told to us). A myth is powerful and can come to define who we are and what we perceive our limitations to be.

For instance, I’ve spent much of my life telling myself, being told, and believing that I’m bad at math. I’m not entirely sure why, but it probably has something to do with my family’s aversion to numbers and a C grade I received in 9th grade Geometry. The only issue is that these stories are false.

Despite my poor performance in Geometry, I earned an A in AP Calculus (as well as equally high marks in AP Chemistry, AP Physics, and Calculus in college). I also did well on the math sections of both the SAT and GRE. And what’s more, I actually like doing math. I enjoy solving logical problems and finding the one right answer (something that doesn’t exist in my day job where any creative problem can have infinite solutions). I’m certainly not the next John Nash, but these are not the attributes of someone who is “bad” at math.

But despite my arithmetical successes, I, like Jay, have refused to update my nouns to match my verbs. I still tell myself math is not for me.

A different Jay recently wrote in his newsletter:

“When you impose and hide behind small goals, you condition yourself to underperform what you are actually capable of.”

The same is true of nouns and verbs. Plenty of people like to call themselves one thing without ever doing the work to prove it (as I once did with filmmaking). But it’s equally true that people labor through a verb all day only to deny themselves the pleasure and the honor of the noun they deserve.

Your One Task

What is a verb you do well but an associated noun you deny yourself? Reply to this email and let me know.

Each week, I write a new article helping busy people find meaning and fulfillment through sustainable creative habits. If you enjoyed this week’s letter, you can sign up to get them delivered to your inbox each week by digital carrier pigeon.