When Nouns Become Nothing

“I don’t think of myself as a critic or teacher either, but simply — and at the obvious risk of disingenuousness — as someone who teaches, writes drama criticism (and other things) and feels that the American compulsion to take your identity from your profession, with its corollary of only one trade to a practitioner, may be a convenience to society but is burdensome and constricting to yourself.”

—Richard Gilman
The quote above comes from the obituary that current NYTimes theatre critic Ben Brantley wrote upon Gilman’s death. I had never heard of Gilman before and I don’t normally read newspaper obits. But for some reason I have been carrying his obituary around with me since it was published on October 31. Today I figured out why.

Gilman didn’t like to refer to himself using nouns; rather he described his work with verbs. Descriptive as nouns are they often become limiting labels that do not adequately capture the interests or capabilities of the individual to whom they are being applied. So do titles. Like Gilman I’ve always avoided using a noun to describe my vocation. This often is somewhat maddening when people ask me about what I do.

If I say facilitator, they see me at the front of the room writing on a flipchart. If I say consultant, they might think of someone who doesn’t really understand what they do telling them exactly what to do. If I say motivational speaker, they envision Tony Robbins or breaking wooden boards with their bare hands while walking across hot stones. If I say trainer, they might recall mandatory company seminars in dimly lit meeting rooms with lukewarm coffee in the back. If I say author, they immediately want to know where they can get one of my books since books are obviously the only form in which someone publishes. So I consistently use verbs: writing, speaking, co-creating, facilitating, provoking, inspiring, challenging, distilling, listening, strategizing, etc.

Much as I have valued being thought of as an association (primarily) consultant, speaker, and facilitator for the past 9 years, these labels are now what most folks use to describe me. The verbs I associate with my identity have become somewhat lost in the background. And all of these nouns are coming close to being “burdensome and constricting” as Gilman noted above.

I tend to make life changes in five-year increments and 2008 is the next interval on the horizon. So 2007 will mark the last year that the activity associated with the verbs I use to describe my work will be found in the nouns and titles others currently use to describe my efforts. What does that mean? Hell if I know, but that is what 2008 will be about: discovery.

For the time being, I plan on taking most of that year off to enjoy a sabbatical and time to read, write, think, listen, and reflect. So if you want me to do for you or your organization what I’ve been doing (and the way I’ve been doing it), you might want to get it scheduled for the coming year.

I’m sure I will still be writing, speaking, dreaming, creating, and more in 2009 and beyond, but how, where, and for whom, remains to be determined.