Chapter 2: we are not nouns, we are verbs

I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be. A woman in charge of my life and independent - Diane von Furstenberg

What response do you give to the question “what do you do”? Philosopher Alain de Botton argues that our answer is critical; it will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned by the peanuts, at the party of life. “In so far as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centred around the worship of professional success”, states Botton in Religion for Atheists

For the first few years after leaving the corporate world I answered the “what do you do?” question variously. More often than not it was met with a long, rambling response; I used to be [insert job title] then I was [insert more impressive job title] at [insert global company, a household name]. I then fumbled to put the words “coach”, “consultant” and “leadership development” into some kind of sentence, occasionally adding “writer” with an apologetic clearance of my throat.

The real answer was that I was burnt-out and, having been living away most of the week, totally disconnected from my family and my home. In retrospect, I wanted to try just being for a while, but, having only just weened myself off the Excel spreadsheet I’d used to plot my career (roles, promotions, anticipated remuneration) I had no place within me to hold the concept of “just being”. Busy, busy, busy, doing, doing, doing.

And I wasn’t ready to be abandoned by peanuts: “those that who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful and deserve to be marginalised accordingly” says Botton. Of course I was going to the wrong parties - I needed to go to ones where people would support me, champion my ideas and regenerate me with a “good for you!”.

It all starts at school. Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson (his TED talk Do Schools Kill Creativity has been watched 57 million times) puts it best when he says that the current system of education was designed, conceived and structured for a different age. It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and in the industrial circumstances of the industrial revolution. So education was driven by an economic imperative of the time, but running right through it was an intellectual model of the mind, an Enlightenment view of intelligence that states real intelligence is the capacity for a certain type of deductive reasoning and the knowledge of the Classics originally - what we think of as academic ability. So this set up a duality: there are two type of people: academic and non-academic; smart people and non-smart people; non-creative and creative.

Sir Ken’s view is that most people have not benefited from this model. Today the education system is modelled on the interests of industrialisation and in the image of it: schools are organised around factory lines, ringing bells, separate facilities, specialisation of subjects. We still educate children by batches, by age group (their date of manufacture). It’s a production line mentality, with standardised testing driving conformity. Drive for professional success, lest run the risk of being abandoned by the peanuts at the party of life, is an idea instilled in children from the moment they start school.

But work is changing. In her book THE SHIFT, Lynda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at London Business school explores the impact the speed of change in the nature of work is having on our lives. On the one hand, the negatives Gratton presents are clear: technology driven fragmentation, isolation – a future where a new global underclass has emerged. But, on the other, a future might emerge which is more empathetic, more balanced, where billions collaborate to co-create solutions to the world’s problems and one in which “micro-entrepreneurs” thrive as they craft creative lives.

Micro-entrepreneurs have made their passion their work and in 2025 there will be hundreds of millions of them. These like-minded people, gather around an idea and it is they, not the large corporations that shape the direction of the market (and they will be twice as likely to be passionate about their work as those in corporations).

Gratton suggests the shifts in the nature of work presents an opportunity to write a “personal career script that can bring you fulfillment and meaning”. If we can harness our resources – intellectual, social and emotional – we will create a working life which “resonates with our values and is aligned to our beliefs”.

If we’re to create this life, and avoid living one of isolation, we’re going to need three groups; a small group of trusted people, who have some of the same expertise in common, who like and support you – what Gratton calls a posse; a group of people, very different from yourself, on the outer reaches of your network, who you’ll likely know only virtually – the big ideas crowd and finally the regenerative community are real people, with whom you meet frequently, have a laugh, share meals and stories, relax and be yourself.

The physical place we live in is going to be critical to creating this regenerative community. When where we live is not dictated by where we work, we will have greater choice about where we choose to find our regenerative community. Aside from being exciting, having open space and creative stimulation, what will be critical about this community, is that it allows you to be yourself, to express yourself openly and to cultivate your individuality. Funnily enough, worshipping professional success isn’t one of the features of such a community.

Oscar Wilde said “if you want to be a grocer, or a general, or a politician, or a judge, you will invariably become it: that is your punishment. There is a truth to that, said Stephen Fry: “we are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can become imprisoned if you think if yourself as a noun.”

This book is not about answering the question “what do I do”, although there is a chapter on strengths and putting them into action. It is not a book about the Monk who Sold his Ferrari (or the accountant who gave it all up to become a literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist). It’s about synthesising all of who we are - putting the accountant into the literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist and the literature-loving, post-structuralist, existentialist, feminist into the accountant.

Oscar Wilde also said “be yourself, everyone else is taken”. In the process of becoming yourself you will write a new career script to express that person in what you do, such that your work life resonates with your deepest values. You will become your own story.

For people who want to be fully alive at work, this is exciting.