WHo Am I Today? The Importance of Roles

If you’re anything like me, life keeps you pretty busy. Sometimes — more often than I’d like, actually — it’s hard just to keep straight what day it is, let alone where I’m supposed to be and what I’m supposed to be doing.

Keeping track of the various roles I play helps keep my head in order and prevent that feeling of being torn into a thousand tiny pieces. Every so often, usually during my version of a weekly review, I flip to an empty page in my notebook and make a list of roles: step-father, partner, teacher, anthropologist, employee, writer, son, friend, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, uncle, citizen. It helps to see it all spelled out like that, and writing it down helps me focus on what I’m accomplishing and what my goals are for each role.

It might seem obvious, but each role we play has different goals, different standards of achievement. As an employee, I’m concerned with making enough money to pay our bills and but our groceries, but as a step-father I have to leave those concerns aside so I can get on with the business of parenting: encouraging, nurturing, sometimes disciplining, and so on. Likewise, as a teacher, I am constantly measuring my student’s performance and growth, while as I partner I am devoted to appreciating my girlfriend’s many fine qualities as well as her faults.

Here’s an example of how I think about some of my roles and what each entails:

  • Partner: to build a lasting and loving relationship; to openly communicate my feelings and worries; to plan household budgets and chores.
  • Teacher: to encourage the development of critical thinking, writing, studying, and research skills; to help students develop a sense of themselves as citizens and of their place in society; to assess students’ growth and give them guidance where necessary.
  • Anthropologist: to carry out research and communicate my findings to other members of my discipline and to the public; to encourage more informed attitudes about cultural similarity and difference in my society and in my students.
  • Step-father: to offer support and encouragement to my step-children; to make sure their physical and emotional needs are met on a day-to-day basis; to share my values and dreams with my step-children and help them to articulate their own.
  • Writer: to communicate effectively with my audience; to build my audience and seek out new markets for my work; to manage my submissions, payments due and received, tax paperwork, etc. (Technically, “writer” is two roles: one as a person sitting in front of a computer or notepad and writing for others to read, and the other as a person managing his business — I could call that second role “manager” or “entrepreneur”, but I don’t feel like either of those things.)
  • Brother: to offer friendship and support; to lend a hand when needed; to be an uncle to his children.
  • Citizen: to take part in the running of my society by voting, serving on juries, paying taxes (yuck!), obeying the law when possible, breaking the law when necessary; to keep the common good in mind; to engage with the process of governance by writing letters or otherwise working to express my thoughts to my representatives; to view society critically with an eye towards its improvement.

Those aren’t all my roles, but it’s a good sample. Making my expectations of myself in each role explicit helps me to evaluate how well I’m doing in each role. Are the things I’m doing fulfilling my idea of what my role is? What else should I be doing?

While doing this, I try to set a few short-term goals for each role. By spelling out what each role actually is, I can be a little more specific than just saying “I should be a better teacher”. Instead, I can ask specific questions of myself, like “Are my current tests adequately measuring what I ant students to be getting from my class?” If not, my goal might be to rewrite my test, or come up with a better grading rubric to make sure my tests are effective learning tools. Likewise, “be a better brother” is pretty vague, but “help my brother launch his business” gives me a good idea of how, exactly, I can be a better brother.

Knowing my roles helps me to keep them separated when I need to — something that’s crucial for someone like me whose primary office is in his home. On any given evening, I might have grading to do, a post to write for lifehack.org, an essay to edit for publication, invoices to send out, and so on. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in that stuff and not to be there for my family when they need me. But as much as possible, I try to be “step-father” and “partner” once my girlfriend comes home at 5:30; reminding myself that I’m not in “writer” or “teacher” mode helps me remember what my priorities need to be when I’m “at home” instead of “at work” (even though both are in the same house).

But working at home isn’t the only situation that can cause confusion about who, exactly, you’re supposed to be at any given moment. Thinking about roles helps keep you focused on the moment and that can be useful for anyone. Take a few minutes now and then to figure out what roles you play, and how well you’re playing them.

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