Written by Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester
Photo by Heather Zabriskie on Unsplash
Last week at the gym, I brought up to someone that I used to be an aerobics instructor. I briefly recounted some stories about that experience and thought sadly of the phrase “used to be”. I truly no longer consider aerobics instructor as part of my leadership identity, partly because I haven’t taught a class in over 12 years, but even more so that it just doesn’t enter into my daily activities anymore. It’s simply not an identity I "wear" anymore.
When we teach about identities and sub-identities, we discuss how students should list their current sub-identities, and how they can become more or less salient over time. But I think it is also a good exercise to revisit past identities and think about how they shaped your current identities. Just like an old broken watch might offer a new life with its parts, our past identities can offer competencies that shape our new identities.
I did not know, when I was an aerobics instructor, that I would eventually preside over a different type of classroom – but looking back, some of the things I needed for that identity are still with me. I work hard to project my voice to all my students in the room. I also look for understanding in their eyes, making sure my students are “with” me as I broach new topics. I was lucky as an aerobics instructor - I did not have to compete with the lure of social media (smart phones did not yet exist, and texting on a flip phone was excruciatingly painful). But, I did contend with side conversations, varying levels of ability and fitness, and jockeying for space and materials. I also had to continue to learn new techniques (yes, even aerobics instructors have continuing education requirements). I also had to manage feedback from paying customers. So, although the days of choosing music, creating routines, and leading a class through a challenging physical workout are over, I still put in to practice many of the competencies I acquired in the pursuit of excellence in that sub-identity.
When I started to write up this blog entry, I thought the word “discard” was a little too harsh. As researchers, we do use this terminology – we adopt and discard identities as we change and adapt throughout our lives. But to say we discard identities makes it seems like we throw out everything about that identity. Unfortunately, the synonyms for discard are equally as negative: abandon, dispose of, ditch, dump, eliminate, jettison, reject, remove, scrap, shed, etc. So perhaps instead of saying we discard of our old identities, we should say instead that we have sub-identities that have evolved into something new and different.
What previous identities had you at one time embraced but now have evolved into something new?