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What are the five things that describe you?
What are the five things that describe you today?
This question was a game writer and director, Nora Ephron, used to play with her friends over her lifetime as a way to kill time when waiting for things like a dinner reservation. I’ve come across her anecdotes about this many times due to my unhealthy fascination with Nora Ephron. I’ve read her essays, devoured her biography, watched her commencement speech and scoured the internet for any snippet of interviews with her1.
I like this question because it pushes me to think about what key things are part of my identity in any given moment. Over time, it’s interesting to see what words stay and which ones disappear.
If I had asked myself this question in 2020, unfortunately software sales woman would have been one of my five things. If I was being self aware, which I often was not, another word to describe me would’ve been anxious. I was about to lose my job and my main focus every day was fighting to keep it.
I didn’t think my job title mattered that much to me. Sales isn’t the type of career people are impressed with and almost no one ever wanted to hear me talk about it. But when I lost my job, I missed the title. Suddenly, a word that described me for years had become obsolete. The replacement word was unemployed. Losing my job was the sobering realization that a large chunk of my identity was tied to how I made money.
Once I was no longer working, I found myself in Title Transition, an existential crisis.
I knew I wanted to take time off work and vaguely wanted to take on creative projects, but I didn’t know what that meant for me. There weren’t any role models for this in my network.
I had a desire to be a writer, but I was never brave enough to publish anything online. My drafts would collect dust in my Google Drive folders as I would type something up and then be way to scared to look at it again.
I wanted to call myself a podcaster, but when people asked me how much time I spent on it, I was embarrassed it wasn’t 40 hours a week aka the equivalent to a full time job. Not to mention it wasn’t making any money.
I felt like I hadn’t earned those titles because I didn’t have any material success to point to. Subconsciously, I thought that was a requirement.
If I didn’t have followers or dollars, what right did I have to co-opt those words for myself?
The beauty of having time off work was that I had plenty of time to sit in my existential crisis.
One thing I noticed after exiting the corporate world was that one of my five words was happy. Even though I didn’t have a job title and often questioned my purpose in life, I was happy.
I enjoyed sitting on the sofa, cup of chestnut tea in my hand, simply thinking. I listened to podcasts and read tons of books. I used my free time to follow my interests and another word cropped up to describe me, learner.
Consuming information was rewarding, but I still felt the calling to write and create. Taking a look at my ego, I realized that my problem wasn’t that I didn’t have material success, my lack of confidence was coming from a lack of action.
So I shifted my focus to doing. I enrolled in a writing course and started publishing online. I started to value the time and energy I put into my podcast and stopped worrying about if I had enough success to earn a title. With each step I took, I started to feel more confident in the work I was doing. I was leaning into the things I enjoyed, and that alone gave me permission to start evolving my five words.
As I sit here writing, my five things are writer, podcaster, friend, sister, daughter.
I’m happy with these five things because the first two focus on my love of creating, which today includes writing essays and podcasting. The last three things focus on my relationship with others which is a huge priority for me right now.
In Nora Ephron’s commencement speech at Wellesley College, she brought up her five things question again. She wrapped her story up with some pointed wisdom.
Whatever those five things are for you today, they won’t make the list in ten years. Not that you still won’t be some of those things, but they won’t be the five most important things about you.
Looking over my own evolution over the last three years, I see the truth in what she’s saying and find comfort in her words. I am always evolving and the best I can do is try to lean into the things that bring me joy and fulfillment today.
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“Nora Ephron” stan should probably be one of my five things but these parts of my identity are so precious that I hope my parasocial relationship with her does not eclipse other parts of my identity.