How You Can Identify Your Road Home

Why “whose you are” matters as much as “who you are and what you do.”

Posted Jul 10, 2019

Source: TanteTati/Pixabay

The road home often starts with the question, “Who am I?” It’s a fair question, especially for most of us who are navigating through the various stages of identity described by the developmental psychologists Erikson, Marcia, Piaget, and many others. Scholars point to the development of self-concept as a function of chronological time (by age-range norms) and in contrast to psychological norms (identity vs. role confusion, intimacy vs. isolation). Add to these tenets our individual decisions that reflect our personalities, motivations, culture, circumstances, and the influence of significant others. To discover the road home, we will use identity and self-concept interchangeably as a single centerline. 

Before he passed, I had the opportunity to hear sociologist Anthony Campolo of Eastern College speak at our university. He addressed the powerful idea of self-concept by telling the audience about a freshman student who informed Dr. Campolo that he would be leaving college and going to Boulder, Colorado. His purpose? “To find the core of my inner being.” Asked the curious professor, “Do you know what you get when you peel an onion all the way down to the last layer?” The student did not respond. Answering his own question, Campolo said, “You get nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Onions don’t have a core. They only have layers. 

Not surprisingly, we might expect a sociologist to craft a “nurture” rather than “nature” definition of identity. Campolo made this simple and brilliant observation, “We are the sum total of all that to which we are committed.” We have layers of social responsibility that define who we are. We risk our own and others’ well-being by peeling off those layers of self-concept. 

By contrast, I recently asked a new acquaintance, “So what do you do?” In his early 30s, he surprised me by answering, “I am the father of two girls.” Eventually, he revealed that he was the husband of a woman who is a mother and artist. He finally and reluctantly confessed that he “did engineering” at a major corporation to pay the bills. Point taken. This “aging” millennial’s self-concept is not what he does. His relationships and roles define him. 

To what extent are we defined by our work or even our gifts? My wife, Ann, enjoyed a 30-year career playing in the first violin section of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Every day she went to work and reminded our three sons that her “most important job” was being their mom. She continued to play, because her extraordinary gift was an important part of her identity and contribution to the world. She was and is fully a mother, a wife, a daughter, grandmother, and friend to many, in addition to being a musician—the sum total of all that to which she is committed. Defining and developing our gifts do matter and are also insufficient if we neglect to commit to interdependence.  

On another musical note, singer Jessica Andrews had a major hit composed by Brett James and Troy Verges in 2003 entitled, “Who I Am”: 

       I am Rosemary's granddaughter
       The spitting image of my father
       And when the day is done
       My momma's still my biggest fan
       Sometimes I'm clueless and I'm clumsy
       But I've got friends who love me
       And they know just where I stand
       It's all a part of me
       And that's who I am

Beyond our gifts and our work, is it possible that our identity is the sum total of all of that to which and all of those to whom we are committed? In addition to exploring “who you are, what you are good at, and where you are going,” ask yourself a more possessive question—“Whose am I?” Consider these lyrics as composed by musical artist Reba Rambo McGuire (2018):

       It's not because of what I am 
       Not because of what I've done 
       It's because of Whose I am

As Abraham Maslow proposed in his “hierarchy of needs” theory, belonging to others is the antecedent to both self-esteem and self-actualization - our ideal, mature identity, i.e., our 'whose.'

You may say, “I don’t know who or whose I am, and I don’t know what kind of work I should be doing.” The good news is that you can decide to build an identity by performing a “positive flip” forward. Start by replacing the negative conversations with yourself and others with positive gratitude. Practice those mantras. Let them transform what you tell yourself and others and what you actually do. American philosopher Will Durant observed, "We are what we repeatedly do." Positive habits shape our lives. Allow me to add this cognitive-behavioral spin to Durant’s quote, "We are what we repeatedly think, say, and do." 

Next comes goal-setting, one of the best proven of all motivation theories. Draw a career triangle of “what you love,” “what you are good at,” and “what the world needs.” Any work options inside the triangle are worth exploring as potential goals. Then become "directionally-correct" by setting and achieving goals that positively flip you forward toward fulfilling your purpose. 

Take the young man who set and achieved a goal to take the road back home to reconnect with the “whose” of his life. “Boulder,” as it turned out, was beautiful, lonely, and isolated for him. Back home, he pressed into healthy, familiar relationships and intentionally added more friendships with people who shared his values and interests. Career-wise, he identified his love for construction and the arts. He found a paid electrical apprenticeship program and set out to perform his art one or two nights per week. This deliberate, positive flip changed his entire perspective and helped him overcome a serious addiction.   

The centerline of the road home—identity—is our life’s guide to fully embracing, belonging, and committing to the “who,” “what,” and especially the “whose” of our lives. It doesn’t get any better than that. 

In our next session, we will explore how to turn a positive self-concept into purpose, power, and performance. 


Erik H. Erikson, Joan M. Erikson, The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version (W. W. Norton, 1998).

Edwin Locke and and Gary Latham in,%20Fred%20C.%20Goal-Setting%20Theoryof%20Motivation%20IJMBA%20V15%20N1%202011.pdf

Lyrics and Music by Reba Rambo & Dony McGuire © 1980 Bud-John Songs Inc. / ASCAP and New Spring Publ. Inc./ ASCAP (Adm. by

 Whose I Am.

Marcia, James E. (1966). "Development and validation of ego identity status". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 3: 551–558. doi:10.1037/h0023281. PMID 5939604.

Maslow, Abraham.

Piaget, Jean

Who I Am lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, Reservoir Media Management Inc 

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